The future Sinitic languages of East Asia

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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).

Chan noted that these demands dripped with a sense of entitlement. ‘You can ask nicely,’ he quipped. ‘Would you ask David Bowie to speak Mandarin or Cantonese?’ This entitlement, Chan implies, is emboldened by presumptions of power. Instinctively, both he and his audience know that most of them would not feel entitled to shout at a native English-speaking performer for the language they chose to speak. But to these members of Chan’s audience, Cantonese speakers should speak the common and official Chinese language. Cantonese, in their world view, is a lesser, local variant of Chinese, whereas the official language should be the presumptive language of communication in Chinese-speaking spaces.

Tam goes on to address a number of vital language issues in China today, sensitively probing the meaning and implications of "hegemony", comparing the position of Mandarin in China with that of English in the world, analyzing the situation regarding the non-Mandarin topolects vis-à-vis the place of non-Sinitic languages like Uyghur, Tibetan, and Mongolian of the PRC, which shows how racialized Mandarin hegemony is in China, and so forth.

Unsurprisingly, Mandarin hegemony does not go unchallenged, particularly in a place like Hong Kong, where Cantonese speakers resist with all the resources at their disposal, including fighting for mother tongue education in the schools.

In the final section of her article, Tam shows clearly whose side she is on:

De-Normalising Linguistic Hegemony

Nonetheless, Mandarin hegemony remains pervasive. And with a powerful government as invested in its maintenance as is the Chinese Communist Party, it remains difficult to challenge. Yet, it is important to recognise that while hegemony is structural, it is not outside our control. Humans create structures. We all have agency, big or small, in how we respond to hegemonic structures, linguistic hegemony included. As Mikanowski (2018) reminds us, linguistic hegemony is normalised by one dangerous idea: ‘[T]hat a single language should suit every purpose, and that being monolingual is therefore somehow “normal”.’ We all have a role to play in ensuring that this is a normal that we will not accept.

I like the idea of "de-normalizing" an odious government policy.  Worth a try, isn't it?

One of the first future languages of East Asia will be Cantonese.  It will no longer pejoratively be thought of as a mere dialect of a hierarchically superior Mandarin.  It will be followed by languages like Hokkien (also spoken widely throughout Southeast Asia), Wu (includes the topolects of Shanghai, Suzhou, Wenzhou, Hangzhou, Ningbo, etc. and is spoken widely in Han emigré communities in Europe), and I dare say even topolects of regions like Sichuanese / Szechwanese (remember Der gute Mensch von Sezuan?) — with its hip-hop and rap pop culture and tongue-rocking cuisine — and Northeast / Dongbei / Manchuria with its ultra-talented entertainers.

It will be much easier for these languages to emerge in their full glory if people stop referring to the totality of Han languages as Chinese, which is a political construct, and think of it rather as Sinitic, which is a linguistic concept.  As soon as you buy into the dogma / doctrine that Mandarin is the sole, unique, superior brand of ethnic Han language, then you allow the Mandarins of Beijing / Peking to relegate all the other forms of Sinitic speech to the status of lowly "dialect" — including Cantonese, which in actuality is a mighty language with nearly a hundred million (!) speakers.


A note on Wu

Intellectually, economically, and in other ways, this group of Sinitic languages was remarkably consequential and powerful already from the middle period of Chinese history.  Its dramatic downturn in recent decades is the result of purely political machinations:

The decline of Wu began from around 1986, when students were banned from speaking "uncivilized dialects" during class, a term used by the State Language Commission to refer to all Chinese languages other than Standard Chinese. In 1992, students in Shanghai were banned from speaking Wu at all times on campuses. Since the late 2000s, Wu mostly survived in kitchens and theatres, as a "kitchen language" among the elderly housewives and as a theatrical language in folk Yue opera, Shanghai opera and Pingtan. As of now, Wu has no official status, no legal protection and there is no officially sanctioned romanization.



Selected readings

[h.t. Geoff Wade]


  1. AntC said,

    April 21, 2024 @ 11:48 pm

    languages like Hokkien (also spoken widely throughout Southeast Asia) …

    I can report Hokkien continues to be spoken in Taiwan, with Hokkien words peppering Mandarin conversations, and bewildering (to me at least!) code-switching. Nowadays there is decent support for Hokkien and Hakka. But there were long decades of suppression in late C20th under KMT martial law, which means Hokkien speakers increasingly are the elderly.

    I'm not so confident as Prof Mair about Cantonese: Taiwan is very welcoming to HK/Macau refugees, but realistically there can be little language support. I hear plenty of Cantonese in New Zealand: we accepted several waves of migrants, and Cantonese predominates amongst restaurants and Asian grocery stores. (I'd describe the attitude of successive NZ governments as 'benign neglect'.) Amongst the second/third generation youngsters not so much uptake.

