Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Saturday, December 31, 2011

What is the Chinese Language?

How better to end the year than to contemplate differing visions of the Chinese language?

A friend sent me a link to an article in The Economist which may be read here. As it's a very brief article, I've copied it whole below. The questions raised will surely provoke many comments, so I'd recommend visiting the original to see how they develop.


What is the Chinese language?

Dec 13th 2011, 21:34 by R.L.G. | NEW YORK
I HAVE exercised Chinese commenters with a few posts that were seen as either simplistic or biased. So let me offer two competing visions of Chinese that help explain what the two sides disagree on. These are archetypes which few partisans may agree with every word of.  But they are the basic poles of thinking about Chinese, I think. I submit them for the good of commenters, who should debate them to shreds.

In brief, Chinese traditionalists believe

1) Chinese is one language with dialects.

2) Chinese is best written in the character-based hanzi system.

3) All Chinese read and share the same writing system, despite speaking in different ways.

Western linguists tend to respond

1) Chinese is not a language but a family; the "dialects" are not dialects but languages.

2) Hanzi-based writing is unnecessarily difficult; the characters do not represent "ideas" but "morphemes" (small and combinable units of meaning, like the morphemes of any language). Pinyin (the standard Roman system) could just as easily be used for Chinese. Puns, wordplay and etymology might be sacrificed, but ease of use would be enhanced.

3) Modern hanzi writing is basically Mandarin with the old characters in a form modified by the People's Republic. Everyone else (Cantonese speakers, say) must either write Mandarin or significantly alter the system to write their own "Chinese".

There are so many arguments packed into these two ideas that it's hard to start, much less finish, in a blog post. Since I'm (really) on holiday, I'll leave it to commenters to enlighten each other, and me on my return.


Paul said...

Hi Rick, I studied linguistics in University....but just a short note (com'on now is my holidays too!). The "linguists' approach" you mentioned made much sense in general, though the saying "Pinyin (the standard Roman system) could just as easily be used for Chinese." is definitely wrong. Chinese (in whatever dialects) is a tonal language, like Cantonese has nine tones whereas Mandarin has 4 tones, which essentially means the same pinyin can have, say for Cantonese, nine different meaning, and therefore has to be identified by one of nine markers, that makes writing and reading impossible for any practical purpose!


Rick Matz said...

I think it would be hard to learn Chinese without having been brought up with an ear for the tones.

Compass Strategist said...

Come on. ... It is as easy as doing BGZ. ..

Bernard Kwan said...

I would recommend the book : The Chinese Language : Fact and Fantasy by John Defrancis.

I definitely learned a lot about how different the northern and southern dialects are, as well as interesting facts that northern chinese and southern chinese are genetically quite different, with southern chinese more similar to the thai and vietnamese.

Rick Matz said...

Thanks for the book lead! It's now on my wish list at Amazon.