Cantonese as Mother Tongue, with a note on Norwegian Bokmål

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I just received this note from a colleague:

I found a document on the Hong Kong Education Bureau's website that says:  "Xiānggǎng de qíngkuàng shì yǐ Zhōngwén wéi mǔyǔ 香港的情況是以中文為母語" ("The situation in Hong Kong takes Chinese as the Mother Tongue").

Zhōngwén 中文 ("Chinese") is a rather curious, ambiguous, and imprecise term since it can essentially mean just about any kind of Chinese. I think using it to refer to a person's so-called mother tongue is especially dubious and sneaky.


For many reasons, I would have to agree with my colleague.  First of all, I have always considered Zhōngwén 中文 ("Chinese") as a written language (wén 文), not a spoken language (huà 话, yǔ 语).  Consequently, from the time I began studying Mandarin (in 1967), I always experienced cognitive dissonance when people asked me:  "Nǐ huì bù huì jiǎng Zhōngwén 你会不会讲中文?" ("Can you speak written Chinese?").

Rather than being anyone's Mother Tongue, Zhōngwén 中文 ("Chinese") is the written language that everyone in China who aspires to literacy must learn.  Among many others that could be cited, see these Language Log posts for some relevant observations on this matter, with particular reference to Cantonese:

"Spoken Hong Kong Cantonese and written Cantonese"

"Cantonese as Ebonics"

Zhōngwén 中文 ("Chinese") is the written form of the national standard language (Pǔtōnghuà 普通话 / Guóyǔ 国语 / Huáyǔ 华语 [N.B.:  these are all (huà 话 or yǔ 语, i.e., spoken language, but not native to any particular place) that replaces one's Mother Tongue.  See "How to Forget Your Mother Tongue and Remember Your National Language"

In this connection, I would like to briefly consider Norwegian Bokmål, which is currently by far the most common written form of Norwegian.  I'm not sure what the -mål part of the name means (the Wikipedia article seems to indicate that it means "tongue", but -- so far as I know -- it usually means "goal; aim; target; measure[ment]").  Regardless of what exactly -mål signifies, the Bok- part of the name means "book", hence written.  May I ask those readers of this post who know Norwegian whether it would sound natural for someone to say "Do you speak Bokmål?"  Ditto for all the other languages with which we deal; does it make sense, or is it customary, for someone to say that they speak "the written form of X language"?

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  1. secretivek said,

    December 22, 2013 @ 7:21 pm

    When a Hong Kong Cantonese speaker asks "Nei gong m gong duk Jongmen?" ("Ni shuo bu shuo dong Zhongwen?" if transcribed into Mandarin) they actually mean "Can you speak Cantonese?" Or rather, they're not specifically asking if you speak Cantonese, but the default assumption is that they're asking about Cantonese, but that if they meant Mandarin, that it would need clarification that it was "Guok Yue" ("guoyu").

    If you answered "Gong duk" ("shuo dong") or "yes" in English, it would be clearly taken that you speak Cantonese. If you wanted to reply affirmatively that you speak Mandarin, you would say something like "yes, well, sort of, I speak Mandarin", or "wo shuo dong guo yu", which should come across as not an unqualified affirmative, but definitely not a negative.

  2. Eric said,

    December 22, 2013 @ 7:29 pm

    FWIW, when I took Cantonese at 三藩市市立大學(CCSF) we were taught 英文 as the normal word for what MSM would call 英語. Most of the rest were 話s, but IIRC Japanese was also 日文.

  3. Bill W said,

    December 22, 2013 @ 8:55 pm

    I can't vouch for reliability, but apparently -mål in bokmål is from an old Norse word for speech:

    http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/m%C3%A5l

    And this is a discussion of the complexities of written and spoken Norwegian languages. I'll leave it to someone who knows more about Norwegian than I to explain.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bokm%C3%A5l

  4. Kirit said,

    December 22, 2013 @ 10:49 pm

    As a Norwegian who has not been through the Norwegian education system I don't know how much any of this is worth, but still, my understanding of the situation is that bokmål is kind of old fashioned — it's really written Danish. I think that schools now teach nynorsk, but I don't know that it makes any more sense to ask people if they speak that. I remember hearing about a news crew who went out looking for anywhere that spoke nynorsk, and much to everyone's surprise they actually found one small place in the middle of nowhere that was pretty close.

    There are lots of dialects in Norway with often startling differences to each other. You only need to go through one of the new mountain tunnels from Bergen to find places where the word for water changes from vann to vatn.

  5. Chau Wu said,

    December 22, 2013 @ 11:39 pm

    Bokmål literally means 'book language' (Haugen, Norwegian English Dictionary, 1965, p. 20). The -mål element came from Old Norse (ON) mál, which means 'speech, language, tongue, saying, tale, story, etc.' (Zoega, A Concise Dictionary of Old Icelandic, 1910, p. 288). For example, ON norrœnt mál = the Norse tongue. ON mál is cognate with Old English mæðel 'assembly, council, speech' and Gothic maþl 'assembly, market-place', and may be related to Tocharian B moliye 'dispute' (Orel, A Handbook of Germanic Etymology, 2003, p. 263). In ON there are two other homonymous mál: (1) mál = 'measure, time, meal', and (2) mál = 'inlaid ornaments on the hilts and guards of swords.' But by far the first meaning was the most common.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    December 22, 2013 @ 11:57 pm

    From the colleague who is quoted at the beginning of this post:

    =====

    The context from which that sentence was taken was about Hong Kong's official language policy. I've copied the paragraph and am sending it to you, as it clearly shows how slippery, fuzzy, and muddled people's thinking about the word 中文 is by its use to refer to both Chinese speech (which kind?) and (standard) Chinese writing.

    Note especially that 中文 is used to mean both "Hongkongers' mother tongue" and "Hong Kong's official/legal language". Note also that a distinction has been made between 文 and 語.

    VHM: The following portion is for specialists who read Chinese:

    http://cd1.edb.hkedcity.net/cd/mce/mega2/teachers/education.pdf

    語文政策:為促進學習成效,政府一直以來都致力推行以母語(香港的情況是以中文為母語)為本地學校的主流教學語言。由於中文和英文同是本港的法定語文,所以政府亦投放大量資源,以培訓學童兩文(中文和英文)三語(廣東話、普通話和英語)的能力。

    =====

  7. other one spoon said,

    December 23, 2013 @ 12:00 am

    A few years ago when I lived in Tokyo, it was common for Japanese people writing in English to refer to the Korean (spoken) language as "hangeul," which is the name of the Korean alphabet. I recall it being a compromise of some kind because to call the language "Korean" would require using the (Japanese) name for South Korea, such that it would sound like they were calling it the language of South Korea only, as if North Korea had a different language.

  8. David Morris said,

    December 23, 2013 @ 12:11 am

    Off-topic (sorry) but related to Asian languages and hopefully interesting:
    A friend of mine is the program editor of Australia's major symphony orchestra. They are about to play a work by a Cambodian-American Chinary Ung: Khse Buon

    She sent me a message including:
    "I believe the "buon" part might mean "sad" in Vietnamese, but I've not been able to ascertain what "khse" means or is, except that it seems to turn up in place/location names.

    I've also found quite a few mispelled references "Kshe", but I'm pretty certain that the sources giving "Khse" are the more reliable ones."

    Can anyone help me/her with this?
    Thanks.

  9. alan chin said,

    December 23, 2013 @ 12:34 am

    It's funny, when speaking to educated Beijingers, they have often asked me, in English, after I tell them that I am Chinese-American and grew up speaking Cantonese and Toishanese, if I 'can also speak Chinese', meaning Mandarin. So in their minds 'Chinese' is both written and spoken Mandarin, and everything else is dialect or fangyu or, something else, anyway.

    In HK and Guangdong, the issue is never raised this way. You can count on the people who have language to protect and preserve to be more precise and distinct in their understanding. Everywhere in GD people are watching Mandarin and Cantonese TV interchangeably these days, the Cantonese channels being more often than not the HK ones. While Cantonese is definitely under pressure, it's variants like Toishanese that are actually more in danger of disappearing in a couple of generations as the countryside empties out and the base of speakers shrinks.

