Came across this from Pinyin Info yesterday. Sino-Platonic papers has released another back issue (pbloodydbloodyf as usual, you are warned): What Is a Chinese “Dialect/Topolectâ€?? Reflections on Some Key Sino-English Linguistic Terms. Here’s the abstract:

“Words like fangyan, putonghua, Hanyu, Guoyu, and Zhongwen have been the source of considerable perplexity and dissension among students of Chinese language(s) in recent years. The controversies they engender are compounded enormously when attempts are made to render these terms into English and other Western languages. Unfortunate arguments have erupted, for example, over whether Taiwanese is a Chinese language or a Chinese dialect. In an attempt to bring some degree of clarity and harmony to the demonstrably international fields of Sino-Tibetan and Chinese linguistics, this article examines these and related terms from both historical and semantic perspectives. By being careful to understand precisely what these words have meant to whom and during which period of time, needlessly explosive situations may be defused and, an added benefit, perhaps the beginnings of a new classification scheme for Chinese language(s) may be achieved. As an initial step in the right direction, the author proposes the adoption of “topolectâ€? as an exact, neutral translation of fangyan.”

It’s a reasonably interesting paper. Definitely better than the last one of theirs I posted about. I have some doubts about some of what it says, but I’ll post about that later.

8 Responses to “dialect, topolect, fangpilect…. ?”

  1. John Says:

    From a Western perspective most of what’s spoken in China are distinct languages. Just because they use the same writing system doesn’t make them anything more than (distant) relatives. It’d be like calling the languages of Europe European, even although the Romance languages belong to one branch, the Germanic to another, the Slavic to a third, and Hungarian and Basque to none of the above.

    The linguistic situation in China strikes me as being a rather complicated entity: local languages (which even taking gradience into account can’t be dialects); local pronunciations of putonghua (no doubt with all manner of lexical variations); and putonghua as I get it out of a text book or would hear it on state radio of TV.

    Part of the problem, apart from local prejudices, has got to be the bane of logic: gradience. How different must a dialect be to be a separate language? If Fuzhouhua isn’t intelligible to speakers of Minbei and Minnan, then we’re talking about a separate languages. Same with Minbei and Minnan. I wouldn’t be surprised if China is riddled with dialect continua.

    Another part of the problem is terminology. To me “dialect” means a variant of the language I speak which ought, in large measure, to be intelligible to me. In other words, the differences are not sufficient to render it unintelligible. There’s nothing really equivalent to fangyan in English because, to some extent, that’s subsumed in “dialect”.

    The Arab world seems to be much the same. Although we talk about Arabic as a language, the forms spoken from Morocco to Iraq are different but related languages. If I see a grammar of Arabic, I’d assume that it meant Classical Arabic of the sort you’d see in the Koran.

    On the other hand, in Scandinavia you seem to have a collection of dialects which are all busy pretending to be distinct languages, but aren’t really. There seems to be a greater degree of homogeneity than Scandinavians are willing to admit.

  2. wangbo Says:

    Scandinavian is the example I always use to show there’s more politics involved in the distinction between dialect and language than actual solid linguistic science. ‘Course, I’m just an amateur, so prove me wrong, but… My understanding is Scandinavian is a dialect continuum running north-south, with each dialect running east-west, so that somebody from Trondheim can make himself understood perfectly well in the neighbouring part of Sweden by speaking Trøndisk (sp?), but would get nowhere fast in Oslo unless he switched to “standard” Norwegian (what my friends called “TV Norwegian”). My impression is that at least historically the same was true of most European languages. Scandinavian’s the perfect example, though, you’re absolutely right there.

    I suspect China is somewhat similar to Europe back in the day local dialects were strong, but with the complication of a common system of writing. Anyway, I promised to rant about this in a new post when I get the time and energy to go through that article again and write something coherent.

    I still don’t understand the need to invent a new term “topolect”, though….

  3. John Says:

    There are Romance dialect continua running across Europe. For example, there’s one that runs from Portugal to the Dutch border, and there’s probably one running all the way from northern France to Sicily. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there was also one running from Galicia, across the south coast of France and through northern Italy to Venice.

    “Topolect” does seem a little unnecessary unless there’s some practical reason to use such a term. Can’t think what it might be, though.

  4. wangbo Says:

    That’s what I’d heard. I’ve also heard West Germanic has something similar happening, and also that West and North Germanic are closer than people generally consider, and that the Kiel dialect is unusually close to the neighbouring Danish dialects- two tangents- that last one was told to me by a woman who had lived in Kiel for a hell of a long time, but whose native language was apparently Letzeburgesch or whatever it is they speak in Luxembourg, whose surname was French (Blanc, or it may have been Krautised to Blank), and who taught German in Beijing, who then took her American boyfriend who was young enough to be her son back to her husband and daughter in Germany….. And Danish gets my vote for ugliest European accent outside the UK, although that vote goes to Dutch if we’re talking about Europeans speaking English.

    Anyway, I think the reason for “topolect” is that it’s a more direct translation of “fangyan” and that “fangyan” has historically been used for languages totally unrelated to anything Sinitic. My two main points for the post I might actually get around to writing sometime tomorrow: 1: Who gives a fuck about historical usage? Languages change and the modern usage of “fangyan” is much closer to the English “dialect”, as Mair himself seems to acknowledge in his article; 2: My impression was that all dialects have a geographic component. Isn’t that how dialect continua arise? The dialect of one village is slightly different from that of its neighbour, but radically different from that of the city 500km up the road. Mair’s own discussion of Sinitic languages and dialects is pretty good at “putting them in their place”- Yue is the language of Guangdong, Wu=Shanghai and Zhejiang, Gan=Jiangxi, Xiang=Hunan, etc….. Therefore “topolect” is only so much unnecessary intellectual wankery.

  5. John Says:

    That’s the thing. Dialects are typically associated with regions. Standard languages (which are, in spite of the name, dialects themselves) may be associated with a certain part of a country, but the standard language should be the same wherever it’s spoken, although the accent of the speaker may not be that associated with the standard language. In other words, I might have a Manchester or Yorkshire accent, but I may pretty much speak standard English.

    I’d expect Mair to know his arse from his elbow. Sorry, I mean “dialect” from “language”, and not to start introducing unnecessary additional terms.

  6. wangbo Says:

    So I think we’re reaching a consensus: Chinese is nothing special, just a little complicated with that standard writing system, but otherwise no different from the rest. I certainly hope you haven’t slipped back into a bloody Manc accent, but still, the point applies to all languages I ever heard of. And Mair is speaking the fangpilect I mentioned in the title of this post. Yes, I indulged in a little intellectual wankery of my own and invented a new word for bullshit.

    Still, Mair does seem to get a bit of respect in Sinological circles and seems to know his shit…. But there’s always been something about both Pinyin Info (not Mair’s site, and so far as I know has no direct relationship with Mair) and Sino-Platonic Papers (Mair’s work) that has had my bullshit/fangpilect detectors working overtime.

  7. John Says:

    Exactly. There’s nothing extraordinary to see here. Move along.

    Some of what seems to be coming out of Sino-Platonic Papers is a bit left field, which is probably why your bullshit detectors are going a bit crazy.

  8. wangbo Says:

    Agreed. Now I don’t think I’ll bother with that post I promised, I think the ranting has been done. Moving along…