language, dialect

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. I can’t think of any way to keep consistency in the translations of 语言 and 方言 while keeping the meaning clear.
  4. 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.
  5. 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
  6. 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.

11 Responses to “language, dialect”

  1. Richard Says:

    Wow, there are some BIG assumptions made by the author in that paragraph you cite… just thinking of France as an example (whose language policies have been pretty centralist and chauvinistic since the 19th Cent). If “language” really means the language of a nation, where do regional languages like Alsatian, Occitan or Breton sit? They are linguistically distinct languages (definitely not dialects of French) and yet they still cohabit with French in several regions. The role of language in national/regional identity is moot too – I have friends who consider themselves French, but say they are first of all Breton or Alsatian, even if they only speak a few words of their regional language.

    Alsatian is even more problematic. Lingustically it’s a dialect of Allemannic German, but it’s virtually unintelligible to Hochdeutsch speakers, (let alone francophones), AND it’s only spoken in a region which is politically and geographically French.

    A challenge with categorising a regional language as simply a dialect or a patois is that it infers that it is a subordinate or bastardised version of the “official” national language. I’ve always understood that Cantonese (for example) is really a distinct language and to consider it simply as an offshoot of Putonghua really serves to bury centuries of distinct regional history and literature (please correct my sketchy understanding of Chinese language + culture if necessary).

    Sorry for the long comment, at one point I was considering doing a Masters degree looking at European regional languages and identity politics… maybe should reconsider that decision :-P

  2. Ji Village News Says:

    Nicely done Wang Bo, and really interesting questions.

    I like how you translate the 成语 画地为牢 into “box themselves in” in this context.

    This “上位” is a bit confusing. I have no idea why the author put double quote around it. I took it to mean that 方言 is a subset of 语言, or rather, 语言 is the superset concept that includes 方言.

    I took the 本人 in the last sentence of the original text to mean the researcher who “box him/herself in”, not Zhu Dexi himself. It would have been clearer if it were phrased like: 这不管对研究者本人来说, 还是对学术发展来说, 都不是好事。

  3. wangbo Says:

    Excellent comment, Richard- and long comments are always welcome when they are of such quality. Trouble is, you’ve fallen into the trap I foresaw. Not your fault, it’s a problem of translation. “National language” is not meant as in the official language of the nation-state. “Nation” here refers to the ethnic or cultural group. One could speak of the Breton nation without necessarily calling for Breton independence. As I said, I strongly dislike translating “民族” as “nation”, but I felt it most appropriate, if potentially confusing, in the context. So Breton and Alsatian in France are comparable to Mongolian and Dai in China- minority languages.

    And you’re right, it is absurd to consider Cantonese an offshoot of Putonghua. It’d probably be more accurate to see both as having derived from a common ancestor.

    And perhaps you should reconsider that masters?

    Mr Ji, thanks. Perhaps if I changed that last sentence to “This isn’t just bad for the researchers, it’s also very bad for the development of the field.” Is that better?

  4. John Says:

    In context, 上位 would appear to mean “superordinate” (or some word of such meaning). It might mean epistasis, but that’s a specialised word from the world of genetics. In fact, it’s always been medical vocab. According to my big Collins dictionary as obsolete meaning is “scum on the surface of a liquid, esp. on an old specimen of urine”.

    Probably the author was looking for a word that meant “superordinate” and is using 上位 literally (and if it really is like epistasis) in a non-specialist sense, hence the inverted commas.

    None of my English-Chinese dictionaries include the word “superordinate” or even “superset” for that matter.

    Probably, properly speaking, language should be the thing which includes (i.e., is the superset/上位 of) all dialects including standard or national varieties. The standard or national variety may have prestige, but isn’t really the form from which all others are derived even if they’re measured against it.

    I think you’ve discussed the matter of words for “dialect” in Chinese before. They seem to require a certain amount of paraphrasing or you end up using “dialect” to spare readers from becoming bored with verbose explanations.

  5. Ji Village News Says:

    Yes, I think “This isn’t just bad for the researchers, it’s also very bad for the development of the field.” would be better.

    John is right. “Superset” is not a word. I should not have use it to muddle the water here.

  6. wangbo Says:

    John, those super- words were the kind of thing I was looking for, but nciku sidetracked me on that epistasis thing. I think I’ll leave it as “epistasis”, though. It’s not clear enough to me what word is really meant.

    And dialect has been discussed many times in many places. The word “topolect” has been floated. But yes, we always come back to dialect, it’s just easier that way.

    Mr Ji, I’ll fix that last sentence immediately. Thanks for your help.

  7. Sue Says:

    I thought 民族 and nation are two different concept. 民族 to me is more about ethnic group.

  8. Dylan Says:

    It’s cool reading Chinese writers on dialect. I wish I had more access to this kind of stuff. Share some more from it, if you get the time.

    I’d say that “上位”概念 means that, like, language is dialect’s overarching concept; dialect is a concept that descends from language– Dialect is subordinated to Language. Quotes because in everyday reading it would mean something more informal, I think.

  9. wangbo Says:

    Sue, yes, but nation can be meant in a less political, ethnic sense as well.

    Dylan, good suggestion, thanks. And yes, I do intend to share more.

  10. Ben Ross Says:

    From my understanding, and the way I have always used it, “nation” is basically synonymous with “ethnic group.” However, it is very commonly used incorrectly, when the term “state” should have been chosen. A Chinese person who lives in the US is still part of the Chinese nation, but they do not reside within the Chinese state. However, the term “nation” is less concrete than that of “state.” You could make the argument that the same Chinese person is also a member of the American nation.

  11. wangbo Says:

    Thank you, Ben, for the clarification. That’s precisely what I was trying, and failing, to express.