  10. Eirik Hektoen said,

    December 23, 2013 @ 12:49 am

    The word "mål" in modern Norwegian is still understood with the meaning tongue, but mainly in compounds "bokmål", "riksmål", "landsmål", "tungemål" or in archaic/poetic usage.

    Bokmål and Nynorsk are strictly two official written standards (of equal status) aimed at representing different ranges of the spoken dialects of Norwegian well, and also with different attitudes to the use of historical forms (i.e., Bokmål is more faithful to the common "establishment" language resulting from the six centuries of Danish rule; Nynorsk tries to eliminate Danish influence, explicitly preferring forms derived from Old Norwegian).

    It is correct that nobody speaks Bokmål or Nynorsk as a dialect in the traditional sense, but both standards have been adopted in speech as a form of "cross-dialectal lingua franca", and spoken Bokmål (or its more conservative incarnation, Riksmål) in particular is often used as a mother tongue by people (like myself) from the Oslo region who, as it is generally understood, "don't speak dialect".

  11. Chh said,

    December 23, 2013 @ 1:17 am

    @David Morris

    "Four Strings" in Khmer
    https://www.google.com/#q=%22khse+buon%22+%22four+strings%22

  12. Outis said,

    December 23, 2013 @ 1:36 am

    文 and 語 may mean different things if you want to be precise, but in daily usage they are loosely interchangeable. This seems to be especially true in HK and Taiwan.

    中文, as well, is another loose term that can mean written Chinese, standard Mandarin (written or spoken), or in this context, any or all Han Chinese language(s). I don't find the usage here especially awkward.

    Basically, the observation made in this article would only stand out if one were to be very literal and technical.

  13. David Morris said,

    December 23, 2013 @ 2:07 am

    @Chh: Thank you!

  14. michael farris said,

    December 23, 2013 @ 4:36 am

    note: I'm using the old Danish spelling aa for å

    As I understand it, Norway has two (actually three) written standards and no real spoken standard (though foreigners are taught a type of speech that's not too different from Oslo).

    The third standard is riksmaal, the closest variant to Danish.

    While state sponsored sites like NRK are liable to use more bokmaalish forms and have a certain number of articles in Nynorsk, private publishing (especially books) steers heavily toward riksmaal.

    Some info from a textbook I have : Vil du laere norsk? (published in Poland)

    A poll conducted in 1968 had three versions of the same text carefully stocked with the defining features that mark each of the three standards and asked people: Which would you prefer were used in your children's education :

    riksmaal – 52 %
    bokmaal – 31 %
    nynorsk – 10 %
    no preference -7 %

    A 1978 poll asked people how they could characterize the way they spoke

    local dialect – 48 %
    bokmaal – 34 %
    riksmaal – 15%
    nynorsk – 3%

    It would be interesting to see similar polls now, especially with the emergence of new spoken dialects among immigrant communities like Kebabnorsk

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kebab_Norwegian

  15. Jongseong Park said,

    December 23, 2013 @ 4:55 am

    other one spoon: A few years ago when I lived in Tokyo, it was common for Japanese people writing in English to refer to the Korean (spoken) language as "hangeul," which is the name of the Korean alphabet.

    I suspect it's merely due to the common confusion among Koreans themselves between the Korean language and the Korean alphabet. Many Koreans call their spoken language "hangul" all the time, and there is much conceptual confusion which results from this. On Hangul Day, the holiday commemorating the creation of the Korean alphabet, the media will often publish stories about the Korean language that has nothing to do with the writing system—for example about the indiscriminate use of loanwords or slang, asking "What would King Sejong, the inventor of hangul, think about all this?" as if these issues had anything to do with the alphabet.

    This broad identification of the alphabet with the language comes from the fact that no other language is written with hangul and Korean is pretty much only written with hangul, and both are intimately connected with Korean identity, being exclusive to the Korean people. I wonder if something similar is going on with the Chinese referring to Zhōngwén 中文 as a spoken language. Chinese characters themselves are also used in Japanese (and sometimes still in Korean, though to an ever diminishing extent) and there isn't a single spoken Chinese language, but to the layman both the language(s) and script are intimately connected to Chinese culture and may be interchangeable to a certain extent.

  16. Lazar said,

    December 23, 2013 @ 5:05 am

    An added complication is that North and South Korea use different names for the whole country: the North uses Joseon (Japanese Chōsen) and the South uses Hanguk (Japanese Kankoku). The former name has historically been more popular in Japan, and sometimes English-derived terms like Korian and Koriago are used as a compromise.

  17. Jongseong Park said,

    December 23, 2013 @ 5:12 am

    As for Bokmål and Nynorsk, back in high school I once asked a Norwegian friend which of those he used (or "spoke"—I don't remember which verb I used), and he replied "Bokmål, of course." He was from Oslo; I picked up that there was a strong regional pride and sense of identification with which standard to use.

    My Norwegian friends from the western part of the country, like Bergen, don't use Bokmål when they post in Norwegian on social media. However, what they use seems to be not quite standard Nynorsk either, for example writing e for what should be er in either standard of written Norwegian. I can't tell whether they are just writing Nynorsk with really informal spelling or something closer to their dialect.

  18. RP said,

    December 23, 2013 @ 5:42 am

    @Jongseong Park,
    My Swedish friend (from Arvika in western Sweden) also often writes "e" rather than "är", and from what I understand, "e" is a better representation of the pronunciation, since the "r" is rarely pronounced (maybe only in very formal or careful speech?). Of course, "är" is the standard spelling and "e" is the informal variant. Another one is "oxå" instead of "också", and again, there's no difference in pronunciation.

  19. Jongseong Park said,

    December 23, 2013 @ 6:44 am

    RP, I've seen this in Swedish, too. I think it must be mostly just informal spelling, like "thru" for "through".

    Another one I see is æ for Nynorsk eg, which must only work if the way you say it is closer to Nynorsk rather than Bokmål jeg or Swedish jag. The friend who does this is from Tromsø in the North. There's also and for Nynorsk and Bokmål meg and deg.

    Getting back to topic, I think that as an everyday approximation, it still makes sense for one to talk about "speaking" Bokmål or Nynorsk if one's speech is reasonably close to the pronunciation and word choices suggested by them even though strictly these are written standards.

  20. maj said,

    December 23, 2013 @ 7:31 am

    @RP, I think the r in "är" is pronounced more in certain areas than others, probably more a regional thing than a formal/informal thing. And it's also worth noting that a short "ä" and a short "e" are the same sound so I think maybe using the "e" is easier when typing as sometimes keyboards with all the swedish characters aren't available etc. Also for interest, if you were reading the letter "e" in the context of the letter e in the alphabet, it would be the long e and sound completely different.

  21. John Swindle said,

    December 23, 2013 @ 7:39 am

    @Victor Mair: Anyway, I'm no specialist, so I didn't read the linked piece, but doesn't the excerpt that your colleague provided clear up what they meant by Zhōngwén 中文 'Chinese'? It asserts that the government has always taken the mother tongue (in Hong Kong's case, Chinese) to be the main language of instruction. Since Chinese and English are both official languages in HK, it adds, they've promoted a policy of developing school children's abilities in two written languages (Chinese and English) and three spoken languages (Cantonese, Mandarin, and English).

  22. Jongseong Park said,

    December 23, 2013 @ 8:28 am

    @maj: But Swedish "är" is pronounced like a long "e" in colloquial speech at least for some people, is it not?

  23. Guy said,

    December 23, 2013 @ 8:31 am

    Its a bit confusing but yes when Hong Kongers refer to "zhongwen/zhongmun" they mean Cantonese or more generally written Chinese.
    Guoyu/gwokyu and putonghua/poutongwah would be used to specifically refer to Mandarin.
    In Hong Kong high schools, 中文 (Chinese) and 普通話 (Mandarin) are actually two separate subjects!

  24. Victor Mair said,

    December 23, 2013 @ 9:02 am

    I'm very grateful to everyone for all the good comments.

    For Korean, Norwegian, and all the other languages with which we deal that have a specific term or terms for the written forms, what is the most normal, natural, and idiomatic way to say, "I speak Korean / Norwegian / etc."? I'm thinking especially of people who speak only a topolect and / or are possessed of only minimal or no literacy.

