Academic journal article Quarterly Journal of Chinese Studies

Chinese Dialects/Dialects of Chinese: Lack of Standard English Terminology in Chinese Linguistics 1

Academic journal article Quarterly Journal of Chinese Studies

Chinese Dialects/Dialects of Chinese: Lack of Standard English Terminology in Chinese Linguistics 1

Article excerpt

(ProQuest: ... denotes non-USASCII text omitted.)

INTRODUCTION

«Terminology does not matter that much, » a well-known scholar of Chinese told me once, «as long as everybody understands what the other means. It is just a question of agreement on the meaning of some words by a group of people. », and I am very grateful to the person who reminded me of the basis upon which words are defined. I apologise, though, for having to admit that Chinese linguistics does not enjoy so much of an agreement on the meaning of words used by linguists. Terminology does matter, especially when misuse of words may lead non-specialists (and specialists alike, albeit to a different extent) to misunderstanding. I am also firmly convinced that if a scholar calls this A, and I call it B, and some other calls it C, then we are not in the position of achieving any scientific truth: as long as one needs to translate A, B, or C in some other language to fully understand what the other means, no comparison of results can be thoroughly done.2

The damages of a wrong terminology can be seen in what many students and scholars outside China think of the Chinese language, which again can be seen in what they are forced to learn from their books. One of the most recent course in Modern Mandarin Chinese published by the prestigious Routledge (i.e. Ross, He, Chen, & Meng, 2013), claims in its foreword what follows:

This course is a two-year introduction to Mandarin Chinese, the most widely spoken "dialect" in the Chinese family of languages. Other major dialects of Chinese include the Yue dialect (e.g. Cantonese), Southern Min (e.g. Taiwanese), and the Wu dialect (e.g. Shanghainese). Although they are referred to as "dialects" in Chinese, Mandarin, Cantonese, Taiwanese, and Shanghainese are as distinct from each other as Spanish is from French. // Mandarin is the national dialect in the Republic of China (Taiwan). It is also one of the official languages of Singapore. Mandarin has a number of different names in Chinese. In mainland China it is referred to as Putonghua (the common language). In Taiwan it is referred to as Guoyu (the national language).

I chose to quote this long excerpt from the book to show what are the most common beliefs that students -and people in general- actually have with regards to the languages spoken in China. By reading the excerpt, a student (as well as a linguist of languages other than Chinese) draws the following conclusions:

a) Modern Mandarin Chinese (after which the Routledge Course is titled) is the same thing as Mandarin Chinese, as one can infer by reading the first line of the passage;

b) Mandarin Chinese is a dialect belonging to the Chinese family of languages. But it has to be a very special dialect, as the authors decided to put it into inverted commas (i.e. "dialect"). Also, this "dialect", as the authors say, is the standard "dialect" of a whole nation (!);

c) Chinese is also the name of a family of languages;

d) Chinese has many other dialects besides Modern Mandarin Chinese, namely the Yue dialect, the Southern Min, and the Wu dialect;

e) These dialects "contain" other dialects such as Cantonese, Taiwanese and Shanghainese, but the authors fail to give even the smallest detail about this kind of kinship (Ross et al. (2013) say: "Other major dialects of Chinese include the Yue dialect (e.g. Cantonese), Southern Min (e.g. Taiwanese), and the Wu dialect (e.g. Shanghainese).".).

f) These dialects are dialects of the same language, that is to say, varieties of the same language, but surprisingly enough these languages are not mutually intelligible, as they are as distinct from each other as Spanish is from French (Ross et al. (2013) say: "Although they are referred to as "dialects" in Chinese, Mandarin, Cantonese, Taiwanese, and Shanghainese are as distinct from each other as Spanish is from French.").

g) Mandarin Chinese is spoken in many places different other than Mainland China, for instance in Taiwan, Singapore, etc. …

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