Monday, September 15, 2014

Varieties of Chinese

       I've heard a phrase used to define a country: Culture -  Language - Borders. The potpourri of cultures and languages in China is impressive. Repression has been a remarkable tool in up building China, both ancient and modern. But a new reality has set in. Tourism and social media has had an affect. While Mandarin is the official language of the country and the teaching English is so widespread making it a common thread among the elite and rising middle class, there are still areas of China where the local dialect renders the people almost unintelligible foreigners.   There are still  Chinese who have to rely on translators to understand what leaders in Beijing are speaking, but they can read what they said after-the-fact…if they can read. Kind of explains why China is governed/ruled the way it is. Quite a feat.
       A fellow English teacher who spoke Chinese very well told me that when some of his students who came from a distant province became aware that he could understand what they were saying whilst they spoke Chinese among themselves, they immediately began to speak in their local dialect rendering his Chinese useless. So much for inclusion.

       Note how Taiwan is referred to as a province by Chinese sources as opposed to a country as recognized by other nations in the world.

Anny did pretty good on her complicated presentation in Oral English class.

Linguists identify between seven to fourteen subgroups in the Sinitic branch of the Sino-Tibetan language family.  Traditional classification of seven of the groups include:
Gan       (Jiangxinese)
Guan     (Mandarin or Beifanghau)
Kejia     (Hakka)
Min       (including the Hokkien & Taiwanese variants)
Wu        (including the Shanghainese variant)
Xiang    (Hunanese)
Yue      (including the Cantonese and Taishanese variants) 

In addition to the standard, accepted languages and dialects in China, it is customary to speak informally of dialects within each proving, e.g. Sichuan dialect, Hainan dialect. These designations do not generally correspond to classifications used by linguists, but each nevertheless has characteristics of its own. 

The question of whether the various varieties of Chinese should be called dialects or languages in their own right is contentious. There are two principal uses of the word dialect. If varieties are consider dialects of a single language when they are mutually intelligible, and separate languages otherwise, then the principal branches of Chinese, and even some of the subbranches, are distance languages. If, on the other hand, Dialect is used in its other meaning of a variety that is socially subordinate to a standardized or otherwise prestigious variety, perhaps one that share a common written language and literature with the prestige form, then they are all dialects of a single Chinese language, though Cantonese and to a lesser extent Shanhainese and Taiwanese are local prestige forms with use in the media and a nascent literature.

Whew! That's a mouthful!

The following is a brief overview of today's Chinese dialects:
1.  NORTHERN DIALECT (also called Mandarin)….
The official tongue of China, mainly based on Beijing dialect.
2.  JIANGSU DIALECT (also called Wu Dialect)….
Mainly based on Suzhou dialect, which in a way is closer to the Song Mandarin than that of the Northern Dialect. Song Dynasty (960-1279) is the most economical, culturally and intellectually developed period of Chinese history with vast volume of written materials produced during that time. Jiangsu Dialect again branches into many different sub-dialects, and Shanghai dialect is one of them.

3.  ANHUI DIALECT (also called Hui Dialect)….
Mainly use by people of Anhui province.
4.  JIANGXI DIALECT (also called Gang Dialect)…
Mainly used by people of Jianxi Province.
5.  HUAN DIALECT (also called Xiang Dialect)….
Mainly used by people in Huanan Province.
6.  Gujian Dialect (also called Minnan Dialect)…
Mainly sued by people inFujian and Taiwan Provinces.
Mainly ethically based (by Kejia ethnic people) who speak this particular form of dialect and can be found in Fujian, Taiwan and other southern provinces.
Mainly used by people in Guangdong Province and Hong Kong.

This only just begins to scratch the surface of the complexity of Chinese languages & dialects. There is also Guan (Mandarin) with eight main dialect areas of Mandarin in Mainland China, Min with eight more dialect areas, Wu with six dialect area, Yue  with nine dialect areas, among others.

In addition to the varieties within the Sinitic branch of Sino-Tibetan, a number of MIXED LANGUAGES also exist that comprise elements of one or more Chinese languages and and dialects, plus OTHER languages.   YIKES!!!

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Chinese Characters

       We learned that more Chinese students study English than there are English speakers in all of America. While that unfortunately does not translate to very much English speaking fluency in China, it is always a good experience for anyone to study something of another language. It enriches knowledge and appreciation of one's primary language. Jane proved to be a good example of this with her presentation.
       We never saw a yellow #2 pencil in China. Students use .5 or .7 fine tip pens or mechanical pencils. Why? Because whether writing Chinese characters or English letters, all their writing is incredibly tiny…and because most written Chinese characters are much more complicated that English alphabet letters. The thickness of a #2 wood pencil would blur the words/characters and besides, there are no pencil sharpeners to be found which would need to be used every few minutes, anyway.  
       Is it any wonder that illiteracy was common for centuries in China? It's a wonder to see Chinese students today reading and writing in two or more languages of such divergent complexities.
      Because Jane used so many Chinese characters to illustrate her points, her presentation had to be posted at a photograph so you can see all her examples. Zoom In for more comfortable reading. Reading it as is….is more like our experience reading their Written English assignments; by electrical moonlight ( the only light in our Chinese apartment ).