    Notice, in John Swindle's last sentence how, in shifting from written to spoken, "Chinese" bifurcates into "Cantonese" and "Mandarin".

    I still think it's odd for people to ask whether someone can speak Zhōngwén 中文 ("written Chinese"). It's much more natural and makes more sense to ask whether they can speak some sort of huà 话, yǔ 语, or yán 言. On the other hand, mind you, I'm fully aware that people do this all the time, but — from the time I began to learn Mandarin, and even more so when I was studying Cantonese and a bit of Taiwanese, up to the present day — it has always struck me as being an illogical usage. I realize, though, that as some folks have already pointed out above, that this may well be due to the overwhelming emphasis on the Sinograms in Chinese culture and language pedagogy (including — unfortunately — for foreign learners).

  25. Jongseong Park said,

    December 23, 2013 @ 9:45 am

    @Victor Mair: For Korean, Norwegian, and all the other languages with which we deal that have a specific term or terms for the written forms, what is the most normal, natural, and idiomatic way to say, "I speak Korean / Norwegian / etc."? I'm thinking especially of people who speak only a topolect and / or are possessed of only minimal or no literacy.

    I'm having trouble coming up with a completely natural circumstance in which a native speaker of Korean would say, "I speak Korean" in Korean. That's almost like saying, "I can speak."

    The most "natural" way I can think of to express that idea would be 우리말 할 줄 안다 uri mal hal jul anda or 한국말 할 줄 안다. han-guk mal hal jul anda ("(I) know how to [speak] Korean"), using 우리말 uri mal ("our speech") or 한국말 han-guk mal ("Hanguk speech") for the Korean language. The slightly more formal, fully Sino-Korean 한국어 han-guk eo could also be used, though interestingly 국어 guk eo ("national language") doesn't sound right here. And the word for the alphabet, 한글 han-geul, would probably not be used in this context. "한글 할 줄" ("know how to do hangul") turns up a few results, but some of them refer to a software called Hangul and others are unclear as to whether they refer to written or spoken Korean.

    For Norwegian, I'm guessing that they would normally just say that they speak Norwegian (Norsk) without referring to the two official written standards.

  26. bulbul said,

    December 23, 2013 @ 9:54 am

    it has always struck me as being an illogical usage
    Interesting. Do you think that people are aware of the special meaning of 文? It seems much more likely to me that in everyday speech, people do not parse stuff like ZH 中文 or NO bokmål down to its constituents or consider the etymology, but rather see ther term as a single unit designating a specific variety. Take Finnish kirjakieli (lit. "book language") or Slovak/Czech "spisovný jazyk" (lit. "written language" or "language of writing"). In both (or all three), SPEAK + TERM works perfectly: "puhua kirjakieltä", "hovoriť spisovne" / "mluvit spisovně".
    Forgive my saying so, but doesn't your view come pretty close to the etymological fallacy? Especially with the reference to logic…

  27. Victor Mair said,

    December 23, 2013 @ 9:55 am

    Thanks, Jongseong.

    Let me rephrase the question this way for all the languages I was talking about: "Do you speak Korean / Norwegian / etc.?"

    What would be the most normal, natural, idiomatic way to ask that question? I'm particularly interested in knowing how often a term referring to the written language would be used for such a question.

  28. Gunnar H said,

    December 23, 2013 @ 10:07 am

    For Norwegian, all speakers regardless of dialect would simply say "I speak Norwegian": "Jeg snakker norsk" (bokmål) / "Eg snakkar norsk" (nynorsk).

    I would differ slightly from some of the other Norwegian commenters in that I find "to speak bokmål" awkward and probably at least technically incorrect. Personally I would always try to use a regional classification: "oslomål" (Oslo dialect), "bærumsaksent" (Bærum accent) etc. For a more general term, "bokmålsdialekt" might be an acceptable category for the various dialects that use more or less the bokmål grammar and lexicon. (Even for "standard educated East-Norwegian" dialects, bokmål spelling is far from phonetic.)

    @Jongseong: "e" and "æ" (as well as "je") represent dialect forms of the first-person pronoun, and these spellings are not encompassed by either the bokmål or nynorsk standard (nor are they necessarily closer to one or the other, since "jeg" is usually realized as /jæɪ/). It's quite common for Norwegians whose dialect isn't well represented by one of the standards to use such dialect forms in informal writing.

  29. Jongseong Park said,

    December 23, 2013 @ 10:15 am

    The most natural way to ask "Do you speak Korean" would be "한국말 하세요?" han-guk mal haseyo ("Do (you speak) Korean?") or "한국말 할 줄 아세요?" han-guk mal hal jul aseyo ("Do (you) know how (to speak) Korean?"). The considerations for the choice of words for Korean is the same as in my previous response except that it could be a bit presumptuous to call it 우리말 uri mal ("our speech") when you're asking someone if he/she speaks it.

    I might not be the best informant because I myself make a clear distinction between the spoken language and the writing system, so it could be that some people actually use "hangul" when asking about whether one speaks Korean, though it would sound really unnatural to me. Still, I'm reasonably sure that most Koreans would not use "hangul" in this context. That doesn't mean that the word isn't misused all the time in more subtle contexts, though.

  30. Jeffry A. House said,

    December 23, 2013 @ 10:17 am

    "Jeg snakker norsk" or "Eg snakker nynorsk" are idiomatic, while "Jeg snakker bokmaal" sounds really odd.

    I (heart) NY-norsk is apparently used in Lilyhammer.

  31. michael farris said,

    December 23, 2013 @ 11:05 am

    "It's quite common for Norwegians whose dialect isn't well represented by one of the standards to use such dialect forms in informal writing."

    I have a few books where the narration is in bok/riksmaal (not so hard for me to read) and the dialogue is in dialect (much, much harder).

    The divergence between written standards and spoken forms is also apparently a complicating factor for immigrants who often find little connection between the way they're learning to speak and the speech going on around them.

  32. Simon P said,

    December 23, 2013 @ 11:21 am

    @Jongseong Park
    "But Swedish "är" is pronounced like a long "e" in colloquial speech at least for some people, is it not?"

    Not in most dialects. The 'r' is indeed silent, but the vowel is still 'ä', except for people with a pronounced Stockholm dialect.

    On topic: I've seen Norwegians specify that they "speak Bokmål", but only to clarify which kind of dialect they speak; not as a synonym of "Norwegian". But of course, Norwegian and Chinese are different here. Norwegian has one word for the spoken language (Norwegian) and two different written standards, whereas the Chinese have one written standard (plus a few written nonstandards) and several spoken standards.

    The simple fact is that most Chinese think of Chinese as one language, which is why they don't feel the need to differentiate. "Can you speak Chinese" then becomes a natural thing to ask, even though it's weird from a linguistic standpoint. I fully agree that Cantonese and Mandarin are completely different languages, but most Chinese don't see it that way. What makes it even more insidious is that Mandarin could conceivably replace Cantonese in Hong Kong without changing the fact that they "ji zung man wai mou jyu" (以中文為母語).

    Maybe another (slightly contrived) example could be Bosnian vs. Serbian? They are linguistically the same language, yet people probably rather ask "Do you speak Bosnian" or "Do you speak Serbian" rather than "Do you speak Serbo-Croatian". Since the writing systems are different (Latin Bosnian, Cyrillic Serbian), this seemingly indicates the writing system rather than the language. But of course the basic issue here isn't really writing system.

  33. Gunnar H said,

    December 23, 2013 @ 11:34 am

    Growing up, I always thought of my spoken dialect (a somewhat conservative Oslo west-side/Bærum accent… perhaps the Norwegian equivalent of RP) as being the straightforward pronunciation of written bokmål.

    Then I undertook a tandem language training course, where I had to try to teach my training partner Norwegian, and came to realize that the spoken forms in fact diverge considerably from the spellings, in hard-to-predict ways. I don't envy people having to learn it as a foreign language.

