Sunday, December 25, 2011

What is the Chinese language?

First of all, I wish everyone celebrating, a very Merry Christmas. And, to everyone else, Happy Holidays.

Being an illiterate, albeit an earnest inquirer, I found this piece in the Economist to be highly informative and interesting. In particular, the robust comments for the piece are very instructive.

I HAVE exercised Chinese commenters with a few posts that were seen as either simplistic or biased. So let me offer two competing visions of Chinese that help explain what the two sides disagree on. These are archetypes which few partisans may agree with every word of.  But they are the basic poles of thinking about Chinese, I think. I submit them for the good of commenters, who should debate them to shreds.

In brief, Chinese traditionalists believe-

1) Chinese is one language with dialects.

2) Chinese is best written in the character-based on the Hanzi system.

3) All Chinese read and share the same writing system, despite speaking in different ways.

Western linguists tend to respond-

1) Chinese is not a language but a family; the "dialects" are not dialects but languages.

2) Hanzi-based writing is unnecessarily difficult; the characters do not represent "ideas" but "morphemes" (small and combinable units of meaning, like the morphemes of any language). Pinyin(the standard Roman system) could just as easily be used for Chinese. Puns, wordplay and etymology might be sacrificed, but ease of use would be enhanced.

3) Modern Hanzi writing is basically Mandarin with the old characters in a form modified by the People's Republic. Everyone else (Cantonese speakers, say) must either write Mandarin or significantly alter the system to write their own "Chinese".

There are so many arguments packed into these two ideas that it's hard to start, much less finish, in a blog post.


Anonymous said...

The best analogy can be found in the taxonomy - the science of identifying and naming species, and arranging them into a classification.

Confined to the lowest denominator, the correct term to identify & differentiate languages from dialects is to use CLADE structure.

In this aspect, then almost all European 'Languages' would then be classified as a sub-dialects of Latin. Same as almost all South/S East Asian 'languages' r sub-dialects of Sanskrit.

But then who's counting?

So, why the interest in differentiating how many 'languages' as in the Chinese dialects?

Perhaps, the same intention as in how many cuisine as in Food?


Anonymous said...

Chinese ideograms were used to impose the diktat of the Middle Kingdom on the lands inhabited by the non-Mandarin speakers. If you see a roof, it means the same in any language. Then it was important to belittle the "other " languages by pretending that only Mandarin ( the language of the imperial court) was legitimate.

This happens today in Asia and Africa where 'nation building' is considered more important than human dignity or human rights.

The result is that the talents and skills of many are wasted and not utilised for nation building. This happens even in Australia, Canada and the USA although the first is trying to remedy this problem.