All Chinese languages: Mutual intelligibility

Discussion in '中文+方言 (Chinese)' started by Setwale_Charm, Dec 24, 2006.

  1. An off-top from the Japanese, Chinese, Korean thread.
    Which other languages of China would be mutually comprehensible with Chinese?
  2. vince Senior Member

    Los Angeles, CA
    I assume you are talking about the Written languages, because the spoken dialects that are roughly intelligible with Standard Written Chinese are limited to those of the Mandarin (Northern Chinese) language.

    Written language:
    In today's modern era, nothing is intelligible with Chinese. In fact, Written Chinese's grammatical base was switched from Classical Chinese to Mandarin around 80 years ago, so even educated non-Mandarin speakers 100 years ago would not understand today's Written Chinese any more than a French person would understand written Spanish.

    If you go back hundreds of years the story is different since Vietnamese, Korean, and Japanese once used Chinese characters in two different stages: first, they just (like today's Chinese "dialects") wrote in the same Classical Chinese as Chinese people wrote, but pronounced each character the local way. Then they developed the use of Chinese characters for their phonetic value and began to write their own language using Chinese characters. Then they developed (or imported) their own phonetic systems of writing.
  3. I don`t know. Let us see. What are the most popular languages spoken in Chinese (referring to the number of speakers): Min, Hakka, Yue, Wu, Min, (I guess, Tibetan, Mongolian, Manchurian and Mon languages are not mutually comprehensible by definition). Which of those are closest to Mandarin Chinese?
    Where does the word Mandarin come from?
  4. vince Senior Member

    Los Angeles, CA
    If you want to get into the spoken languages:

    Tibetan is as intelligible with Mandarin as English is to Russian. Mongolian, Manchurian, and Mon are as related to Mandarin as they are to English;
    the Chinese languages you listed are about as intelligible to Mandarin as the Romance languages are to French.

    Min is a language whose dialects are as diverse as the German dialects: Min Nan (Southern Min) and Minzhong (Central Min) are further apart than Russian and Ukrainian.

    It is hard to say which Chinese languages are closer to Mandarin. There is a dialect continuum from Wu to Mandarin: the Chinese language called "Xiang" (spoken most famously by Mao Zedong) is between the two. There is a language called "Jin" that is arguably the same language as Mandarin.

    Keep in mind that many of these classifications: Min, Wu, Jin, Xiang, are foreign to the majority of Chinese speakers, who use the "dialect" system of classifying spoken Chinese: every city/county in China is assigned its own dialect rather than being grouped into one of 12-18 languages as linguists group them.
  5. gao_yixing Senior Member

    You are quite familiar to the Chinese language and its history.
    In fact, Korean has totally washed away the remains of Chinese language. Japanese language has been greatly influenced by English. Nowadays, I can only understand the name of Japanese people.
    Vietnamese is a combination of Chinese dialect and French.

    By the way, I speak Shanghai dialect(a branch of Wu). Even a kind of Chinese dialect differ a lot. In suburban Shanghai, there are more than 20 different kinds of dialects. I can't understand many of them. So I can hardly understand what Nanking or Hangchou people say, even though they are speaking Wu.
    I have three roommates in university. They are respectively from Beijing, Guangzhou and a small city in Shaanxi Province. We can't understand each other at all if we are talking in our own dialects, except the one from Beijing. Beijing dialect is the standard Mandarin.
  6. gao_yixing Senior Member

    According to Wikipedia, Wu has the most speakers. But Catonese is the most popular around the world because most of the oversea Chinese speak it. Hong Kong people speak Catonese(Yue). Taiwanese speak Min Nan and Hakka.
    But most people in China can speak Mandarin, even though they are from Sinkiang, Tibet and Inner Mongolia. No one speak Manchurian anymore. It's a dead language.
  7. What a sad fate for you, poor people:D:)
  8. gao_yixing Senior Member

    Well...Maybe China is too large.
  9. cheshire

    cheshire Senior Member

    Catholic (Cat-holic, not Catholic)
    I think the fact that Koreans are teaching less and less Chinese characters is a result of their nationalistic education. Now most communications are done without them.
  10. panjabigator

    panjabigator Senior Member

    San Francisco
    Am. English
    Manchurian is a dead language?

    And Vince, did Mao Zedong promote his dialect or the Bejing version as standard Mandarin?
  11. panjabigator

    panjabigator Senior Member

    San Francisco
    Am. English
    Are parents shifting over to Mandarin with their children as oppose to using the dialect?
  12. gao_yixing Senior Member

    Beijing dialect is the standard Mandarin, but that's not Mao's decision. It is always the standard Chinese since empire ages.
  13. gao_yixing Senior Member

    I don't think so. It depends.
  14. Lugubert Senior Member

  15. john_riemann_soong

    john_riemann_soong Senior Member

    Singapore / United States
    English, Singlish, Chinese; Singapore
    The writing system is the one of the few reasons why most non-linguists (common laymen) don't end up calling the other dialects separate languages.

    If you think about it actually, they are kind of mutually-intelligible to a degree, just like an Italian might be able to make out what a Spaniard is saying (the amount of similarity between the different distinct Romance languages ranges from 72-85%, and up to 100% when making comparisons to the continuums between them). The common ancestor is pretty recent - within this millenia or two, depending on the dialect in question (some are much older than others), just like the Romance languages have a pretty recent ancestor - Latin, compared to the greater difference between English and Latin. The Chinese dialects have roughly the same similarity.

    For example, the Romance languages (and the European languages they influenced, e.g. German, Scandinavian and English) all write using the Latin alphabet - e.g. same characters, and much of the vocabulary will be roughly the same, with some variations.