  34. Alexander Sugar said,

    December 23, 2013 @ 11:37 am

    I attended the Chinese language program IUP (on Tsinghua campus in Beijing), and was once awarded from a speech contest a t-shirt that reads 我們真的會說中文 "We really can speak [written] Chinese" (message written in traditional characters). I find this shirt doubly funny both because of I think of 中文 zhong wen as the written form of Chinese, and because I really don't use traditional characters (although I have reading familiarity with them). In fact, our mainland school mostly just taught simplified characters, yet sold shirts with traditional characters.

  35. Jongseong Park said,

    December 23, 2013 @ 11:49 am

    Impressionistically, informal spellings seem to be used a lot in song titles or lyrics in Norwegian popular music, like "Når æ e me dæ" (= "Når jeg/eg er med deg" in Bokmål/Nynorsk).

    I do see informal spellings and forms in Swedish from time to time like mej and dej for mig and dig or dom, våran/vårat for de, vår/vårt, though I don't think it's as frequent. I've only heard mig and dig pronounced like mej and dej, but the standard spellings are used by and large in pop song titles. I can think of one example of a song title with informal spelling though, "Dom andra" (= "De andra").

  36. Uri said,

    December 23, 2013 @ 11:51 am

    Stupid question: I understand that a native Cantonese speaker would find Written Chinese (中文) ungrammatical and unidiomatic when spoken out loud in Cantonese. However, are they still able to be fluent readers without also knowing MSM (普通话)? What about understanding foreign names and brands? Presumably the constituents of 可口可乐 and 宜家 are pronounced differently in Cantonese?

  37. Victor Mair said,

    December 23, 2013 @ 12:09 pm

    What Gunnar H says about people referring to the language they speak by regional and local names is not surprising to me. In and around the Tarim Basin, people always used to refer to themselves and their speech by the specific place where they were from. I suspect that this is true of many traditional societies (before nation states were formed).

  38. Johannes said,

    December 23, 2013 @ 12:22 pm

    As a Norwegian, I agree that "jeg snakker norsk" (I speak Norwegian) would be the most natural way of saying it, independent of dialect.

    "Jeg snakker bokmål" (I speak Norwegian Bokmål) would be distinctly odd.

    "Her snakkes riksmål" (Norwegian Riksmål is spoken here) would be possible. But that's roughly equivalent to "here we speak the Queen's English", a social/political statement more than a linguistic one.

    "Mål" does indeed mean tongue in this context ("tongue" in the sense of language/dialect/speech). But it's an archaic meaning, surviving only in compunds (e.g. "morsmål" = mother tongue) and in traditional fairy tales like "Prinsessen som ingen kunne målbinde". ("The princess who couldn't be tongue-tied". It's about a young princess who always had an answer for everything, and her father the king got so exasperated that he promised his daughter's hand in wedding and half the kingdom to anyone who could make the princess speechless. Naturally all the kingdom's great men fail at the task, while the hero, a poor farmer boy, saves the day and wins the princess.)

  39. julie lee said,

    December 23, 2013 @ 12:29 pm

    VH Mair's post quotes a colleague who criticizes a sentence from a document by the Hong Kong Education Bureau:

    ' "香港的情況是以中文為母語" ("The situation in Hong Kong takes Chinese as the Mother Tongue").

    ' Zhōngwén 中文 ("Chinese") is a rather curious, ambiguous, and imprecise term since it can essentially mean just about any kind of Chinese. I think using it to refer to a person's so-called mother tongue is especially dubious and sneaky.'

    I would like to voice an objection: The use of 中文 (zhongwen, "Chinese") may be "curious, ambiguous, and imprecise" and even "dubious", but it is not, and I emphasize the not, "sneaky". "Sneaky" implies malicious intent. I do not think there was malicious intent or sneakiness.

    As many of the above comments have shown, 中文 (chongwen), literally and technically "Chinese script", is used widely by many Chinese (including myself and my parents and their whole generation of Chinese on mainland China) to mean "Chinese", i.e., "the Chinese language", both speech and writing, just as we use yingwen, fawen, dewen, riwen etc. to mean English, French, German, Japanese etc., both speech and writing.

    @Victor Mair above, summing up the comments, says:

    " I still think it's odd for people to ask whether someone can speak Zhōngwén 中文 ("written Chinese"). It's much more natural and makes more sense to ask whether they can speak some sort of huà 话, yǔ 语, or yán 言. On the other hand, mind you, I'm fully aware that people do this all the time, but — from the time I began to learn Mandarin, and even more so when I was studying Cantonese and a bit of Taiwanese, up to the present day — it has always struck me as being an illogical usage."

    Yes, to use 'Zhōngwén 中文 ("written Chinese")' to mean spoken Chinese (my Chinese friends and I do it all the time) may be odd and illogical to a linguist, but it is not sneaky. I don't think the quoted sentence from Hong Kong's Education Bureau was at all sneaky. Sumimasen !!

  40. Coby Lubliner said,

    December 23, 2013 @ 12:39 pm

    Language naming (glossonymy) has never been a simple matter, and the same "language" often has different names, depending on what it's contrasted with — neighboring dialects, foreign languages, standard vs. dialect and so on. Machiavelli grappled with whether Italian should be called italiano or toscano, and Spanish-speakers still can't decide whether to call their language español or castellano. Dutch, in one form or another, may be called nederlands, hollands or vlaams. The Serbocroat-speaking states have decided to call their respective language variants Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian and Montenegrin, though the actual dialect boundaries have little to do with the state boundaries. Obviously, in countries with ongoing language conflicts, like China and Norway, the situation will be even murkier.

  41. Joe said,

    December 23, 2013 @ 12:51 pm

    I lived in Norway for a few years about a decade ago and I never heard bokmål or nynorsk used in the context of spoken language (the question came up quite a bit, as I was interested in Norwegian dialects and the question/answer was always understood as being in reference to dialect: the conversations, by the way, were in Norwegian). Written language is quite another issue, as the decision about which to use was a political choice for many (well, for many academics who used Nynorsk it was, as bokmål is — at least at that time, far more common outside western Norway, and even Bergen was majority bokmål, although a higher percentage of newspaper articles were in Nynorsk than in Trondheim or Oslo. Jongseong Park's examples cited above strike me as spoken language (ie, dialect), not written Nynorsk. I remember reading comics strips in Nynorsk that incorporated spoken language and it was very clear which was which.

    I never heard riksmål used except in a historical context, by the way.

  42. Simon P said,

    December 23, 2013 @ 1:19 pm

    @Uri:
    However, are they still able to be fluent readers without also knowing MSM (普通话)? What about understanding foreign names and brands? Presumably the constituents of 可口可乐 and 宜家 are pronounced differently in Cantonese?

    They are able to be fluent readers without knowing MSM pronunciation, but of course they need to know MSM grammar and vocabulary. Most don't consider it Mandarin, though. Hong Kongers differentiate between 書面語 ("book language") and 口語 ("spoken language"). Interestingly, most (but not all) Cantonese songs are in 書面語 and thus don't sound natural at all.

    As to the other question, of course 可口可乐/樂 doesn't sound much like "Coca Cola" in Cantonese. It's pronounced "ho hau ho lok". But of course the same goes for Mandarin speakers with words loaned into Cantonese first. Here are some examples, with the Cantonese reading first and then the Mandarin one:

    Obama: 奧巴馬 | ou baa maa | au ba ma
    McDonald's: 麥當勞 | mak dong lou | mai dang lao
    Michael Jackson: 米高積遜 | mai gou zik seon | mi gao ji xun

    For most people it's not a big problem. They learn these words just like we learn them. For me as a learner it's extremely frustrating, since I might be reading a book and come across a name like "卡爾·林奈". Reading the book with Cantonese pronunciation in my head, this comes out as "kaa ji lam noi". Often I have to stop and reread it in Mandarin (ka'er linnai) and maybe then I can guess they're talking about Carl von Linné. Of course it can go the other way around. I remember talking in English with a Mandarin speaker and mentioning Shakespeare, which he had no idea who it was. After looking it up and instead saying "Sha shi bi ya", he knew exactly whom I was talking about. These transcription systems are terrible at capturing the sound, and it's not helped by the different pronunciations in different languages.

