[lg policy] China: Divided by a (not really) common language

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Tue Aug 3 15:29:54 UTC 2010

Divided by a (not really) common language

Aug 2nd 2010, 14:55 by R.L.G. | NEW YORK

THE first reports of protests on behalf of the Cantonese language in
China that I saw, about two weeks ago, I dismissed. Language has
signally failed to become a major issue in China. This is despite the
fact that the country is—it needs to be said again and again until
people stop referring to "dialects"—hugely mutlilingual. Mandarin
Chinese is a language, and so is Yue (Cantonese), so is Wu
(Shanghaiese) and so are the others (Hakka, Northern and Southern Min,
etc.)  Speakers of two of these various languages simply can't have a
proper conversation with each other in their home languages. (There
are, of course, dialects of Mandarin, Yue and so forth, and these are
by and large mutually comprehensible.)

Mandarin complicates this picture because it is the biggest, it is
learned in schools around the country, is the official language, and
is the basis of the writing system. The writing system is not a
pan-dialectal written form that ties all varieties of Chinese
together, as many believe. The character 我 is pronounced wǒ in
Mandarin, ngóh in Cantonese/Yue, góa in Taiwanese, ngú in
Shanghainese, ǎ in Gan, and so on; it means "I" in all those
languages. But this doesn't mean written Chinese is pan-dialectal. To
write Cantonese so it can properly be read out and accepted as real
Cantonese requires different character order, special characters,
sometimes Roman letters, and quite a bit of ingenuity, since it there
is no standard way of doing so (though more Cantonese are trying
(http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2488) ).

Meanwhile many Chinese really do believe that they speak dialects of a
single thing called Chinese, which they all write the same way—even
if, to use a European analogy, the Chinese language family resembles
not British vs. American vs. Irish English, but something more like
English vs. Frisian vs. German. And they persist in believing in their
linguistic unity probably because the Chinese really do see themselves
as part of a single Han people. (This does not include non-Han
minorities like Tibetans and Uighurs, and speakers of Miao-Yiao and so
forth in the south.) Language has rarely disturbed national unity, as
it has in so many places, whether Spain or Turkey or Belgium. So when
I saw the second report
 (video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HWNL1MEtUH0) ) of such
protests—admittedly small—in the past few weeks, I took note. Language
policy (and language resentment) has been the dog that hasn't barked
in China.  Now it has barked meekly—twice.  Both protests have been
quite small.  But this situation should be an interesting one to keep
an eye on.

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