The Chinese Dialects: Phonology

Authored by: Jerry Norman

The Sino-Tibetan Languages

Print publication date:  December  2002
Online publication date:  May  2006

Print ISBN: 9780700711291
eBook ISBN: 9780203221051
Adobe ISBN: 9781135797188


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Here the term dialect is used simply in the sense of a distinct local form of speech. None of the purely local forms of Chinese has the status of a standard language. The national standard, Pǔtōnghuà, is based on the dialect of Běijīng but is by no means identical with it (Hú 1987). The August 1999 issue of the National Geographic contains a map on which it is stated that the Sinitic branch of Sino-Tibetan family ‘includes eight mutually unintelligible languages, often mistakenly called dialects’. This statement, as it stands, is highly misleading. If one takes mutual intelligibility as the criterion for defining the difference between dialect and language, then one would have to recognize not eight but hundreds of ‘languages’ in China; moreover, the eight ‘languages’ referred to in the quote are actually groups of dialects. Wú is not a language but a grouping of numerous non-mutually intelligible local forms of speech. The differences among the Wú dialects are in many cases considerable and it is hard to see how such disparate forms of speech could be considered a single language. The same is true of the other dialect groups: Mandarin, Mǐn, Hakka, Yuè, Gàn, and Xiāng. For the comparativist, Chinese is a vast dialectal complex containing hundreds of mutually unintelligible local varieties, each of which can be viewed as a distinct object for comparison. Transcending the local dialects is the national standard language, which, although officially based on the Běijīng dialect, must be recognized as a distinct entity. It is fundamentally difficult to apply the terms ‘language’ and ‘dialect’ derived as they are from a different linguistic context in Europe, in a perfectly consistent way in the case of China. In the present chapter, I will refer to the national standard language as Chinese; local forms of speech whatever their sociolinguistic status, will be referred to as dialects of a particular place. Dialects in turn are considered to belong to a small number of more or less well-defined dialect groups like Wú and Mǐn. For want of a better term, I will also refer to the totality of all forms of Chinese, ancient and modern, local and standard, as Chinese. This is admittedly awkward on occasion, but it is established usage and any attempt to remedy the situation with newly created terms would, I fear, only increase the confusion.

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