Archive for Topolects

The future Sinitic languages of East Asia

Is monolingualism a normal, natural, necessary state of affairs for human beings?

Can you imagine a world in which there were only one language?  How is that even possible?

These are questions that come to mind after reading Gina Anne Tam's deeply thought provoking "Mandarin Hegemony: The Past and Future of Linguistic Hierarchies in China", pulse (4/18/24).

Tam begins with a gripping, hard-hitting scene that we at Language Log were already well aware of last fall:  "Speak Mandarin, not Cantonese, even in Macau" (10/31/23).  Here are the opening paragraphs of her article:

At a concert in Macau in the autumn of 2023, Cantopop superstar Eason Chan used an interlude to talk about his songwriting process. Suddenly, shouts from the audience interrupted his soliloquy, as a few fans demanded that he shift from speaking in his native Cantonese, the majority language in Macau, to Mandarin, the Chinese national language. Chan stopped and quickly launched into a multilingual lecture, reprimanding those who deigned to tell him what to speak. In English, Cantonese, Mandarin, and Thai, he defended multilingualism for the freedom it grants: ‘I love speaking in whatever way and language I want’ (Huang 2023).

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San Francisco Cantonese

From Charles Belov:

While riding the 22 Fillmore bus through the Mission District in San Francisco today, I overheard a conversation in Cantonese. It was nearly 100% in Cantonese, not the Cantlish* that I rarely also hear. What surprised me, though, was when one of the elderly speakers said "Hong Kong" they used the English pronunciation, not the Cantonese one. Aside from those two words, it was all in Cantonese.

And my Cantonese is so minimal that I know nothing of the topic of their conversation aside from the words "faan heui," to return-go, shortly after which the words "Hong Kong" occurred. Not that it would be any of my business – I don't care what people say; I just care how they say it.

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Is this authentic Cantonese?

A decade or so ago, we often had discussions about whether or not what was alleged / claimed to be Cantonese writing really was.  Now it is good to see native speakers asking the same questions.

From a post of Wan Chin, a controversial scholar/ cultural critic in Hong Kong.

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Modals, idiolects, garden-path sentences, and English translations of a ninth-century Chinese poem

Here I present a digest of four scientific linguistics papers from the latter part of the month of January, 2024 to show that our field is very much alive in diverse subfields at the beginning of the new year.

"The Semantics, Sociolinguistics, and Origins of Double Modals in American English: New Insights from Social Media." Morin, Cameron et al. PLOS ONE 19, no. 1 (January 24, 2024): e0295799.

Abstract: In this paper, we analyze double modal use in American English based on a multi-billion-word corpus of geolocated posts from the social media platform Twitter. We identify and map 76 distinct double modals totaling 5,349 examples, many more types and tokens of double modals than have ever been observed. These descriptive results show that double modal structure and use in American English is far more complex than has generally been assumed. We then consider the relevance of these results to three current theoretical debates. First, we demonstrate that although there are various semantic tendencies in the types of modals that most often combine, there are no absolute constraints on double modal formation in American English. Most surprisingly, our results suggest that double modals are used productively across the US. Second, we argue that there is considerable dialect variation in double modal use in the southern US, with double modals generally being most strongly associated with African American Language, especially in the Deep South. This result challenges previous sociolinguistic research, which has often highlighted double modal use in White Southern English, especially in Appalachia. Third, we consider how these results can help us better understand the origins of double modals in America English: although it has generally been assumed that double modals were introduced by Scots-Irish settlers, we believe our results are more consistent with the hypothesis that double modals are an innovation of African American Language.

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The importance of Cantonese for teaching English

Think what this article is telling us.  If you want to find a job teaching English in Hong Kong, you would do well to first learn some Cantonese — even if you are Pakistani.

"Hong Kong’s ethnic minority jobseekers tripped up by lack of Cantonese end up doing low-skilled work, survey shows", by Fiona Chow, SCMP (2/3/24)

    • Most surveyed say it’s hard to break out of jobs as deliverymen, security guards and construction workers
    • Hongkonger of Pakistani origin says learning Cantonese helped her land a job as a teaching assistant

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Auld Lang Syne in Cantonese

[from a long-time Language Log reader]

One of the well known Cantonese versions of Auld Lang Syne: 友誼萬歲 jau5 ji4 maan6 seoi3 “Long Live Friendship” from Hong Kong:

朋友 再見聲聲 往昔歡笑 來日記取
pang4 jau5  zoi3 gin3 seng1 seng1  wong5 sik1 fun1 siu3  loi4 jat6 gei3 ceoi2
Farewell friends, happy memories of the past, 
Retrieving in the future.