  43. Bob said,

    December 23, 2013 @ 1:33 pm

    some background: in this case, the Hong Kong Education Bureau used the term CHINESE to counter ENGLISH. For years, Chinese parents in Hong Kong have been beating out each other to enroll their children to ENGLISH only schools, where English is not only the language of instruction, but the only language allowed on school ground. Thus, the Hong Kong Education Bureau urges parents to send their children to ordinary schools….. at the same time, assuring them, English will not be neglected.

  44. Joe said,

    December 23, 2013 @ 1:47 pm

    Sorry, i forgot to add that I heard the term "fintrøndersk" used to refer to a variety of Trondheim dialect that, somewhat simplifying, was closer to written form (bokmål) and was associated with the upper class. I'm not sure how common fin- is in other dialects

  45. Jongseong Park said,

    December 23, 2013 @ 1:54 pm

    I just looked up a 60-word sample of what my friend from Tromsø posted on social media. The words I found that deviated from Nynorsk spellings besides æ (eg) and e (er) were: superhyggelig (superhyggeleg), oppmerksomhet (merksemd), nån (nokon), sedd (sett), altførr (altfor), nokka (noka?), en fløttfugl (ein flott fugl?), allerede (allereie). Note that oppmerksomhet and allerede are Bokmål forms. I cannot judge the grammar.

    Based on this it looks more like an attempt to express dialect with phonetic spellings but otherwise relying mostly on Nynorsk spellings, with some Bokmål forms thrown in.

  46. J. W. Brewer said,

    December 23, 2013 @ 2:39 pm

    Possibly related: I was looking at this list http://www.orhanpamuk.net/news.aspx?id=25&lng=eng of the 60 languages into which the work of the Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk has been translated and was mildly surprised to notice both "Chinese" and "Taiwanese" as separate entries on the list. I would wager a modest amount that what is meant is Mandarin-in-simplified-characters and Mandarin-in-traditional-characters, rather than a version (in whatever script) in the non-Mandarin topolect often referred to as Taiwanese.

  47. Bob said,

    December 23, 2013 @ 2:39 pm

    MOTHER TONGUES IN HONG KONG: for the last 30 years, Chinese from northern provinces have replaced people from Guangdong as the main immigrate group to HK. Increasingly, many youngsters' mother tongue are not Cantonese but Putonghua. And, there is another group, large numbers of HK Chinese kids are brought up by Filipina domestic servants/nannies… they speak English as their "mother" tongue…. so, the Hong Kong Education Bureau used the phrase 两文三語, to cover all the ground.

  48. Victor Mair said,

    December 23, 2013 @ 2:48 pm

    @Simon P, @Uri

    One of the hardest things about interacting with my Chinese colleagues has to do with the pronunciation of Japanese names. When I learn the names of Japanese authors, directors, sports figures, places, and so forth, it is always through the way the Japanese pronounce their own names. But Chinese speakers cite Japanese names using the Mandarin (or Cantonese or Taiwanese or Shanghainese, etc.) pronunciation of the characters. They are usually light years away. Here are a couple of examples.

    Ryūnosuke Akutagawa 芥川 龍之介 (Mandarin: Jièchuān Lóngzhījiè)

    Kurosawa Akira 黒澤 明 (Mandarin: Hēizé Míng)

    In conversations with Chinese that involve Japanese names, I usually have no idea who they're talking about, even though I might know the person / place very well.

  49. Louis Janus said,

    December 23, 2013 @ 2:55 pm

    For a short but cogent description of the language / dialect situation in Norway, I generally recommend:
    http://www.bergen-guide.com/405.htm

  50. Simon P said,

    December 23, 2013 @ 2:59 pm

    @J.W. Brewer:
    Similarly, I've bought many a Hong Kong DVD that has subtitles in "Mandarin and Cantonese", only to find they mean "Simplified and Traditional". There are HK movies with verbatim Cantonese subtitles, but they're increasingly hard to find. I've even seen "Mandarin, Tawianese and Cantonese" subtitles. The latter two are very hard to distinguish. They might have a few differences in character choice (裡 vs. 裏), but I haven't looked into it enough to know.

  51. Victor Mair said,

    December 23, 2013 @ 3:25 pm

    From Lars Martin Fosse:

    As for «bokmål», the term means “book language” (“mål”=target is a homophone). It primarily refers to the written language, but is also nearly synonymous with the term “standard East Norwegian”. Thus, we speak and write bokmål in the Oslo area, particularly if we are educated. People may write bokmål elsewhere in the country, but may speak a local dialect influenced by the written language. Thus, bokmål has some of the characteristics of a sociolect.

    Don’t forget that we have another idiom, nynorsk or New Norwegian (new in the sense that it was meant to replace the Danish traditionally used in writing, as well as the Danish-influenced upper class language in the towns (Dano-Norwegian).) Nynorsk is a standardized amalgamation of Norwegian spoken dialects. The slogan goes: “Speak dialect, write New Norwegian”. But the differences between these standardized written languages and the spoken language are not nearly as great as in the case of Chinese.

  52. Chau Wu said,

    December 23, 2013 @ 3:47 pm

    @Jongseong Park

    I am intrigued by the morpheme "mal" in "han-guk mal" (Hanguk speech) and "uri mal" (our speech). Obviously, mal means 'speech'. Would you be so kind to share with me the etymology of this word? Is it related to a Chinese character?

  53. David Morris said,

    December 23, 2013 @ 4:02 pm

    Does *anyone* 'speak' the 'written form' of their language? Even in English, there are noticeable differences between the spoken and written forms.

  54. the other Mark P said,

    December 23, 2013 @ 4:16 pm

    I'm having trouble coming up with a completely natural circumstance in which a native speaker of Korean would say, "I speak Korean" in Korean. That's almost like saying, "I can speak."

    The natural circumstance is when a person says they can't speak Korean.

    I have had cause, for example, to say "yo no hablo español" (as a learned phrase — since I have no Spanish).

    What phrase would you advise a person to use to explain that they can't speak Korean? (I'm thinking here of ethnic Korean raised overseas, so it becomes quite important to say it early.)

  55. Jongseong Park said,

    December 23, 2013 @ 4:23 pm

    @Chan Wu: 말 mal [maːl] is obviously cognate with Norwegian mål.

    Just kidding! It's a native Korean morpheme that is attested in its present form (말) in the 용비어천가 Yongbieocheon-ga ("Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven") composed in 1445-1447, the very first literary work in hangul which was published just following the creation of the alphabet itself. I know nothing about the etymology beyond that. In any case, there is no connection with Sino-Korean.

    mal and the related verb 말하다 mal hada are just about the most basic and common words in the Korean lexicon, covering all sorts of meanings—language, words, speech, saying; speak, say, tell, utter, etc.

  56. Jongseong Park said,

    December 23, 2013 @ 4:28 pm

    @the other Mark P: What phrase would you advise a person to use to explain that they can't speak Korean?

    한국말 못 해요. han-guk mal mot haeyo [haːnɡuŋmal motʰɛjo] in prescriptive pronunciation, or more realistically, [hanɡuŋmal motʰejo]

  57. Jongseong Park said,

    December 23, 2013 @ 5:02 pm

    @Simon P: Not in most dialects. The 'r' [of är] is indeed silent, but the vowel is still 'ä', except for people with a pronounced Stockholm dialect.

    For what it's worth, Norstedts Svenska Uttalslexikon says that Swedish är is pronounced [ˈæːr] or often [ˈɛː]; when unstressed, [ˌɛˑ] or [ˌɛ̝], less often [ˌæˑ]; Eastern Sweden has forms like [ˈeː]. That does explain the wide array of pronunciations I've heard.

  58. Steffen Larsen said,

    December 23, 2013 @ 5:45 pm

    "Don’t forget that we have another idiom, nynorsk or New Norwegian (new in the sense that it was meant to replace the Danish traditionally used in writing, as well as the Danish-influenced upper class language in the towns (Dano-Norwegian).) Nynorsk is a standardized amalgamation of Norwegian spoken dialects. The slogan goes: “Speak dialect, write New Norwegian”. But the differences between these standardized written languages and the spoken language are not nearly as great as in the case of Chinese."

