Is there "a Chinese language"?

When I met my soon-to-be-wife in 1994, I didn’t know where in China people spoke Mandarin and where they spoke Cantonese. Sixteen years later, I’m capable of communicating to a fair degree with Mandarin speakers, like my mother-in-law, but Cantonese remains totally incomprehensible. And I can only sporadically understand — and even then only with the help of knowing the context of what he’s talking about — my father-in-law, who grew up in a rural village outside Shanghai and speaks some kind of Chinese that many native Mandarin speakers can’t understand. (As an example, the English word “free” sounds like “myen fay” in Mandarin, but my father-in-law says “mee fee.” Those two words may look similar, but because so many Mandarin words sound so similar to one another, there’s actually a huge difference between “myen fay” and “mee fee.”)

And in our neighborhood, there are a fair number of Chinese families with whom we (esp. my in-laws, as they take care of our daughter during the day) occasionally chat. My in-laws have a very hard time understanding some of those families, who speak other Chinese “dialects.” Even my mother-in-law, who speaks a reasonably standard Mandarin, sometimes confuses me by mixing in words from her native Nanjing that are not part of standard Mandarin.

I thought I knew that all Chinese (aside from obvious “non-Chinese” ethnic groups, like the Tibetans and Uighurs) use the same written language and simply pronounce words differently.

But after protests broke out in Southern China several weeks ago (following rumors that Beijing was going to push Guangdong media stations to use more Mandarin and less Cantonese), The Economist wrote that the common (mis)conception of “Chinese” as a unified written language is untrue:

The writing system is not a pan-dialectal written form that ties all varieties of Chinese together, as many believe. The character 我 is pronounced wǒ in Mandarin, ngóh in Cantonese/Yue, góa in Taiwanese, ngú in Shanghainese, ǎ in Gan, and so on; it means “I” in all those languages. But this doesn’t mean written Chinese is pan-dialectal. To write Cantonese so it can properly be read out and accepted as real Cantonese requires different character order, special characters, sometimes Roman letters, and quite a bit of ingenuity, since it there is no standard way of doing so…

Meanwhile many Chinese really do believe that they speak dialects of a single thing called Chinese, which they all write the same way—even if, to use a European analogy, the Chinese language family resembles not British vs. American vs. Irish English, but something more like English vs. Frisian vs. German. And they persist in believing in their linguistic unity probably because the Chinese really do see themselves as part of a single Han people.

Posted by James on Monday, August 16, 2010