Miscellaneous Diq-dooq from Chevras HamMis-dakdekim.
"Oh no! The diqueduque geeques are here! Run for the hills!"Godol Hador, 06.29.06 2:45 pm

Languages covered so far:
•Modern Hebrew
•Tok Pisin

Monday, November 14, 2005

Another excerpt from 'The Chinese Language - Fact and Fantasy' by John DeFrancis

Note for those newly cruising in: This is further to a question by Mar Gavriel during a discussion of the Kanji used on Steg (dos iz nit der šteg)’s blog in connection with a Haiku, and the comments which were appended thereto. That entire exchange can be read here: http://boroparkpyro.blogspot.com/2005/11/back-time-solar-haiku.html.

Mar Gavriel asked “Does anyone remember the title of the book of Chinese characters than begins with a fake story about how General Tojo wanted to create a Sino-English?”

I remembered. Hence this.

Chapter Three - Idiolects, Regionalects, and Languages

[Note: I am temporarily skipping ahead to chapter three in order to clarify some of the points hinted at in the previously posted excerpt (here: http://mis-dakdek.blogspot.com/2005/11/re-chinese-language-fact-and-fantasy.html) from this book about differences between the term dialect, and the term idiolect, and also because the following passage brings up some interesting material.]

In round figures there are about a billion people who are considered to be speakers of Chinese. Each person within this huge linguistic community has his own idiolect or particular way of speaking that distinguishes him in certain details from every other speaker. STRICTLY speaking, therefore, there are about a billion idiolects in China. It is not too difficult a matter to isolate and describe a specific idiolect.
In effect just this was done in the course of developing the official norm that is basically represented by the speech of educated natives of Peking. In the 1920s Y. R. Chao, a phonetician and all-around linguist of note, as a member of a group of scholars concerned with language standardization made some phonograph recordings of his own speech as a help in fixing the norm. As he himself was only semi facetiously fond of saying, he was for a while the only speaker of the Chinese national language.

[It could be said that standard language is partly (or, largely) defined by the speech of the literate classes, rather than by dominant colloquial usages. This can at times lead to situations where the populace does not speak what is claimed to be their own national language – Turkey during the twenties comes to mind, when the educated classes spoke Osmaliça, a coine which incorporated huge numbers of Arabic and Persian borrowings, plus literary forms, while the common Turk spoke a patois that had scarce changed since their ancestors came into Asia minor, and did not understand official Turkish any better than the book-Arabic some of them memorized in medresses.

In the case of Chinese, the language used by country-folk, urbanites, and elites, even if they speak the same “regionalect”, can be so divergent that sometimes they cannot understand each other.
This is the problem that many students of Chinese run into when they try to speak the language. Textbooks seek to inculcate a civilized mode of speech, unconsciously assuming that the reader either has already or will easily absorb the rustic and street version of the language. Nor do textbooks take into account that all classes will have been exposed to fairly standard urban modes of expression through radio, television, movies, magazines and so forth, without relinquishing their own peculiarities, in consequence of which communication may not be equal in both directions between people speaking the same regionalects.

Example: I have no problem talking to ‘fatty’ behind the counter at the San Kam Po while ordering half a roast duck and a soy sauce chicken to go – but his rustic speech is harder to understand than the Hong Kong slang of the teenager behind me in line.]

Once we get beyond what might be called the Chao idiolect, which was more or less the basis of the sketch of spoken Chinese presented in the preceding chapter, or any other specific idiolect, a problem arises: How do we categorize the huge number of Chinese idiolects? Upon examination the differences among these idiolects turn out to extend over an enormously wide range. Some differences are so minor that they are barely perceptible. Others are more readily apparent but still do not depart very far from the norm. Still others are of such a degree as to raise the question whether the different forms of speech should even be grouped together.

There is no easy way to measure the degree of difference among the Chinese idiolects. A rough and ready yardstick might be to differentiate between "minor" differences defined as those not large enough to impair intelligibility and "major" differences defined as those so great that people cannot understand each other. On this basis the billion idiolects of spoken Chinese must be divided into a number of groups. Within each group thee are minor differences but between groups there are major differences of such magnitude that they produce mutual unintelligibility.


