dialectology

March 10th, 2011

Yes, I am breaking the long, long silence.

Driving did increase the amount of book reading I did, as most days I’d have anywhere from 5 to 40 minutes sitting outside my wife’s work waiting for her. But now she’s claimed her maternity leave (and yes, I am getting a little nervous, now with a touch of bureaucracy anxiety to boot…), I have to find new ways to carve out a little dead tree reading space.

Like stay offline.

Did I really just type those three words?

Like now that the weather has suddenly got warm enough, on days like today when the spring wind doesn’t try to emulate Wellington on a calm day, sitting out in the garden with a book after class. Ah, yes, sweet civilisation. Fresh air (well… ), a gentle breeze, sunlight filtered through the branches, and a good book. How much better could it be?

And so this afternoon I was sitting there with my book, 《汉语方言学(第二版)》by 李如龙 (高等教育出版社,2007). Chinese dialectology. Fascinating, or at least it promises to be now that I’ve got through the first, introductory chapter. I can only get through so much introduction of the subject before I start getting impatient. But I succeeded at that much, at least. Indeed, I’d just started on Chapter 2, the formation and development of the Chinese dialects, when one of the local characters turned the corner with his dogs.

He looks to be of around about retirement age, average build, round, easygoing face, a good-natured spark in his eyes. I often see him out walking his dogs, 3 or 4 of them (it’s hard to keep track, as he often stops to chat with other dog walkers), at around four in the afternoon, and he always has at least a friendly smile and a ‘nihao’. Occasionally, we’ll chat for a little, like today.

“Studying?” he said.

“Yup.”

“What’s your book?”

“Chinese dialectology.”

“Oh? Which dialect?”

“Well, all of them, I suspect,” as I showed him the book.

And he taught me a saying, which I quite liked:

五里不同音,十里不同俗 wǔ lǐ bùtóng yīn, shí lǐ bùtóng sú

Go five li (2.5km), the accent is different. Go ten li, the customs are different. I’m not sure of what to make of the first few of those Baidu results linking the saying to either Shanxi or the Ancient Tea and Horse Road. In any case, it certainly seems to linguistically and culturally sum up a lot of China, and we went on to chat about how even different parts of Beijing have their own dialects. He mimicked a phrase or two of the Fangshan dialect, then mentioned Yanqing to the north. So I gave him an example of Yanqinghua.

But there was one other thing he said that got my curiosity. He described local patterns of speech as “土话”. ‘土’ tǔ, definition number 3 in the dictionary that lives on my desk being “local; native”. But check out the two examples it gives:

他穿着那件大褂显着土得很 He looks very rustic in his gown

他说的是很土的北京话 He speaks with a broad Beijing accent

土 translated as rustic and broad? Well, “local” may explain the “broad Beijing accent”, but skip over to definition number 5: unrefined; unenlightened. Indeed, “土话” seems to carry with it some kind of value judgement, a suggestion of a lower class or lack of education or social standing. And the very first page of my book contains this statement:

曾经有学者提过,“次方言”、“次土语”的说法容易造成“次等”、“低劣”的联想,并不是恰当名称

Scholars have pointed out that words like “sub-dialect” and “sub-patois” easily create a mental association with “second rate” or “inferior”, and are certainly not suitable names.

[note: the translations of “方言” as “dialect” and “土语” as “patois” are Li Rulong’s]

The same page contains the delightful saying “土得无字可写” – “so crude it can’t be written” or perhaps “so crude there are no characters with which to write it” – which should be taken, in the context, as an example of the attitude not to take, that of seeing dialects as being something vulgar and low class, the babble of the Great Unwashed.

And so here’s me wanting to take the scholar’s approach that all dialects are perfectly valid means of communication and of equal value, and observing that although this guy is using a word that would seem to imply that local dialects are low class, he certainly seems to be taking an awful lot of pride in the fact that China has a vast multitude of local dialects.

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