dialects and languages

Jonathan Lighter wuxxmupp2000 at YAHOO.COM
Fri Feb 22 15:10:48 UTC 2008

Unless I read too hastily, what you say, Jim, is correct. There are two additional problems that affect Chinese and few other languages.

  The first, of course, is that all forms of Chinese share the same ideographic writing system, which has little or nothing to do with how words are pronounced.  This is all that allows us to speak of "Chinese" as a "language" and not a "language family."  Had Chinese evolved an alphabetic system that reflected pronunciation, the differences between the major regional varieties would be obvious and Chinese would be a family, not a single language.

  There is also the equivocality of the word "dialect."  Those of us with linguistic training may be theonly people in trhe English-speaking world who use "dialect" in a non-judgmental way.
  (Hence my suggestion elsewhere of "X-treem Word Posse" as teh new ADS name.)  Statistically, "dialect" usually means "inferior version of a standard language." That's how most people use and understand it.  With that meaning in mind, Mandarin doesn't qualify. That's problem one.   Problem two is that _spoken_ forms of Chinese, _including_ Mandarin in this case, are traditionally referred to as "dialects." Even though by ordinary descriptive standards they are mutually unintelligible languages - in speech.

  It all depends on what your correspondent means by "language" and "dialect."


  James Harbeck <jharbeck at SYMPATICO.CA> wrote:
  ---------------------- Information from the mail header -----------------------
Sender: American Dialect Society
Poster: James Harbeck
Subject: dialects and languages

I've been having a discussion on another list
with someone, and I seem to be having trouble
persuading her, so I just wanted to make sure
that what I was saying was agreed on by linguists
with more standing than I. Here's what she said

Mandarin is a language. Cantonese is a dialect.
This is what I've been told by my husband, who is
from the PRC & speaks both.

My response was as follows:

Um. Well, many a speaker of a hegemonic dialect
is likely to make a similar insistence, and the
frequent implication is that the "dialects" are
degraded versions of the "language" (which could
hardly work in this case, since Cantonese is
actually less historically changed than
Mandarin). Most commonly you will see it said
that Chinese is a language and Mandarin and
Cantonese are dialects. (All versions of a
language are dialects. There is no version of any
language that is not a dialect of that language,
and this includes whatever standard version is
taught as being the only right way to speak it.
Likewise, all speakers of any language anywhere
have accents; there is no such thing as a
language speaker without an accent.) It happens
that Mandarin is the officially enforced dialect,
and so is the standard; it hasn't always been

So your husband's pronouncement is of
sociological interest, in that it displays a
certain set of attitudes (which might be objected
to by Cantonese speakers), but you will find in
general that Mandarin is referred to as a
dialect. It _could_ be considered a separate
language, but it isn't thought of as one, as a
rule, and if it is one, so is Cantonese.

(I recognize that I overstated the case when I
said all versions of a language are dialects, as
I admitted later -- of course there are other
levels of varieties, e.g., registers.)

Her response was as follows:

In fact, my husband is Cantonese. His 2nd
language is Mandarin. Other Cantonese speakers
have said that same thing, that Cantonese is a
dialect. Mandarin is what they call standard
Chinese. My husband is also a linguist,
translator & interpreter. Chinese grammar is
based on Mandarin rather than on dialects such as
Cantonese, Shanghainese, etc.

My response was this (I've trimmed bits to get to the point):

A standard dialect is still a standard _dialect_,
though. ... The Queen speaks a dialect; the
Académie française enforces a dialect. Cantonese
isn't a dialect of Mandarin; it's a dialect of
Chinese. It's not derived from Mandarin. Mandarin
is the standard, but it's not the language; it's
the standard dialect of the language. ...

Also, I assume, when you're speaking of Chinese
grammar, you're referring to what's taught in
schools. The grammar of Cantonese as it's used by
hundreds of millions or Cantonese speakers is, of
course, Cantonese grammar, based on how Cantonese
has evolved through history; it's not a mere
derivative version of Mandarin grammar. ... Any
given dialect might be grammatically different
from the standard, but it has a grammar, and a
consistent one at that. It couldn't be a
coherent, viable form of communication otherwise.


After another exchange, where we mainly repeated
the same points in other words, her most recent
missive is this:

Well. I also didn't mean to imply that dialects
are inferior or that Cantonese is a dialect of
Mandarin. Of course dialects aren't inferior. And
by grammar, I'm not talking about "good grammar"
but the forms & usages in a language. I once
taught a course called varieties of English and
had to set one student straight who thought that
Canadian English was "just a dialect" because
it's spoken in only one place - Canada. During
the (20) years I taught ESL, English, & EFL, I
had to explain to students that BrE isn't The
English, that Parisian French isn't The French,

Anyway, I will send you, off list, an article my
husband wrote for STIBC (Society of Translators
and Interpreters of BC) on Chinese. It's called
"It's All in the Sign." I hope it clarifies
things. I think it's important to note that, for
practical purposes, there's a standard language
in the PRC, a result of the May 4th Movement in
1919. It happens to be what we call Mandarin,
although in Chinese it's /putonghua/, or common

So I'm still not sure whether she quite gets that
she can't say that Mandarin _is_ Chinese and not
a dialect, and that Cantonese is a dialect. Am I
not giving her enough credit? And, for that
matter, am I wrong?

James Harbeck.

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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