There is considerable controversy over what to call these different varieties of spoken Chinese, a matter that forms part of the global problem of the relationship between dialect and language (Haugen 1966). In English the varieties of spoken Chinese are usually referred to as "dialects". Many linguists, however, prefer to apply the term dialect only to mutually intelligible forms of speech and to designate mutually unintelligible forms as "languages". In their view, as expressed by the American descriptive linguist Leonard Bloomfield (1933:44), Chinese is not a single language but a family of languages made up of a variety of mutually unintelligible languages.

[There is a remarkable sameness of vocabulary within these “languages” because while pronunciation varies from region to region, they all read much the same literature, and “borrow” the same words from the same classical sources. It is often said that while educated people at opposite ends of the country can read each other’s correspondence, the common man in Peking would scarcely be able to figure out what his Hong King cousin wrote. But this is an oversimplification – both read newspapers which use the same journalistic prose style, both will have absorbed stock phrases and expressions drawn from classical and literary sources, both will have been educated with the much the same materials and textbooks, both will have a substantial overlap as far as their frames of reference, and, most importantly (for a Chinese), both can read each other’s restaurant menus with ease. The phonetic differences suggest a greater divergence than is actually the case.]

The criterion of intelligibility as the dividing line between "dialect" and "language" is not as clear-cut as might appear at first thought. In a situation of geographic proximity it often happens that there is a continuum of speech with only minor differences between neighboring speakers but major differences between those at the extremities. If we represent the continuum by the letters of the alphabet ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ, there is mutual intelligibility between A and B, between B and C,... between M and N, ... between X and Y, and between Y and Z, et A and Z cannot communicate with each other. This is the situation, for example, between Paris and Rome and between Peking and Shanghai.

[However, in the case of Shanghai, because of its importance as a business hub, there have always been substantial numbers of bilingualists and multilingualists, speaking all of the major and many of the minor regionalects of China. In the thirties, as the movie and record capital, it dominated the rest of China – in Mandarin.

It can be said that Mandarin has for generations been the glib show-off language of the Shanghainese, used with facility and fluency (though not necessarily as a Pekinese would speak it), often to subtly demonstrate superiority over everybody else from everywhere else, while Shanghainese itself was assumed to be the language “among ourselves” (and, indicative of a sense of inferiority perhaps, Soochow speech habits in Shanghainese were considered classy and refined, whereas unvarnished Shanghainese was not really a show-pony to trot out).

Personally, I’ve always thought that two Shanghainese in heated conversation with each other sounded like battling soda water siphons, but that’s probably because I don’t understand more than one word in five of Shanghainese. At best.]

Yet this frequently cited analogy can be quite misleading. It suggests a steady progression of differences and some sort of numerical equivalence among the groups represented by the letters A to Z. In actual fact, at some points in the progression the differences tend to be greater than others. And the number of speakers who can be placed at the two extremes of A and Z on the basis of their ability to converse with members of one or the other group far exceeds those in the intermediary groups. The number of people who can converse with speakers from Peking may be over 700 million. The number of speakers who can converse with speakers from Shanghai is about 85 million. Neither group can converse with each other, and the speakers who can serve as linguistic intermediaries between the two represent a relatively insignificant number.

[Peking Mandarin is often taken to be the standard, but that is not quite the case, as the true Peking accent is furry and slurred, given to rolled ‘R’s out the wazzoo, and contains a fair number of words which have not been taken up into the national language. It would be more accurate to say that the standard version of the language would be best understood in Peking, but attempts to be a middle ground between the divergent pronunciations and vocabularies of the entire Mandarin speaking belt.

Educated Taiwanese Mandarin is, oddly, often closer to the Peking standard than much mainland Mandarin, and anybody affecting a Pekingese sound stands as much chance of being asked if they studied in Taipei as Peking.]

More later.

PS. I apologize if my notes come across as somewhat pompous - I've not had nearly enough sleep, and in consequence my mind is a wee bit constipated.


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