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May 10, 2013 4:43 AM   Subscribe

Phonemica is a project to record spoken stories in every one of the thousands of varieties of Chinese in order to preserve both stories and language for future generations. (via)

TV Tropes has a good primer.

"My Mother's Fur" is a short short-story about language and family.
posted by dubusadus (4 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
One of the best tricks the central government in Beijing ever pulled is convincing everyone that these are all "dialects" of a single language. They're not. Cantonese and Mandarin are about as related as Portuguese and Romanian, and about as mutually intelligible. These aren't mere dialects that are being actively destroyed, they are languages. But mostly because literacy in Chinese languages other than the official one has been suppressed for a very long time, even speakers of these non-Mandarin languages have been convinced that they're not "real" languages and aren't worth preserving. It's a damned shame, and it's sort of bittersweet to see a project like this. Thanks for posting it.
posted by 1adam12 at 5:29 AM on May 10, 2013 [7 favorites]

How are you defining literacy? Since all of these dialects and different languages are actually written fairly similarly, I don't know how much literacy would affect the language. I am pretty sure I am literate in not only modern Cantonese, but also a lot of dead dynasty languages; but, I can't speak a word in any of them. I think this has been the selling point of the standardized character based system for a couple of millennium now.

I think the largest migration of people ever in the history of the planet from many remote country areas to a few centralized urban areas might have more to do with this. I think some of the guys in power wish they were as powerful as you are making them out to be, but they haven't quite made it yet.

Finally, I don't think the government actually uses a term that distinguishes Cantonese as a dialect any more often than they use a term that distinguishes it as a language. I would honestly like to see a count made, but I feel like I see the term Yueyu just about as often as I see the term Guangdonghua being used to represent Cantonese in government sponsored projects. I don't think I have ever heard anyone say he speaks a Guangdong fangyan without his meaning he actually speaks a dialect of Cantonese; not that he speaks a speaks a dialect of Mandarin that is from Guangdong. This whole dialect vs. language argument seems to occur a lot more in English than it does in Chinese.

Apologies for any pinyin errors the machine I am using doesn't have an IME installed, so I can't put characters in right now and my pinyin abilities kind of suck.
posted by wobumingbai at 8:16 AM on May 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Cantonese and Mandarin are about as related as Portuguese and Romanian, and about as mutually intelligible.

Part of the confusion is that Chinese characters are decoupled from pronunciation. Portugese and Romanian are written phonetically like most languages using an alphabet, so it would be completely impossible to write them using the same script. It's trivial to pick up a newspaper from Taipei and read it in Cantonese pronunciation. It would sound a bit stiff and odd if you didn't switch out small amounts of the dialect-specific choices, but nearly all characters can be read in that fashion.

I learned most of my Cantonese and Mandarin from my parents at the dinner table. My parents spoke Cantonese to each other, my mother spoke Mandarin to me, and we spoke English to them. My vocabulary is curiously limited in certain ways, yet fluently expansive in others thanks to all this code-switching. I can talk about food and complaints about people all day in Cantonese, but that one time I got dim sum with a Mandarin speaker I was completely lost.

When I and many descendants of the diaspora think of Chinese, I think of Cantonese first. I think of the late 80s and early 90s Cantopop that my parents listened to, their musical tastes frozen in time. Cantonese is probably the most fiendishly difficult dialect to learn (native Mandarin speakers tell me they couldn't hack it), but it's got the best odds for survival of all of them.
posted by Hollywood Upstairs Medical College at 10:05 AM on May 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

wobumingbai, think about the lessons you may have received about the reign of Qinshihuangdi, and how he "standardized" Chinese writing and wiped out non-standard characters. Those characters he destroyed weren't simply "non-standard," they were the beginnings of divergent writing systems which grew up alongside diverging languages. Or better, think about how many words begin with a kou radical (口) when you try to transcribe spoken Cantonese 100% accurately - that's not an accident. Those words should have their own characters but they aren't present in standard Mandarin and so they have hacked together characters instead. When the central government controls literacy, they get to control when and whether new characters may be introduced, and when those are words that exist only in a "dialect" then they simply aren't allowed to enter the list.
posted by 1adam12 at 11:50 AM on May 11, 2013

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