  2. Thomas said,

    April 21, 2024 @ 11:51 pm

    What a nice thought, but this is not possible under the CCP. That is not to say that in a democratic system, minority languages have it easy. But they sometimes at least have a chance.

  3. M. Paul Shore said,

    April 22, 2024 @ 4:02 am

    Whatever the future of these languages might be, the most important apposite task at present should be for linguists to prepare for the languages’ possible extinction by working on the scientific recording of them in the classic format: namely, a bidirectional bilingual dictionary (preferably one of several thousand pages), a finely detailed grammar (preferably one of around two thousand pages), and a text collection, the larger the better, with the “texts” of course potentially including audio and video recordings. If this kind of scientific recording could be done of individual topolects of these languages, so much the better. The work should start now so that the comparatively pure vocabulary and grammar of older speakers could be taken as the starting point, as opposed to the potentially Mandarin-contaminated (or other-language-contaminated) vocabulary and grammar of younger speakers.

    I wonder, what kind of financial and other resources might PRC linguists be able to put together to carry out projects like these? And to what extent might they have to contend with CCP discouragement and interference?

  4. M. Paul Shore said,

    April 22, 2024 @ 4:24 am

    And just in case it wasn’t completely clear, in my previous post I was talking about a separate tripartite (dictionary, grammar, text collection) scientific recording of each possibly endangered language, or even better of each significant topolect of each potentially endangered language, not a treatment that somehow lumped all those languages together.

  5. Chas Belov said,

    April 22, 2024 @ 10:11 pm

    At risk of repeating myself from earlier posts, Taiwan seems to this outsider to have come back from the excesses of martial law, with music not only being recorded and honored in Hokkien but also Hakka and Taiwanese indigenous languages.

    Coincidentally to that, shortly after reading this post, my multilingual playlist, set to shuffle play, served up Black Dream by Dou Wei (Mandarin), immediately followed by Entertainment World by Lim Giong (Taiwanese Hokkien), and a few songs thereafter by Stubborn Love in Chains by Collage (not sure what language it is as they sing in several languages, but Mandarin is apparently not one of the ones they sing in).

    And as a reminder, dongting's series Hip Hop in China has a two-video piece on language choice in Mainland China hip hop (part 1) (part 2).

  6. Tye Power said,

    April 23, 2024 @ 12:34 am

    Regarding Victor's question, "Can you imagine a world in which there were only one language?"…there is this from the book of Revelation in the New Testament, "After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb." However you may feel about religion, Christianity, or the Bible, this is a religious text that imagines a world of rich diversity, including linguistic diversity, as an essential aspect of an ideal condition of humanity.

  7. Jonathan Smith said,

    April 23, 2024 @ 12:44 pm

    from the Eason Chen concert —



    Maybe the second person was talking to the first person.

  8. W said,

    April 23, 2024 @ 10:09 pm

    In my opinion, talks about Mandarin hegemony (no doubt true on a social level) should also be tempered with mentions of phenomena such as this:

  9. Chas Belov said,

    April 24, 2024 @ 10:54 pm

    @Jonathan Smith: Right! If I recall correctly, 國語 is, what those in Taiwan and Hong Kong call Mandarin, and 普通话 is what those in mainland China call Mandarin.

  10. Jonathan Smith said,

    April 25, 2024 @ 1:24 pm

    @Chas Belov
    yes haha — and jiang3 / shuo1 are an isogloss that kinda separates north and south. Maybe calling Putonghua and Guoyu both "Mandarin" is a bit misleaing to begin with

    Speaking of the Sinitic languages, there is an interesting new paper by Huang et. al. which reflects a curious mixture of new quantitative methodolgies and problematic what-we-may-call "cultural-political" positions…

    The heart of the matter is that in the Linguistic Atlas of Chinese Dialects (2008), Huang et. al's (2024) only data source, "classification of word forms […] is usually based on the word’s root (morpheme) rather than its phonetic form." Huang et. al. (above and to follow at p. 12) think that "[m]arking morphemes using Chinese characters is more convenient and economical than using complex phonetic word forms because Chinese characters are logographic."

    This means that, for instance, in Huang et. al.'s Fig. 3 (p. 11), the languages of (far northeastern) Heilongjiang, (far western) Gansu, (eastern seaboard) Shanghai, (deep southern) Guangzhou, and (southeastern) Xiamen are united at the data point in question because all are reported by LACD to use "我", not e.g. "俺",for the first person pronoun.

