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Keith Tse


  • Writer's pictureKeith Tse

Childhood linguist

I have rambled on before about my recollection of certain childhood episodes which have had a lasting influence on me. I have also given a brief explanation of how and when I decided to become a linguist, which was a pivotal moment in my early life. My recent work on Chinese dialectology has made me recall a particular episode in my childhood which also left a deep and sweet impression on me.

Taiwanese media is, strangely, somewhat popular in Hong Kong and China. For commercial reasons, there is a lot of coverage of Taiwanese media on the other side of the pond and Taiwanese singers are idolised to a significant degree (though perhaps not as much as they are in their native Taiwan) on the mainland where their songs and albums are often widely sold. As a result, we have a habit of watching Taiwanese channels conducted in (Taiwanese) Mandarin (and thankfully so, since listening in Taiwanese would have been impossible, or at least so without some proper training). As explained, there are striking similarities and differences between Chinese dialects, and watching TV in another dialect was (and still is) an exhilarating experience for me as a child, since I could and could not understand what was going on, if this makes sense (!). I could because all Chinese dialects share the same grammatical system with microvariations, so I could follow the linguistic logic of what was transmitted to me, but I couldn’t because the phonology and lexicon of (Taiwanese) Mandarin were so different from my native Cantonese that I could not really grasp what they were saying, despite having a strong ‘feel’ for it (I was only young then, and my Mandarin was not yet up-to-scratch). Nonetheless, I was naturally inclined to do some cognitive exercise in my head and compare what I was hearing/reading to what I knew in my native Cantonese (supplemented by the standard literary Chinese I had learnt at school, which was based on modern Mandarin), and many funny patterns immediately and constantly emerged in my young and curious mind. As discussed, the comparative-historical method comes in very useful when reconstructing cognate varieties and one can easily spot morphophonemic correspondences between Chinese dialects. There was one in particular which fascinated me more than others, and it was 樂 ‘happy’, pronounced /le/ in Mandarin and /lok/ in Cantonese. There is a regular correspondence between Cantonese /-ok/ and Mandarin /-üe/: 覺 Cantonese /gok/ ~ Mandarin /jue/, 學 Cantonese /hok/ ~ Mandarin /xue/, 殼 Cantonese /hok/ ~ Mandarin /que/, 角 Cantonese /gok/ ~ Mandarin /jue/ etc. The vocalic correspondence for 樂 is Cantonese /lok/ ~ Mandarin /yue/, which is wide off the mark and really baffled me, since I was expecting total regularity in morphophonemic correspondences (which is also the common assumption in modern morphophonological theory ever since the Neogrammarians in the 19th century, a famous quote from whom: ‘sound change is totally regular and exceptionless’). However, in my young and inquisitive mind I quickly turned to another reflex of 樂 ‘music’, which is pronounced Cantonese /ngok/ ~ Mandarin /yue/ where the correspondence is regular. This was a major inspiration for my young and feeble linguistic brain, since it made me realise that human language was both regular and irregular, which makes its underlying rules and mechanisms so fascinating (one could also mention the polyphony in Mandarin 角 /jiao/ (cf Cantonese /gok/, as above), which is actually its common pronunciation in its standard usage ‘corner’, and the phonologically regular Mandarin /jue/ is really reserved for its specialized meaning ‘acting part/role/character’). This was another one of those childhood experiences that made me the person I am today, and it was very a sweet one. I wish I could go back in time and live like a child again, but unfortunately this is not possible, since I am getting on with age and experience and I cannot possibly revert to innocence again. Feeling nostalgic, but also bittersweet. Time to crack on with my research in Chinese dialects.

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