Wednesday, November 23, 2005


China's economic growth is driving out smaller dialects of the spoken Chinese language, to the benefit of the language of Beijing (Putonghua). This process is now beginning to threaten dialects from cities as large as Shanghai:
Dialects from across China are disappearing, squeezed out by the relentless spread of the official language from Beijing. The local dialect of a sleepy fishing village called Shenzhen, for example, was lost inside a burgeoning Special Economic Zone in the 1980s and few people noticed.

But Shanghai is no sleepy fishing village. The jewel of post-imperial China and the "first son" under Mao's central planners, the city has been designated by party chiefs to take over from Hong Kong as the commercial and financial capital of China....

Shanghai people are proud of their urbanity, business savvy, cuisine, literature, drama and traditional opera. As the foundation stone of this heritage, Shanghainese is considered the highest example in the Wu school of languages, the most refined dialect of one of the seven main Han Chinese linguistic groups.

The problem is this flagship tongue is under a two-pronged attack - from internal immigration on the one hand, and central government policies on the other....

With internal migration controls eased, immigrants are again flooding into Shanghai from every province on the back of the economic boom. Following a recent relaxation in the city's hukou (resident registration) system, new arrivals are now free to live wherever they please.

The upshot of these developments is that native Shanghainese increasingly find themselves in a minority, surrounded by neighbors with whom they are forced to speak Putonghua.
I get kind of touchy with the whole dialect/language division. Some "dialects" of Chinese are as different as Spanish and French, for example. The language is still written the same way, but it seems to me that we need a more objective label than that.

It's fascinating to watch China go through many of the same processes western nation-states went through in their own histories. For example, even in to the 20th century the majority of French citizens did not speak the French language. Nations have used a variety of levers to build national languages, including some of the ones Beijing is using today. Nation building is hard work, as George W. Bush can tell you.

I can't say whether I see this as a bad thing or not. I'm not a linguist or anything - do we lose something when a language dies? Are languages akin to species, where extinction is forever? The one counterexample I can think of is Hebrew, which had become a dead language (in the sense that no Jews used it as a common spoken tongue) before it was resucitated by the zionist movement in the late 1800s. This might not be a useful example in the case of China, where I imagine the written language doesn't preserve the spoken differences.

Of course, like I said I'm not a linguist or anything, so take all of the preceding comments as a guy way out of his depth.


Flocons said...

I just wanted to say that this blog entry is very timely, as I'm going to China next month. I'm trying to learn a bit of the Beijing dialect to survive while I'm there.

There is a prestige about the Beijing dialect, as it's the language of the capital and thus the language of administration and business. Even people in Hong Kong (which is a stronghold of Cantonese speakers) are quickly learning Beijing-Mandarin to do business.

My family speaks a dialect of Cantonese that very few people in Canada understand. It's been frustating and confusing for me to talk to people that speak Cantonese-proper. I think that unifying the dialects is a good idea for efficiency purposes, but you will lose the heritage as a result. It's going to be a necessary evil if China really wants to do business globally.

PS: This may be the first comment on Dymaxion World that actually is meanful in anyway.

john said...

Timely repeating of someone else's news, that's what we strive for here at Dymaxion World.

And this is only the first meaningful comment of yours, Flocons.

(I assume that's what you meant, anyway.)

Flocons said...

Yes, of course that's what I meant! (Smug silence.)

Anonymous said...

There is an old joke in the field of Linguistics.

Q: "What is the difference between a language and a dialect?"

A" "A language has an army to back it up."

I suppose by that definition they are all dialects of Chinese...