[lg policy] China vs. Singapore: Language and Dialect: Matter of Life and Death?

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Tue Aug 3 15:26:05 UTC 2010

Language and Dialect: Matter of Life and Death?

I am currently undergoing a course on linguistics and our discussions
on what constitutes a language or dialect particularly interested me.
It seems they differ in two main aspects. Accordingly to
socio-political contexts, languages are basically backed up by
institution while dialects aren’t. This is the differentiation most
people are familiar with. However in a linguistic sense, languages are
not mutually intelligible while dialects/varieties are (i.e. under
this differentiation, Cantonese and Hokkien would be languages and not
dialects because speakers of each would not understand each other).

When we talk about language and power, looking at context is extremely
important to get a real sense of how people go about defining what is
a language and what is a dialect. Take Cantonese for example. In
Singapore most of us know it as a dialect but if you were to ask
someone in Hong Kong or Guangzhou the same question, you can expect a
very different response. Whatever relegated Cantonese in Singapore to
mere dialect status then? Well, to put it bluntly:  language policy.

If we then take a look at China now, we can see a somewhat similar
trend taking place but with very different reactions. According to
this AFP report, more than a 1000 protesters have gathered in Hong
Kong and Guangzhou to rally against the Chinese government’s attempts
at promoting the national Putonghua (i.e. Mandarin) over the local
Cantonese language (or ‘dialect’, according to the Chinese
government). It seems highly unlikely the Chinese authorities will go
very far at suppressing Cantonese the way Singapore managed to do in
the past. The reasons are manifold but I think a key difference is
this: the Cantonese speakers up north firmly see it as their regional
language and will do anything to see that it remains as so.

What do you understand to be a language or dialect?
Is Singlish a dialect?
What do you think is the future of dialects in Singapore? What is the
future of Singlish?


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