    The name nynorsk, or New Norwegian, is not (as I understand it) meant to replace Danish or Dano-Norwegian. When I, as a norwegian person, say New Norwegian I do so to contrast it from Old Norwegian, gamalnorsk, and "Middle Norwegian", mellomnorsk. To me this is the primary function of the "ny-" (new) particle here.
    I would say that few people actually speak bokmål, but many of my fellow norwegians will claim to do so or speak a dialect close to bokmål.

    Riksmål is something I believe is used by a minority of norwegians, just as landsmål is used by a minority.

  59. Gunnar H said,

    December 23, 2013 @ 6:38 pm

    @Victor Mair: In terms of referring to the spoken language by a regional name, I should clarify that I was merely describing my intuition about how one would best refer to different dialects. I never meant to imply that e.g. "oslomål" is a distinct language.

    Although the language situation in Norway is a little complex (though no more so than in many other countries), I believe it is generally understood by Norwegians that we share a common language,* Norwegian, which just happens to have two different official written forms as well as many different spoken dialects. Nor is this, I think, a nationalistic fiction like the idea that the different Chinese languages are just dialects. Therefore, "norsk" ("Norwegian") is a suitable term both for what we speak and what we write (in whichever flavor we prefer), in a way that Zhōngwén 中文 ("Chinese") isn't.

    I'm personally not comfortable with conflating bokmål as a written standard with the "standard East Norwegian" dialect, and therefore I don't think it would be natural to ask "Do you speak bokmål?" But apparently others feel differently. In any case I have a hard time thinking of a situation where it would make sense to ask in this form, and as phrased it's rather ambiguous, because speakers of smaller, more obscure dialects often employ code switching when necessary to approximate "standard East Norwegian", so there's an important difference between "do you speak?" as in "are you able to speak?" and "do you speak?" as in "is this the dialect you naturally speak?"

    ___
    * Of course, Norway also has several minority languages including a couple of different Saami languages, a Finnish dialect called "kvensk", and others brought by immigrants, of which Swedish is probably the biggest.

  60. C.N. Wilson said,

    December 24, 2013 @ 12:07 am

    "Does *anyone* 'speak' the 'written form' of their language? Even in English, there are noticeable differences between the spoken and written forms."

    This is a bit like saying there are noticeable differences between audio and sheet music.

  61. Dave Cragin said,

    December 24, 2013 @ 12:37 am

    Simon P’s comment “that most Chinese think of Chinese as one language, which is why they don't feel the need to differentiate” is interesting since they also use multiple words to describe Mandarin/Chinese.

    My 1st CDs taught “putong hua” 普通话, which is a technically correct way to identify Mandarin, but not a common way to ask “do you speak Chinese?”

    Then I learned Hanyu (汉语), Zhongwen, Zhongguo hua (中国话), Guoyu (Taiwan), Huayu 华语 (Singapore) and maybe a few more that don’t come to mind. Wikipedia also gives官话 Guanhua, but I’ve never seen this used.

    Considering that English is spoken by many countries, but is just called “English,” this is quite a contrast (i.e., Australians, Americans, Singaporeans etc didn't feel the need to create a new word to describe it).

  62. Xmun said,

    December 24, 2013 @ 12:42 am

    @C.N. Wilson
    Come along now. You should allow David Morris his perfectly normal ellipsis. He meant there are notable differences between the turns of phrase represented in written English and those people actually use in spontaneous unscripted speech.

  63. Vanya said,

    December 24, 2013 @ 5:57 am

    "Take Finnish kirjakieli (lit. "book language") or Slovak/Czech "spisovný jazyk" (lit. "written language" or "language of writing"). In both (or all three), SPEAK + TERM works perfectly"

    True in German as well, at least in Austria where "Schriftdeutsch" (written German) is often used instead of "Hochdeutsch". People speak dialect and "written German."

  64. Ellen K. said,

    December 24, 2013 @ 11:29 am

    The reverse of speaking a written language is, in the article linked by Louis Janus, saying, of the two written languages in Norway, that Norway has two "tongues". Which for me made for some cognitive dissonance reading the article.

    http://www.bergen-guide.com/405.htm (repeat of the link)

  65. Dave Cragin said,

    December 24, 2013 @ 12:02 pm

    Jongseong Park noted it was difficult to come up “with a completely natural circumstance in which a native speaker of Korean would say, "I speak Korean" in Korean."

    When I started learning Chinese characters, a Chinese friend struggled to come up with a natural way for me to write/say the latter part of this sentence: “I usually study Chinese in the car, so I don’t know many characters.”

    The 1st part was easy: Wo xue zhongwen yiban shi zai lushang, bian kai che, bian ting zhongwen ke. (我学中文一般是在路上 边开车边听中文课). (a more literal translation is “I usually study Chinese while on the road. While driving my car I listen to Chinese lessons.”)

    However, she said it wasn’t natural to convey not knowing characters and she struggled to come up with a way that didn’t make me look stupid. She settled on Wo shizi bu gou duo. 所以我识字不够多.

    I never thought to ask someone else. I should ask some Chinese-American colleagues with whom this kind of situation is more common, i.e., being able to speak, not write – how would you say this?

    (It often strikes me how logical translations are between English/Chinese. Even though I needed to learn the above, the Chinese instantly made much sense. For 2 languages with such different roots, the parallels seem quite notable – at least to me. Opinions of others are welcome….)

  66. John Ch said,

    December 24, 2013 @ 12:30 pm

    Dave Cragin said: (It often strikes me how logical translations are between English/Chinese. Even though I needed to learn the above, the Chinese instantly made much sense. For 2 languages with such different roots, the parallels seem quite notable – at least to me. Opinions of others are welcome….)

    I remember a linguistics prof in college who commented that there were suggestions that English should be officially evicted from the Indo-European family, on the grounds that it has lost most of the characteristic features of that family (such as the inflectional endings on verbs, nouns and adjectives). He said that English should then apply for admission to the Sinitic family, due to the similarities in structure.

    He's probably pleased that the second part has become partly true, with the adoption of English as the second official language in China. Maybe we could drop the unneeded affixes like plurals and verb tenses, replacing them with the isolated numeric and time words that we already have, and English will be a full member of the family. And dispense with our silly gendered pronouns, using only "they" and "it" for the third person.

    Come back in a few more centuries and see if it has happened …

  67. Dan Lufkin said,

    December 24, 2013 @ 2:53 pm

    Proper German is properly Bühnensprache "stage language".

  68. John Ch said,

    December 24, 2013 @ 3:15 pm

    I've also heard "Schuldeutsch" (school German).

    It sounds like German has as many names for its official dialect as does Mandarin. ;-)

  69. Victor Mair said,

    December 25, 2013 @ 12:09 am

    From a German friend (a Berliner who left there long ago):

    I never heard, but would have understood, the meaning of "Schriftdeutsch".

    Never heard "Schuldeutsch", which strikes me as very odd. Having gone to school in Bavaria for some time, I was struck that there teachers (mostly nuns) spoke with strong Bavarian inflections.

    But all this begs the question why a word is needed — everyone knows that, no matter what dialect one speaks, or what local expressions or inflections someone's speech might have, the German language is ALWAYS written the same way. Even if a journalist, for instance, should quote someone speaking with a thick dialect, such utterings would always be WRITTEN in the proper German form.

    Dan Lufkin refers to "Buehensprache" which describes proper speech devoid of all inflections or local quirks.

    "Schuldeutsch" would not be quite right in this connection: I was raised very strictly about usage of proper speech and not allowed to use Berlin dialect, which is exactly what I picked up in school!

    However, my Dad made it quite a point to speak and teach me major dialects. I've always been good at various local inflections, but some dialects just didn't seem to interest me. Oddly, I was unaware that I was raised tri-lingual and assumed that English, for instance, was just another dialect and French something to be used only in the presence of certain people. What a surprise when we began English in school and I argued with the teacher that that was not a language but merely some dialect and had a fit when I first saw it written!

    Froehliche Weihnachten und ein gesundes Neues Jahr.

  70. Victor Mair said,

    December 25, 2013 @ 7:53 am

    From Tim Chan:

    My student in Sydney said to his classmate (when pointing at me): 呢個阿Sir講中文. By 中文he meant Cantonese.

