April 6th, 2009
So this morning I did drag my lazy arse offline and finally opened up one of the two cool new books I acquired a couple of weeks back. This one was 汉语方言学/李如龙著。-2版。-北京：高等教育出版社，2007.2, which back then I roughly translated as ‘Chinese Dialectology, (2nd edition) by Li Rulong, published in Beijing by the Higher Education Press in February 2007.’ I took it up to the village with me, planning to make use of the ample time and my cunning stash of dictionaries hidden away up there to learn me a few things about Chinese dialects. And then, of course, I spent all of Saturday online…. Saturday being the only day we could spend in its entirety up there. Oops. But this morning I hit the internet wall, got offline, and opened it. Starting, naturally, at the beginning, with Chapter 1: 方言，方言差异，方言特征- Dialect, Dialect Differences, Characteristics of Dialect, and section 1: 方言.
I only got about halfway through before I had to clear the books away for lunch (although I was quite pleasantly surprised with the speed I was reading and the ease with which I seemed to understand- I took so much time because I was noting down new words and then going back and reading it all over again), but I read one very interesting paragraph on page 2:
方言是自足的体系， 在一定的地域，它可以是无往而不利的唯一交际工具。就这一点说，方言也就是语言。 但是作为科学术语，语言通常指的是民族语言。现代的民族语言总是包含着民族共同语以及分布在不同地域的方言。就这一点说，语言大于方言，是方言的 “上位” 概念。方言是民族语言的组成部分，也是民族语言的地域变体。所谓 “现代汉语”，指的是现代汉民族的语言，应该包含着现代汉民族共同语 （普通话） 和各种现代汉语方言。现代汉语方言是现代汉民族共同语的地域变体。有些教 “现代汉语” 课、研究 “现代汉语” 的人所理解的 “现代汉语” 是不包括汉语的方言的，这实在是一种很大的误解。朱德熙先生说： “研究现代汉语的人往往只研究普通话，不但不关心历史，把方言研究也看成隔行。 画地为牢， 不愿越雷池一步。 这不管对本人说， 还是对学术发展来说， 都不是好事。” （朱德熙， 1985）
A dialect is a self-contained system, in a fixed area it can the only tool for successful communication. That is to say, a dialect is a language. But as a scientific term, Language usually means a national language. Modern national languages always include the national common language as well as the dialects spread over different areas. That is to say, Language is bigger than Dialect, it is Dialect’s “epistatic” concept. Dialects are component parts of national languages, and are the local variants of national languages. By “modern Chinese” we mean the language of the modern Han nation, and this should include the modern Han nation’s common language (Putonghua) and every kind of modern Chinese dialect. Modern Chinese dialects are the local variants of the modern Han nation’s common language. What some people who teach or research “modern Chinese” understand by “modern Chinese” does not include Chinese dialects, and this is a very big misconception indeed. Mr Zhu Dexi says: “More often than not, people who research modern Chinese only research Putonghua, and not only reject history, but see the research of dialects as a separate profession. They box themselves in, unwilling to put even one foot over the line. This isn’t just bad for the researchers, it’s also very bad for the development of the field.” (Zhu Dexi, 1985)
Wow. There are several interesting concepts and assumptions buried in that one little paragraph.
Well, first let’s deal with some translation issues:
- I’d be surprised if anybody reading this blog doesn’t know, but just in case: Putonghua is the official standard Mandarin, what is taught in schools and is used on national TV and radio.
- I really hate translating 民族 as “nation” or “nationality”, and expend obscene amounts of effort stamping that habit out of my students, but I feel that that is the best translation in this context, meaning “nation” in it’s somewhat synonymous with “ethnic group” sense. Still, it irks me.
- I can’t think of any way to keep consistency in the translations of 语言 and 方言 while keeping the meaning clear.
- That “上位” had me really confused, but every entry on nciku led to some form or another of ‘epistasis‘, which is an entirely new word to me. So be it. Update: John adds some ideas on what was meant. I’m not sure how (or if) to alter my translation, but do check out his comment for more enlightenment.
- Oh, and before I forget: “Dialect” is stretching it a bit. In a previous paragraph, Li had a fair bit to say about the meaning of ‘语言’ and related words like 次方言，土语，次土语, and the apparent “European” equivalents of ‘dialact’, ‘sub-dialect’, ‘patois’ and ‘sub-patois’, as well as words with similar meanings. He concluded that whether you’re referring to a speech variety of one small village or of ten provinces, or whether you’re referring to Cantonese or its local variants spoken in Hong Kong, Macao, Guangdong and Guangxi
- Update: Last sentence was amended thanks to some help from the Ji Village News.
I think that’s about it.
Now, where to start?
The idea of ‘Language’ meaning a national language and ‘Dialect’ meaning some local variation seems pretty sweet. I mean, Japanese is the language of Japan; French of France; German of Germany; Korean of Korea; English of England; and of course, all the local variants of those languages are dialects. Easy, right? But wait… Although it’s easy enough to explain that the Koreans or North and South Korea and China all belong to one nation in the ethnic sense of that word, and I’m sure you could construct an argument to show the same is largely true of the German-speaking peoples of Germany, Austria, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, and slices of neighbouring countries like Belgium, tell me, what nation is it that speaks French? Or English, Spanish or Portuguese? These languages are spoken as native or near-native languages by a huge variety of people from many different racial, ethnic, national and cultural backgrounds.
In fact, we need to ask: What, precisely, is a 民族? What is a nation? What is an ethnic group? I have yet to come across a satisfactory definition of any of these words.
And we’ve all heard more than enough discussions on the proper meaning of 汉语 and mutual intelligibility, or lack thereof, between the “dialects”, and comparisons with Spanish and Portuguese and other pairs of mutually intelligible “languages”, and the unintelligibility to all but native speakers of certain English dialects, and so on, and so forth.
Anyway, I found that paragraph interesting and thought I’d throw it out there for your viewing pleasure. But now, it’s getting late, and I have class early tomorrow morning. Good night.