Multilingualism in Philadelphia's Chinatown

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Sign spotted by Diana Shuheng Zhang on December 7, 2019:

It's not the English and Chinese together on the same sign that caught Diana's sharp eye as she drove by in a taxi.  That's all too common, of course.  What Diana noticed were the small characters that read:

Jīngtōng Fúzhōuhuà, Huáyǔ, Guǎngdōng(huà), Yīngyǔ


"Proficient in Hók-ciŭ-uâ (Fuzhounese, Foochow, or Hok-chiu), Mandarin, Gwong2dung1waa2 (Cantonese), and English"

Diana thought it was remarkable, and I agree with her, that the owners of the shop decided to advertise their expertise in four different languages, three of which are Sinitic varieties.  We can't recall seeing this kind of public prominence given to the nonstandard Sinitic languages before.

Wikipedia, and most other resources, still misleadingly refer to Fuzhounese as a "dialect", but one would be hard pressed to tell what it is a "dialect" of, since it is mutually unintelligible with many other varieties of Sinitic.  In fact, it is the best known representative of the Eastern Min branch of Sinitic.  Calling Fuzhounese a "dialect" gives the wrong impression of its true nature as an influential, independent language with around ten million speakers.

Incidentally, in the last several years, I've been surprised at how many restaurants and shops of all sorts in Philadelphia's Chinatown — not just those serving Fuzhounese cuisine — have been taken over by Fuzhounese, many of them recent immigrants, displacing many Cantonese who were the former owners of most of the shops in Chinatown.

Speaking of Cantonese, Wikipedia is better at referring to it often as a "variety" of "Chinese" (which I prefer to call "Sinitic"), but it also refers to Cantonese as the "prestige dialect among all the dialects of the Yue branch of Chinese varieties" or "Yue Chinese dialect group".  With nearly seventy million speakers, it is a misrepresentation of Yue to think of it as a mere group of dialects.  Rather, "branch of Sinitic" is a more accurate characterization, with Cantonese being the prestge language in the branch.

Another interesting feature of the note about languages spoken in the shop is that Mandarin is referred to as Huáyǔ 華語 ("Florescent / Chinese language"), which is how it is denominated in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Philippines.  This is in contrast to Guóyǔ 國語 (literally "national language"), which is the name for Mandarin in Taiwan, and Pǔtōnghuà 普通话 (literally "common speech"), which is how it is known in Mainland China.



  1. M. Delson said,

    December 14, 2019 @ 11:51 pm

    Then why not improve the Wikipedia entries on "Fuzhou dialect", and "Cantonese", and possibly other Sinitic languages)?

  2. Luke said,

    December 15, 2019 @ 5:08 pm

    Interestingly, the insistence from the both Chinese authorities that Chinese is a language synonymous with Mandarin and contains dialects such as Cantonese and Min Dong have resulted in many ill-fitting Chinese names for the Mandarin language.

    官話 (guanhua) implies that Mandarin is merely a dialect spoken by government officials, rather than the native language of northern and southwestern China.
    北方話 (beifanghua) implies that Mandarin is not only just a dialect of Chinese but one that is only spoken in the north, and also ignores the various dialects within Mandarin.

    These two terms refer to Standard Chinese specifically rather than Mandarin in general.
    普通話 (putonghua) implies that Mandarin is the standard (normal) dialect of Chinese.
    國語 (guoyu), while being the most fitting so far as Mandarin may be the national language, ignores the countless speakers of Mandarin who do not reside in either of the Chinese states.

    Personally, I find 華語 (huayu) to be the most fitting because while it is referring to China as a whole, it could also be interpreted as the language of 華夏 (huaxia), which would be very appropriate geographically, given that Mandarin is the language of the Yellow River.

  3. Valas Opsi said,

    December 15, 2019 @ 6:33 pm

    I am not Chinese and I know that there are only two Chinese languages: the simple ones in China mainland and the traditional ones in Taiwan. But the natives certainly know better because in my native language, there are also various dialects between different regions. Well, the solution is for everyone to know that they must write it on Wikipedia, the contribution of local people is indeed the best for reference.

  4. Gabriel Faure said,

    December 16, 2019 @ 1:42 am

    @Valas Opsi: That's a rather simplistic statement to make that "the natives know better", and that an opinion espoused by the most populous Sinitic-speaking nation must necessarily reflect the actual situation. I will leave it to others to explain why, but going with the PRC's linguistic policy is not correct in this case.

    Also, there are more than two Chinese languages, and they are definitely not "the simple ones on the Mainland" and "the traditional ones in Taiwan".