  71. Lane said,

    December 25, 2013 @ 8:01 am

    I once asked a half-Danish, half-Norwegian friend if he spoke Nynorsk, and he snorted "nobody speaks Nynorsk." Being a half-Dane with his Norwegian family from Oslo, that's not so surprising. But I take it that many people share his attitude: "Nynorsk is a weird fake thing for Norwegian nationalists that nobody with any sophistication bothers with." And indeed it was basically invented by one linguist, Ivar Aasen.

    I take it my friend's attitude is a little like the international, sophisticated Dubliner's to the requirement that everybody study Irish. "Those who actually use it are either Gaeltacht country folk or some kind of nationalist not quite to be trusted."

    And (plug alert) this week's Christmas edition of The Economist has a nice piece about a new school in Belfast (Belfast!) where kids learn exclusively in Irish from nursery on up.

    http://www.economist.com/blogs/blighty/2013/12/learning-irish-belfast

    Alas, paywall. But it's a good reason to consider getting the issue from a newsstand or (even better) subscribing.

  72. Eneri Rose said,

    December 25, 2013 @ 10:23 am

    Regarding Jeffry A. House's comment about, "I (heart) NY-norsk" being used in Lillehammer, my first thought was that this is a reference to the Netflix original TV series "Lilyhammer", in which a New York City mobster relocates to Lillehammer under the witness protection program. Where, needless to say, cultures clash with alternately comedic and tragic results.

  73. julie lee said,

    December 25, 2013 @ 1:54 pm

    @ David Cragin says: "…being able to speak, not write [Chinese]– how would you say this? "

    I would say, in Mandarin: "我會說中文, 不會寫中文" (wo hui shuo zhongwen, bu hui xie zhongwen) "I can speak Chinese, I can't write Chinese". As mentioned above, many people use 中文 (zhongwen, literally "Chinese script") to mean Chinese language, both speech and writing.

  74. Bob said,

    December 25, 2013 @ 3:09 pm

    add to Julie Lee above: while "Chinese" does not specify it is Mandarin, Cantonese, or any other dialects, it usually implies the dialect the speaker usually uses; –for the oral part– Except in Taiwan, "do you know Chinese?", "I know Chinese." the term Chinese always refers to Mandarin only, even from a Taiwanese speaker..
    .. A funny thing, after I have introduced myself as a Chinese-American originally from Hong Kong, I get the question "那么,你懂中文吗?" –Do you know Chinese then?– from people from mainland China. I do not think the speaker considers Cantonese not Chinese, but just uses CHINESE to refer to Putonghua.

  75. Bob said,

    December 25, 2013 @ 3:58 pm

    中文=官话,国语,普通话: Colonial British adapted some Indian or Southeastern Asian term Mandarin meaning Court Officials, and their language also Mandarin.
    Before the overthrew of dynasties to form a republic, Chinese education system was the feeder for Imperial administrators. But, after one had passed all the examinations –county, province, levels and finally national, in the capital– one still had to manage the Imperial court language, in order to be appoint to be some office. Since Beijing became the national capital during the third Emperor in Ming Dynasty, the easier managed form of Beijingese formed the Imperial court language. To Chinese, this was 官话. And the English used MANDARIN to refer to it..
    Nearly 600 years later, in early 20th century, China became a republic, and changed the imperial 官话 to 国语 Kuoyu; however, the term Mandarin stock on, still being used in Taiwan. Came the People's Republic, it considered Mandarin, Imperial Court Language offensive; and start to call it Ordinary Language, 普通话.

  76. bathrobe said,

    December 26, 2013 @ 1:39 am

    I suspect 国语 is from Japanese, a product of modern nation building. The many terms for Chinese that people mention tend to gloss over one aspect. 汉语 is the language of the Han people ( as contrasted with 藏语 or 蒙语, for instance, which are the language of the zang (Tibetans) or meng (Mongols) people. The fact that zhong=Han says a lot about the so-called multi-ethnic state.

  77. Bathrobe said,

    December 26, 2013 @ 4:16 am

    Sorry about the previous garbled comment, sent from a mobile phone. My point is that, despite the propaganda that Tibet, Xinjiang, Mongolia etc. are all integral parts of 'China', the use of 中文 as a virtual synonym of 汉语 pretty much betrays the fact that the Han ARE China. Theoretically, Tibetan, Uighur, etc. are all 'Chinese'. The fact that Hanyu is regarded as 'Chinese' doesn't bode well for the preservation of non-Sinitic languages in China.

  78. julie lee said,

    December 26, 2013 @ 11:37 am

    @Bob, @Bathrobe:

    Actually, even before Mao's China (People's Republic of China) came along in 1949, we in China were already calling Mandarin by the names guoyu ("national speech") and putonghua ("ordinary, common, speech"), as well as zhongwen ("Chinese"). I had never heard of the term Han-yu (Han speech) until recently when I called Mandarin by the term zhongwen ("Chinese") and my relative on the Chinese mainland corrected me, saying Mandarin is not zhongwen (Chinese) but Hanyu "Han speech". This was because in my time (before Mao's China), we were all taught there were 5 minorities in China (Han, Man, Meng, Hui, Tsang, i.e., Han people, Manchurians, Mongolians, Uighurs, and Tibetans) and the minorities didn't impinge much on our (Han majority) consciousness. Now in communist China, people are taught that there are more than 50 minorities in China, and to call Mandarin chongwen (Chinese language) is no longer politically correct on the mainland. But we who didn't grow up in Mao's China still use the term chongwen for Mandarin and for Chinese as a whole (including Taiwanese, Cantonese, Shanghainese, etc.), and we also call Mandarin by its other names, such as putonghua (common speech), guoyu (national speech), zhongguohua (Chinese speech), and so on. Yes, all these glossonyms have a political coloration, just as the term "Mao's China" or "communist China" has political overtones, or undertones.

  79. julie lee said,

    December 26, 2013 @ 11:50 am

    p.s., by "Chinese as a whole" I meant the languages of the Han people such as Mandarin, Cantonese, Shanghainese, Taiwanese, Shandongese, etc., and not covering the languages of non-Han ethnicities in China, such as Manchurian, Mongolian, Uighur, Tibetan, Chuang, etc.

  80. Bob said,

    December 26, 2013 @ 2:55 pm

    @ bathrobe: 國語 "national language", was named to change 官話 "Imperil Court Language", in the 1920's. It was part of the movement to employ it for everyone's daily use, and to unify the country; with the new push "write as one speak". –up to then, written Chinese (文言文) was very different from speech Chinese, except for a few novels– 漢語 "Han Language" is Japanese originally, used in southeast Asia also. We use 中文 "Chinese Language" to mean Han's language (dialects), yes, it is unfair to the minority groups; but, that's the way things are. Han dominates China, as represented by the largeR star on the national flag of the People's Republic of China, while the minorities (the 4 smaller stars) are subordinated to it.

  81. Scott said,

    December 26, 2013 @ 4:29 pm

    Not a direct answer to your question, but when I was an exchange student in Norway I asked my host sister, who was about 18 at the time, if she spoke Nynorsk or Bokmål. She didn't know. She said, "I think I speak Nynorsk but [my friend] speaks Bokmål."

  82. Victor Mair said,

    December 26, 2013 @ 6:20 pm

    For the history of the term guóyǔ 國語 ("national language"), including its passage from China to Japan and then back to China as a "round-trip word" with a changed meaning, through its application to non-Sinitic languages during the medieval period, and ultimate source in Sanskrit, see Victor H. Mair, “Buddhism and the Rise of the Written Vernacular in East Asia: The Making of National Languages,” Journal of Asian Studies 53 (1994): 705, 707-751.

    http://www.jstor.org/stable/2059728‎

    journals.cambridge.org/abstract_S0021911800031119‎

    See also the discussion here: http://languagehat.com/written-vernaculars-in-asia/

  83. Victor Mair said,

    December 27, 2013 @ 9:17 am

    From Melanie Malzahn, a German professor of Indo-European (esp. Tocharian) linguistics who teaches in Vienna:

    As for Schriftdeutsch, Austrians indeed use that, because for them the
    standard indeed is what it written (and learned in school). Austrian
    dialects are much more advanced than Germany-German varieties.

  84. Reinhold {Rey} Aman said,

    December 28, 2013 @ 2:14 am

    @ Victor Mair quoting Melanie Malzahn

    Austrian dialects are much more advanced than Germany-German varieties.

