Diglossia: "The shabby Big Wild Goose Pagoda"

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For a natural demonstration of what diglossia is in the Chinese-speaking context, watch this 0:53 video.  The speaker begins in local Xi'anese (also called Guānzhōng huà 关中话 / 關中話), but at 0:20, when he suddenly realizes that he is talking to a television reporter, after hilariously sprucing himself up a bit, he abruptly switches to Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM):


The topic of the interview is the Big Wild Goose Pagoda (built 652, rebuilt 704), a major tourist attraction in the city of Xi'an.  (It can be seen in the background.)  The man being interviewed starts out saying that the pagoda is no big deal, that it was where the Buddhist pilgrim, Xuanzang (fl. c. 602-664; hero of the famous Ming dynasty (1368-1644) novel, Journey to the West), stored and translated the sutras (scriptures) he brought back from India.

Upon finding out that he is being interviewed by a television reporter, the man begins to speak in the national language, MSM.  Diana S. Zhang remarks:

The native Xi'anese instantly switched from Xi'an dialect (may I use "dialect" here because Xī'ānhuà 西安話 belongs to Guānhuà 官話 [lit. "officialese"]?) to Mandarin as he realized that he was on TV. His attitude and behavior also amazingly switched along with his speech, almost unconsciously when he started speaking Mandarin! I think that the semiosis of Mandarin merits careful study, and I wonder if there has already been any such investigations carried out by anthropologists.

And I wonder if such abrupt and dramatic shifts of diglossic register occur elsewhere in societies where two or more languages / topolects coexist.


  1. Philip Taylor said,

    September 23, 2019 @ 12:08 pm

    May I ask in what context Diana Zhang wrote the text quoted ? I ask because I am intrigued by the underlining of "the semiosis of Mandarin", suggesting (to me, at least) that there was a hyperlink in the original.

  2. E. N. Anderson said,

    September 23, 2019 @ 1:04 pm

    Happens all the time, everywhere. I have been amazed at how our Black students can shift from heavy traditional African-American English with each other, to formal Black English with a Black professor, to perfect US radio English talking to me. I have heard similar shifts in Hong Kong from various dialects (including Boat People dialect) to standard Cantonese. And of course moving from dialects to actual languages, people switch with perfect ease from Teochiu to Cantonese to Mandarin to English. My daughter by the age of 2 (in Hong Kong) was aware that one talked one way to parents and another way to everyone else, and codeswitched perfectly by 2 1/2. Nothing proves how totally people are evolved to talk. Chimps have barely learned a few signs in sign language–otherwise they just can't do it. And we share over 99% of their genes.

  3. Philip Taylor said,

    September 23, 2019 @ 1:37 pm

    At the risk of appearing unreasonably pedantic, would not "have evolved" be preferable to "are evolved" ? The latter appears (to me, at least) to carry teleological overtones … Incidentally, my family-by-marriage frequently switch between Vietnamese, Cantonese and English, even within a single sentence, and some can also switch to Mandarin.

  4. PeterL said,

    September 23, 2019 @ 1:42 pm

    I've seen (heard) this many times in Ōsaka, except the default for middle to upper class is standard Japanese (with an Ōsaka accent) and when the two people figure out that they both speak Ōsaka-ben ("dialect"), they often (but not always) switch and seem to relax a bit, possibly because Ōsaka-ben has an intermediate level of politeness ("-haru") that doesn't exist in standard Japanese. In Kyōto, whose dialect is similar to Ōsaka's it seems more common to start with Kyōto-ben, or a mixture of Kyōto-ben and standard Japanese (e.g., only greetings and certain honorifics in Kyōto-ben, maybe because "oide-yasu" ("welcome!") is part of Kyōto's tourist brand in Japanese).

    When I've asked a native speaker if so-and-so has a Kansai or Kantō accent, they often tell me they don't know — evidently "guess someone's origin by their accent" isn't as popular a game in Japan as it is in the UK.

  5. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    September 23, 2019 @ 6:22 pm

    @E. N. Anderson

    Could you (or anybody else) offer an academic refernce of what you have called "formal Black English"?

  6. Alex said,

    September 23, 2019 @ 9:12 pm

    This reminds me very much of viral Chinese videos on the DouYin platform. The spitting-in-hands to slick back the hair (here even funnier with a buzz cut) fits in perfectly to that style of humor.

  7. Keith said,

    September 24, 2019 @ 2:26 am

    I grew up in an industrial (well, at the time it still was) city in northern England.

    The men who worked in the factories would speak to each other in what they called "dialect" (differences in consonant and vowel sounds, use of the pronoun "thee", topolectal words absent from standard English).

    They would still speak that way with the foremen and maybe the works manager, but would switch to speaking in a way closer to standard English when speaking with directors, visitors from out of town or overseas, when speaking to their doctor, their children's head teacher, etc.

  8. Martin Barry said,

    September 24, 2019 @ 9:04 am

    I'm curious as to why the building in question isn't referred to in English as the Great Wild Goose Pagoda. 'Great' in this type of context is much more common than 'big' or 'giant', which are the labels usually given to this particular building.

  9. John Swindle said,

    September 24, 2019 @ 3:40 pm

    @Martin Barry: If that big goose (大雁 dàyàn) is Anser cygnoides, Wikipedia says it's called "swan goose" in English. Swan Goose Tower wouldn't sound bad.

  10. Sam said,

    September 25, 2019 @ 11:06 pm

    I distinctly remember a great instance of di-/tri-glossia from my time teaching English in Hunan ~2002. I was joking around with some very bright teenage students and another American teacher. At one point, the students spoke to each other in Mandarin. "Watch out," we said, "We can understand Putonghua." As a group, they all switched to Changshahua. We joked, "We can understand Changshahua too" (we couldn't really). The students then switched to a harder-to-understand version of Changshahua to mask their conversation.
    It was as if they had all, as a group, slid from Mandarin to "polite" Changshahua and then to "street" Changshahua. At the end, we really had know idea what they were saying.

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