At the expense of English and of other Chinese topolects and languages?
We have seen that, in recent weeks and months, there has been considerable agitation against the increasing role of English in Chinese education and life in general. Supposedly, overemphasis on English is leading to the deterioration of Chinese language skills. Consequently, the amount of time devoted to English in schools is to be reduced, the weight placed upon English in college entrance examinations is to be decreased, and there are calls for children to begin to study English later than first grade of elementary school, which is the case now.
What is surprising is that, at the same time these criticisms are being leveled against English, Pekingese dialect is being promoted in the capital. This is a bit strange in light of the fact that, in every other major city of China, local languages are constrained by diktats from the central government. Slogans decreeing that it is "civilized" to speak Putonghua (Modern Standard Mandarin [MSM]) are prominently displayed in schools and in other public places, local language broadcasts are severely restricted or prohibited, and other policies against local language usage are imposed.
I am actually a great fan of Pekingese, having collected a large amount of materials for studying it, and am fascinated by its colorful expressions. I have often written about Pekingese, extolling its virtues and explaining its usages (see, for example, "Pekingese put-downs"). At the same time, I also harbor warm appreciation for Cantonese, Shanghainese, Taiwanese, Sichuanese, Shangdongese, Dungan, and all the other topolects (not to mention Uyghur, Tibetan, and the non-Sinitic languages) that I have encountered across the length and breadth of China over the years. Consequently, I wonder how best to come to terms with this preferential treatment for Pekingese.
This is a question that I pose to Language Log readers and leave for discussion in the comments and in future posts. For the time being, I would simply like to analyze the Pekingese expressions introduced on three posters that have been prominently displayed in Beijing subways during recent weeks. First the posters, then transcription and translation.
On all three posters, the three big characters in flourishing, calligraphic style are Běijīnghuà 北京话 ("Beijing dialect", i.e., "Pekingese").
In smaller characters, running vertically along the left edge, are the following: dìdào Běijīnghuà, chuánchéng jīng wénhuà 地道北京话, 传承京文化 ("authentic Pekingese, inheriting Beijing culture" [the latter phrase is often translated as "Beijing cultural heritage"]).
Then, on the right side, we have the actual Pekingese expressions that are being featured (with phonetic annotation and translations / explanations in MSM thoughtfully provided):
hērlouzhe 呵儿喽着 ("carry a child on one's shoulders [behind one's neck — almost always the father's, so far as I can tell] with his / her legs dangling down in front of one's chest")
lèngshénr 愣神儿 ("to space out / stare vacantly")
sāhuānr 撒欢儿 ("to frolic")
The first item merits further scrutiny. When spoken, it usually sounds more like hērlezhe than hērlouzhe. It may also be written as hēirlouzhe 嘿儿喽着, with a spoken realization that is closer to hēirlezhe than to hēirlouzhe. Whether hērlezhe or hēirlezhe, the accent is on the first syllable, as one might expect from the neutral tones of the following two syllables. However, as one of my informants has pointed out, if he enunciates the word slowly and clearly, he thinks that the second syllable sounds like lòu, but it is hard to equate that with any suitable character. Interestingly, this informant states that he has also seen this expression written as hēirlouzhe 嘿儿搂着 or hērlouzhe 呵儿搂着, where the third syllable is transcribed as lǒu 搂 ("hug"). This might, as it were, give a false sense of security, that the "lou" syllable has something to do with "carrying", but hugging is done on the chest, and lǒu 搂 ("hug") is in the third tone, not the neutral tone (which is how everyone I know says it) or the fourth tone (as even the informant who told me about the lǒu 搂 ["hug"] transcription pronounces it slowly and deliberately). He himself normally says hērlouzhe, like most people.
To return to the question posed at the very beginning of this post, what does all of this presage for English, for Pekingese, and for the other topolects of China? As David Moser, who kindly sent the above three photographs to me, observed:
This seems to me part of a general agenda of pushing Chinese characters and language to the forefront (such as the recent 汉字英雄 and 汉字听写大会 etc.), and pushing English to the back of the bus (e.g., recently lowering the English requirement for the gaokao, etc.).
In the first parenthetical comment, David is referring to the character writing contests that were described in "Spelling bees and character amnesia" and "Of toads, modernization, and simplified characters". His reference to "gaokao" in the second parenthetical comment is to the extremely competitive college entrance examinations in China.
I personally doubt that, despite government initiatives such as Pekingese posters in Beijing subways and changes in the amount of English on the college entrance exam, the ascent of English in China will be much diminished, since it is generally viewed as a means to get a better job, to go abroad, and to gain access to global communication networks. As for the other topolects in China, no legislation will prevent people from loving their mother tongue, so they will always have their adherents and proponents.
A few final words on the relationship between speech and writing in China.
As I have stressed in the past, the Chinese character orthography for many expressions, not only in Pekingese, but also in other topolects, is not always a good indicator of how they are actually pronounced. A striking example of this sort of disconnect between writing and speech is discussed in detail in "Surprising Transformations of a Beijing Street Name" where I showed how the Beijing street name, Dà Zhàlán 大柵欄, comes out sounding like "Dashlar".
For other examples, see "Russian Loans in Northeast and Northwest Mandarin: The Power of Script to Influence Pronunciation".
As one of my informants said about hērlouzhe 呵儿喽着 ("carry a child on one's shoulders [behind one's neck] with his / her legs dangling down in front of one's chest"), such expressions "are so highly colloquial that we normally don't think or even care about how they might be written in characters, and we certainly don't expect to find them in dictionaries."
Since these words were spoken by a highly literate, genuinely Pekingese individual, they merit serious reflection about the relationship between the spoken languages of China and their representation in Chinese characters. In many cases, the character representations are merely ad hoc approximations of what is really spoken, and often they are very poor approximations at that. The fact that the characters used to write the constituent syllables of spoken expressions normally carry heavy semantic weight (unless they are semantically neutralized by the addition of "mouth" 口 radicals) only leads to confusion about the overall meaning of the words in question. This tension between speech and morphosyllabic writing has existed since the earliest known stages of the script more than three millennia ago.
[Thanks to David Moser, Jing Wen, Zhao Lu, and Jiajia Wang]