    What does "much more advanced" mean?

  85. Jongseong Park said,

    December 28, 2013 @ 5:57 am

    @Reinhold {Rey} Aman: What does "much more advanced" mean?

    In this context, I think she means that Austrian dialects are much more advanced in language change compared to those of Germany. So there is more distance between the standard language that one learns in school and the dialects spoken in Austria.

  86. Dominik Lukes (@techczech) said,

    December 28, 2013 @ 7:59 am

    Let me just reinforce the previous comments on Czech. Not only is it acceptable to say 'mluvím spisovně', it is said very commonly. However, this should not be translated as 'I speak in written [Czech]' but rather 'I speak in standard [Czech]'. There is a separate adjective for written vs. spoken Czech 'psaná / mluvená čeština' whereas the opposite of 'spisovná' is pure negation 'nespisovná', although sometimes people also talk about 'hovorová' (conversational).

    However, just like in English it is perfectly understandable if someone says 'I speak in written English' as a reference to somebody speaking in a mode of language resembling writing. It is not idiomatic but no confusion ensues, other than an opportunity for hypostatic pedantry.

    Your cognitive dissonance, seems like a good candidate for the status of a private peeve spurred on by the aforementioned etymological fallacy.

  87. weakdancer said,

    December 28, 2013 @ 11:28 am

    http://pinyin.info/readings/mair/taiwanese.html
    "My hand writes [what] my mouth [speaks]."
    Huang Zunxian (1848-1905)
    黄遵宪 says this as a recommendation means the fact is "My hand can not write my mouth."
    I think the reason for that is Han Characters is not designed for writing the spoken language at the first time.
    笔谈 means spoken with pens.

  88. Reinhold {Rey} Aman said,

    December 28, 2013 @ 1:31 pm

    @ Jongseong Park:

    @Reinhold {Rey} Aman: What does "much more advanced" mean?

    In this context, I think she means that Austrian dialects are much more advanced in language change compared to those of Germany. So there is more distance between the standard language that one learns in school and the dialects spoken in Austria.

    Let's wait what Prof. Malzahn will say. If she says what you are saying, she is totally wrong and ignorant of German dialects. Dialects are not "advanced," whatever that means.

    My qualifications for making this statement:

    1. I'm a native speaker of a West-Central Bavarian dialect (Niederbayrisch, Lower Bavarian).
    2. I'm a trained German dialectologist.
    3. I know German and Austrian dialects very well and how much they deviate from standard German.

  89. Victor Mair said,

    December 28, 2013 @ 1:40 pm

    @Dominik Lukes (@techczech)

    I've never heard anyone say 'I speak in written English'.

    My cognitive dissonance is not a pet peeve and it is not based on an etymological fallacy. If anything, it is the result of trying (unsuccessfully) to come to terms with the concept of people speaking the way they write. Instead, I would recommend that you seriously consider the brilliant words of Huang Zunxian quoted by weakdancer above and the intelligent interpretation he draws from them.

  90. Trond Engen said,

    December 30, 2013 @ 11:02 am

    I'm late to this party and much is already said by my fellow Norwegians. I'll just add a few stray thoughts along the same lines.

    When more than half the population report that they speak Bokmål or Riksmål it doesn't make sense from a descriptive point of view. What I think it reflects is how we want to see ourselves. Our choice of written standard is a choice of a linguistic ideal (for ourselves and our children). As such, it's a damn' good indicator of where the spoken language is heading.

    The names Nynorsk and Bokmål were chosen to replace the earlier names Landsmaal "country language" and Riksmaal "national language". The former had a connotation of "rural" that was seen as unhelpful in the still rather popular struggle to advance a standard based on native phonology and grammar, and, anyway, both were recognized as national languages at the time. The new names they landed on were established as linguistic terms, with different, though related, meanings: Nynorsk for the current or modern stage of the language, Bokmål for the language of reading and writing. One might well say that both Nynorsk and.Bokmål are nynorske bokmål, or New Norwegian written languages.

  91. Bruce Humes said,

    December 31, 2013 @ 6:40 am

    Even a child in HK knows what 中文 means.

    Out of the blue, my 5-year-old Cantonese-speaking daughter asked me one day. "爸爸,你 dim gai m 识讲中文?"

    Since I spoke almost nothing at home except Mandarin, I was insensed. "你是不是搞错啦?我天天讲。”

    To which she replied, very sensibly. "M hai wo, 你 go 个 hai 台湾 ge. M hai ngo day ge 中文!"

  92. JQ said,

    January 1, 2014 @ 9:45 pm

    This discussion reminds me of an exchange I witnessed:
    A: Are you Catholic?
    B: Sorry, I'm Christian!

  93. Alon Lischinsky said,

    January 2, 2014 @ 9:16 am

    @Victor Mair:

    I've never heard anyone say 'I speak in written English'.

    For what it's worth, the phrase seems to have infrequently but repeatedly chosen by people intending to express exactly what Domink means:

    It is true that some professors do speak in written variety on all occasions. But they are few in number. Apart from such a switch over demanded by formal occasions, we have also switch overs in terms of technicality. (M. S. Thirumalai, Stylistics: A Linguistic Approach. Madras: University of Madras, 1976)

    Don't expect them to speak in 'written' language. Show interest in what they are saying, expand on and / or recast their replies.. (Jane Willis, “Activity-based Language Learning at Primary Level”. Al Ain Nord Anglia E2L Project Event, 2006)

    Even the most fluent and accomplished speaker does not speak in written English. (Janet Townend, ‎E. Jean Walker, Structure of language: spoken and written English. Chichester: Whurr, 2006)

    My main question lies in do I speak in written Finnish which is very formal. (Being a beginner how should I speak to other people in Finnish? (self.LearnFinnish), 2013)

  94. Sven Sahle said,

    January 2, 2014 @ 10:58 am

    At least in some regions in (southern) Germany it would be normal use to say "Er redet nach der Schrift" ("he talks like it is written") to indicate that someone who usually speaks dialect now speaks standard german. In this context the phrase "Sie spricht Schriftdeutsch" ("She speaks written german") would be easily understandable and would not sound strange to me.

  95. Victor Mair said,

    January 2, 2014 @ 3:06 pm

    All of Alon Lischinsky's examples are essentially questioning or negating the possibility of speaking written language.

  96. Bob said,

    January 4, 2014 @ 5:55 pm

    perhaps I had the images from some movies with barristers delivering their arguments in (British) court (speaking WRITTEN English!) –at least I thought those were written English–, I was greatly surprised that American attorneys spoke PLAIN English in court! …..
    Barristers in Hong Kong still wear their horse hair wings nowadays, I wonder how do they speak? IN written Chinese? In written English?

  97. Bob said,

    January 4, 2014 @ 6:18 pm

    @Bruce Humes: the original post of MT (mother tongue) took 中文 to mean Putonghua only. And were sensitive of MainLand China's push for Putonghua in HK. …
    Your daughter proofed my earlier comment that 中文 refers to the speaker's usual dialect.

  98. Victor Mair said,

    January 6, 2014 @ 9:31 pm

    So, Bob, if Cantonese = Zhōngwén 中文 and Taiwanese = Zhōngwén 中文 and Mandarin = Zhōngwén 中文, etc., etc., does that mean that Cantonese = Taiwanese = Mandarin, etc., etc.? And does Zhōngwén 中文 ever / simultaneously refer to written Chinese? Or does Zhōngwén 中文 only refer to what you call "the speaker's usual dialect"? What, then, do you call written Chinese?

    Taking all of these things into consideration, it would seem that the situation with regard to Zhōngwén 中文 is very murky and muddy.

  99. Bruce Humes said,

    January 12, 2014 @ 5:10 am

    @ Victor: I agree that "the situation with regard to Zhōngwén 中文 is very murky and muddy," but only if you insist on the (unrealistic) idea that everyone in the Chinese-speaking community should agree on a definition. As I noted above, HKers know full well that Zhōngwén 中文 refers to their superior variety of Chinese, written and spoken, and that bak fong wa 北方话 is that barbaric tongue spoken north of the border of 广东国, and so on . . .

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