  5. Michael Watts said,

    December 16, 2019 @ 2:15 am

    With nearly seventy million speakers, it is a misrepresentation of Yue to think of it as a mere group of dialects.

    What does the number have to do with it? The US (population 320+ million) surely contains well over 70 million native speakers of American English; is it unfair to consider American English to identify a group of closely related dialects?

  6. Philip Taylor said,

    December 16, 2019 @ 4:21 am

    Michael — I agree that "the number" has little if anything to do with it, but is your analogy with American English valid ? American English can be indeed regarded as "a [set] of closely related dialects" of English, but if it is suggested that Yue is also "a mere [set] of dialects", then one must ask "a set of dialects of what language" ?

  7. Victor Mair said,

    December 16, 2019 @ 7:14 am

    The language of those 70,000,000+ Yue speakers is mutually unintelligible with Mandarin. Is Yue a "dialect" of Mandarin? If it is not a dialect of Mandarin, then what is it a dialect of?

  8. Michael Watts said,

    December 17, 2019 @ 3:31 am

    But the language the original post is objecting to doesn't say that Yue is a dialect of Mandarin. It says Yue is a variety of Chinese. It uses the word "dialect" to say that Cantonese is the prestige dialect among all the dialects making up the Yue branch.

    In other words, it says, as advertised, that "Yue" is a branch of Chinese consisting of several dialects, of which Cantonese is the most prestigious. That appears to me to be fully correct. What was supposed to be wrong with it?

  9. Philip Taylor said,

    December 17, 2019 @ 3:57 am

    I am by no means an expert in this field, but it seems to me that the discussion hinges on the meaning of "dialect". The OED gives as sense 2 (senses are ordered by date of first attestation, not by frequency of usage)

    [2.1] A form or variety of a language which is peculiar to a specific region, esp. one which differs from the standard or literary form of the language in respect of vocabulary, pronunciation, idiom, etc.; (as a mass noun) provincial or rustic speech. [2.2] Also more generally: a particular language considered in terms of its relationship with the family of languages to which it belongs.

    So if Cantonese were to be the most prestigious dialect, of what would it be a dialect ? One assumes "of Yue". So is Yue a language ? My understanding is that it is not — rather, it is a a family of languages. In which case sub-sense 2.2 would seem to apply, and I would therefore agree with Michael that one can indeed correctly speak of Cantonese as being "the most prestigious dialect of the Yue family of languages".

  10. Michael Watts said,

    December 17, 2019 @ 7:26 am

    So if Cantonese were to be the most prestigious dialect, of what would it be a dialect ? One assumes "of Yue".

    Indeed, this is stated explicitly in the original quote:

    [Wikipedia] refers to Cantonese as the "prestige dialect among all the dialects of the Yue branch of Chinese varieties"

  11. Victor Mair said,

    December 17, 2019 @ 8:10 am

    Then what is Yue? A dialect? A bunch of dialects? Of what?

    Oh, it's a "branch", so wisely says Wikipedia. Good! A branch of what? Sinitic? And how does Mandarin fit into that?

  12. Philip Taylor said,

    December 17, 2019 @ 11:00 am

    Is there a problem with defining Yue as "a family of languages" ?

  13. Charlotte Stinson said,

    December 20, 2019 @ 5:40 am

    Professor Mair, respectfully, I agree with M. Delson's point. Why are you simply complaining about Wikipedia's characterization of the different Chinese languages, when it would be so easy for you to simply edit the Wikipedia entries in order to make them correct? You would be doing something helpful; it would be a public service. You have access to written sources that would serve as references if necessary (your own publications would of course count on this score) but, often, simply changing the wording Is enough, without the extra work of adding a reference. If you don't know how to do this, or don't want to spend the time, I suggest that you make a recommendation here on language log providing the exact wording for how you'd like each particular entry to be reworded, and, if you feel it's necessary, include a reference that would support it. Then, any of us who are experienced Wikipedia editors can make the change for you. It's possible that I'm missing something that gets in the way of you doing this, in which case, would you please correct my understanding?

  14. Eidolon said,

    December 23, 2019 @ 6:47 pm

    @Philip Taylor

    That would imply the different varieties of Yue are mutually unintelligible, which is not necessarily the case, as mutual intelligibility is a continuum and there isn't an exact agreement on the cut off separating dialects from languages, nor is there sufficient field research in many cases to determine just how much mutual intelligibility there is. "Variety" is a compromise in the absence of agreement, and in the presence of politicization.

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