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Keith Tse


  • Writer's pictureKeith Tse

Chinese dialects: encounter with a girl from another region

I recently encountered a Chinese girl from another region in Hong Kong. As explained before, Hong Kong has a diglossic linguistic system in which Mandarin is the official dialect and Cantonese the local vernacular. It is not uncommon to find mainland Chinese people in Hong Kong these days, and we naturally communicate in Mandarin, the sermo communis (shared register) (I am hesitant to call Mandarin the lingua franca of China, as this would imply that it is an independent language as opposed to a dialect- more on this below). This girl whom I encountered told me that she was from Wenzhou (a city between Shanghai and Hong Kong). I told her that I was fascinated by Chinese dialects and asked her to demonstrate her dialect to me. She kindly agreed, and at first hearing I could not understand a word (!). We then sat down together and I asked her to explain what she had just said to me. She got out a pen and paper and we started making some linguistic sketches. Immediately I got what she was saying. The structure of the dialect was totally transparent to me, and I knew instantly how to understand it. As mentioned numerous times before, all Chinese dialects share the same grammatical system with minor variations (cf language families like Romance or Scandinavian where if you know one branch of the dialectal family, you naturally know all the rest (and have a huge advantage in learning them), which is not to say that you are automatically fluent in all of them but you can somehow ‘feel’ them as they all share the same grammatical logic e.g. Spanish/Italian/Portuguese/French, Swedish/Norwegian/Danish etc). When this girl explained to me what she had said, I could instantly work out what she was getting at. This is partly because Cantonese and the dialect of Wenzhou (and all Chinese dialects) share the same word order, the same constructions, the same lexicon (despite numerous dialectal and regional terms and expressions (i.e. slangs), which are often comical and humorous), the same distribution of syntactic categories etc etc etc. What impeded my comprehension of her dialect was her pronunciation, since it really did sound like nothing on earth. Chinese dialects have radically different phonologies (different tones, different phonemes, different intonation etc), which famously make them mutually unintelligible (which is why many foreigners (erroneously) label Chinese dialects ‘languages’, since they believe that mutually intelligibility is crucial in defining dialects/languages- more on this in the future), but this mutual unintelligibility is only confined to speech. Written forms of Chinese, whether standard (literary/official aka Mandarin) or regional (dialectal/informal), are perfectly intelligible throughout Chinese communities, which is why I had no problem understanding the Wenzhou dialect as soon as it was written out to me (and meticulously explained to me by a native speaker, for which I thank her). The dialectal situation in China is more complicated than people think. Mutual unintelligibility is not as black-and-white as people think, and one must not underestimate the grammatical/morphosyntactic similarities that hold universally across all Chinese dialects, despite their radically different phonologies. Looks like I shall have to bring a pen and paper with me whenever I visit China. With my stationary I should be able to get by just about anywhere in China, even if they do not speak my dialect. Chinese dialects unite!

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