憶記舊日情誼 痛哭歡笑 在校園裡
jik1 gei3 gau6 jat6 cing4 ji4  tung3 huk1 fun1 siu3 zoi6 haau6 jyun4 leoi5
Recalling past sentimental bonds, crying and laughing at school.

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Extreme simplification and phoneticization

Probably only Northeastern Chinese could understand.


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Speak Mandarin, not Cantonese, even in Macau

Eason Chan rebukes Chinese fans demanding he speak Mandarin at Macau concert

'I love speaking whatever way and language I want,' says Chan

By Keoni Everington, Taiwan News (2023/10/20)

Well, it looks as though we are having a clash of languages — Mandarin vs. Cantonese — right in the heartland of Cantonese.

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — Hong Kong singer Eason Chan (陳奕迅) rebuffed demands by Chinese fans to speak Mandarin instead of Cantonese at a concert in Macau.

On Oct. 13, Chan kicked off his "Fear and Dreams" concert tour in Macau. As is often the case with his concerts, Chan began to casually chat in Cantonese with the audience between songs.

During the show, several Chinese audience members started to shout and boo. They repeatedly interrupted him demanding that he "Speak Mandarin!"

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Nobel Prize winner Jon Fosse writes in Nynorsk, a minority writing system

"The Nobel literature prize goes to Norway’s Jon Fosse, who once wrote a novel in a single sentence"


While Fosse is the fourth Norwegian writer to get the Nobel literature prize, he is the first in nearly a century and the first who writes in Nynorsk, one of the two official written versions of the Norwegian language. It is used by just 10% of the country’s 5.4 million people, according to the Language Council of Norway, but completely understandable to users of the other written form, Bokmaal.

Guy Puzey, senior lecturer in Scandinavian Studies at the University of Edinburgh, said that Bokmaal is “the language of power, it’s the language of urban centers, of the press.” Nynorsk, by contrast, is used mainly by people in rural western Norway.

“So it’s a really big day for a minority language,” Puzey said

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Language, topolect, dialect, idiolect

An educated person will have all four levels of speech.

The more highly educated they are, the higher up the scale their language capacity will go, though they may not be familiar with some of the argot of the lower levels.

Of course, all four levels are language, but that is possible because "language" has two meanings:  a generalized, abstract sense that comprises all human speech and writing, and the officially recognized speech and writing of a nation / country / gens — a politically united group of people.

A topolect is the speech / writing of the people living in a certain place or area.  It is geographically determined.

A dialect is a distinctive form / style / pronunciation / accent shared by two or more people.  To qualify as the speaker of a particular dialect, one must possess a pattern of speech, a lect, that is intelligible to others who speak the same dialect.  As we say in Mandarin, it's a question of whether what you speak is jiǎng dé tōng 講得通 ("mutually intelligible") or jiǎng bùtōng 講不通 ("mutually unintelligible").  If what two people are speaking is jiǎng bùtōng 講不通 ("mutually unintelligible"), then they're not speaking the same dialect.

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Heavily accented Mandarin

In "Voice-activated lights" (9/20/23), we saw how difficult it is even for native speakers of Modern Standard Mandarin to understand other varieties, and can be thankful to Zeyao Wu, who comes from the area where the topolect in the film is spoken, for kindly identifying and transcribing it for all of us.

rit malors writes:

You may also want to try how many native speakers of Sinitic languages can identify or understand this speech from the late Head of Macau, Fernando Chui Sai On (Cant. Ceoi1 Sai3 On1; 2009-2019):

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Voice-activated lights

I showed this mp4 video to a dozen native speakers of Sinitic languages (mostly Mandarin), but no one could identify, much less understand, what it was:


(from imgur)

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Language and politics in Hong Kong: National Security and the promotion of topolect

From the Hong Kong Language Learning Association:

Announcement Regarding Suspension of Hong Kong Language Learning Association

Given recent events, wherein personnel from the Hong Kong National Security Department (NSD) visited both my former residence and the residence of my family members for searches and inquiries, alleging a violation of the National Security Law in connection with an entry for the Societas Linguistica Hongkongensis (SLHK) ’s Cantonese essay competition, and demanding its removal, I have decided, with the guidance of legal counsel, to cease all operations of the Hong Kong Language Learning Association, effective immediately, in order to ensure the safety of my family and former members. Dissolution procedures are also initiated.

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