    But what is "我" (and all the rest)? In fact, the forms of the word "I; me" in say the northeast (/wo3/), Guangzhou (/ŋɔ5/), and Xiamen (/gua2/) are exactly the type of data that historical linguists typically use to track the specific and dramatic ways in which these languages are different. So in the case of this item, onset *ŋ-, early tones or their segmental antecendets, etc., developed in systematically different ways in different languages.

    To the extent that the above is the methodology, results are going to (kind of!) reflect the extent to which Points A, B… happen to retain cognate items for meaning X (or employ cognates at preset due to borrowing), not the extent to which they are genetically related. So naturally one generates colorful "continua": closely related languages are more likely to, but need not, retain a given etymon.

    (Not really!) separately, statements such as "Chinese is a group of language varieties that forms the Sinitic branch of the Sino-Tibetan family. It is the mother tongue of 1.2 billion people […]" (p. 1) are not normally found in scientific writing. Why statements like this happen to be (must be) made in this and similar papers is well-known to those working in this and adjoining fields… enough said.

  11. Chris Button said,

    April 26, 2024 @ 8:57 am

    "我", not e.g. "俺",for the first person pronoun.

    But what is "我" (and all the rest)

    Perhaps worth noting that different characters (evolving into very different pronunciations) can often reflect variants of the same original grammatical particle or pronoun.

    Also, as an aside, the charcaters 我 "watashi" and 俺 "ore" both surivive in modern Japanese.

  12. Chris Button said,

    April 27, 2024 @ 11:50 am

    Sorry, I meant "ware" for 我, not "watashi".

  13. Chas Belov said,

    April 28, 2024 @ 1:01 am

    Wiktionary shows several variants for they:

    他們 (Mandarin, Xiang, Jin)
    佢哋 (colloquial Cantonese)
    伊各儂 (Eastern Min)
    佢們 (Gan)
    伊儂 (Teochew)
    伊拉 (Wu)

  14. Chas Belov said,

    April 28, 2024 @ 1:11 am

    Plus a single character (Unicode 02A736) for Teochew and Hokkien that my browser won't render but it's available in the code chart for CJK Unified Ideographs Extension C on page 2 in the center column.

  15. Chas Belov said,

    April 28, 2024 @ 1:13 am

    Okay, let's try including the link this time

    CJK Unified Ideographs Extension C

  16. KIRINPUTRA said,

    April 28, 2024 @ 10:13 am

    I salute the spirit of this post….

    At this point in history, it looks like the only Sinospheric vernaculars that will make it past this era are the ones whose written forms become primary — functionally prestigious — in their region (or part of it). Mandarin, Korean, Japanese & Vietnamese are on track. Cantonese is not, but it “feels” too big to fail, like we might expect it to hold up till the next shock to the rules of the game, i.e. the next era.

    This makes sense considering South Asia, which might be analogous to the, or a, prayed-for reality. Writing is key: Imagine if Telugu or Bengali were demoted in their respective states to the functional role of Cantonese in Hong Kong, while written Hindi took over a corresponding functional role a là written Mandarin in Hong Kong.

    “Sinitic” is a word-play that can help make a dissonant or in-some-sense stifling situation more palatable on the ground, helping ease things toward harmonious mass language death rather than raucous language revivals.

    The other day I spoke with a gentleman who might describe himself as a Taioanese nationalist. He insisted that even if the Hoklo tongues are not descended in the classic sense from Old Chinese, they’re nevertheless part of a “Sinitic” Sprachbund whose outlines coincide with the oft-taken-for-granted Sinitic language family. The idea that a back-door “Sinitic” Sprachbund is less prejudicial than a “Chinese” one seems to go hand in hand with the idea that written Mandarin (however distorted vs its own beginnings) can fill in as a neutral “modern written Sinitic”. From there it is assumed that the dispossessed vernaculars can never be full-fledged written languages as Mandarin or Korean are, yet this assumption is assumed to play no part in the still-surprising (?) ongoing shift from Cantonese, Hakka, Hokkien, & Taioanese to Mandarin in places like Kuala Lumpur or anywhere in Formosa.

  17. KIRINPUTRA said,

    April 28, 2024 @ 10:31 am

    @ Chas Belov

    The traditional sinographic form of 3rd-person plural IN ("they") is simply 因, in texts in Hoklo — as opposed to texts about Hoklo.

    Also, the traditional sinographic form of I-NÂNG (also "they") seems to be simply 伊人.

  18. Victor Mair said,

    April 28, 2024 @ 8:56 pm


    My next post, "Tianjin topolect: linguistic diversity in China (and India)", will speak directly to some of the issues regarding Sino-Indian disjunctions you have raised.

  19. Chas Belov said,

    April 29, 2024 @ 7:57 pm

    @KIRINPUTRA, thank you.

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