    However, just like the Romance languages might choose to pick different vocabulary elements from the ancestor, the Chinese dialect-languages will also, different idiomatic phrases, etc. and there won't be always a clear character-to-character translation. But in a property especially pertinent to Chinese - since the characters themselves don't usually undergo much variation, but might vary in syntax (or some new ones might get invented) - the orthographies of each remains at least as intelligible as English and German, if not even better. But the pronunciation will differ much more than the orthography - because the Chinese language as a whole uses each character as a morpheme - the writing system is much more stable. However, the characters do not give any phonetic information (although many of the characters do represent phonetic information, e.g. phonetic-semantic combinations - some of which no longer make sense when the pronunciations of the original characters change), hence the pronunciation would vary much more than say, the difference in pronunciation between Romanian and Portuguese.
  16. john_riemann_soong

    john_riemann_soong Senior Member

    Singapore / United States
    English, Singlish, Chinese; Singapore
    Not really ... Mandarin started emerging as the dominant dialect during the late 17th century to the early 18th century, when the Qing Dynasty consolidated their power in the north (naturally as the northern region was closer to their base of power).

    Mandarin is a fairly young dialect, compared to older ones like Cantonese. The Mandarin language as a single identity emerged during the 14th and 15th centuries, from Proto-Mandarin of the Song Dynasty (10th to 13th centuries). The era of Proto-Mandarin is actually roughly the same time period (give or take half a century) of Middle English, which too was just forming its newborn identity from the ashes of Old English, discarding the Old English declension system and importing its Romance vocabulary.

    The dominant dialects before Mandarin were the Southern dialects such as the Nanjing dialect, and they generally remained so even when the Ming Dynasty shifted the capital to Beijing in the 1400s ... however the Qing Dynasty's efforts to concentrate power in the north (since the ruling government was Manchurian and not native to the land, and therefore had to take extra steps to retain power) probably led to Mandarin's rise.

    Originally, the Imperial Court did not speak the Northern dialect - they generally spoke the higher register of Classical Chinese - just like Latin found prestige among Europe at the time (as opposed to the vernacular Romance languages). Heck, the Court often did not speak one language at all - many of the officials, coming from different parts of the country, often found it hard to comprehend each other! This was naturally perceived as a problem, and the Court started to tend towards the vernacular dialect of the Beijing area for uniformity.

    It was during the Republican era that Mandarin was declared the national language (guoyu) by picking the language which had plurality, and then standardising Mandarin. Even then, Mandarin was not the majority language, only a plurality, and it barely is a majority today (only 52% of the population of China are native speakers of Mandarin as of 2006). Some members of the government had an idea of creating a new language combining features from every dialect - for unity and solidarity - but alas, it was deemed too difficult.

    In Singapore we call it huayu (language of the Chinese [culture]), as opposed to guoyu (language of the country of China). The PRC calls it "Putonghua", or roughly "vernacular language of China", but the ROC retains the term guoyu. I have no idea what other overseas Chinese communities call it, since New England doesn't have many.
  17. vince Senior Member

    Los Angeles, CA
    They are, the shift is ongoing. Practically everyone under 50 speaks Mandarin fluently. The Chinese people I know speak to each other in Mandarin, even those who come from the same area in China. I asked one of them and he says that he only uses his "dialect" with his grandparents. In China, I think only Guangdong province (near HK) and Shanghai have the strongest rates of retention of local "dialect", but their status (Wu and Cantonese respectively) is probably similar to that of Catalan during the Franco era.

    Min Nan is also on the decline in Taiwan and Singapore, which both have or had aggressive "Mandarin-only" campaigns. However, Cantonese is relatively secure in Hong Kong, since it is still used as the everyday language and the language of the spoken media there. I believe the Min Nan and Cantonese-speaking communities in Malaysia are also okay. But these comprise only a small part of the total Chinese-language population in the world.
  18. gao_yixing Senior Member

    The TV programs in Guangdong are almost all in Catonese. But in Shanghai, nearly none of them is in Shanghai dialect.
    I think all the dialect are alive. People speak dialects in their homes.
  19. vince Senior Member

    Los Angeles, CA
    Hmm maybe it is different in Guangdong. But I heard that Shanghai dialect (of the Wu language) is one of the best preserved in China other than Cantonese.

    But I have talked to people from Jiangxi and Fujian and they say that they almost never speak their "dialect". They speak Mandarin with their family and friends. They are from Nanchang and Fuzhou respectively.
  20. gao_yixing Senior Member

    OK, maybe they are exceptions, maybe not. I have some classmates from all over the country, and all of them can speak their dialects.
    We use it in daily life. But Shanghai dialect is not allowed in TV programs except Shanghai Opera or some sitcoms.
  21. panjabigator

    panjabigator Senior Member

    San Francisco
    Am. English
    The dialect is not allowed? What is the PRC law on language...if there is any specification.
  22. john_riemann_soong

    john_riemann_soong Senior Member

    Singapore / United States
    English, Singlish, Chinese; Singapore
    Ah, I am fighting this [Flam: in one of his blogs]. The government imposes censorship laws on the dialects and Singlish and one of the goals of the SMC is "dialect replacement"; the opposition parties liberally appeal to the dialect speakers (they use it at rally speeches) so I have some hope yet.

    A ULR has been removed.
  23. vince Senior Member

    Los Angeles, CA
    john riemann soong, it would be great if you could PM me your link.

    The subject of Chinese languages: Mutual intelligibility is discussed to varying levels in the following threads:

    Writing in Chinese
    Chinese: Is Cantonese closer to Classical Chinese?
    Chinese: Its dialects
    Chinese: dialects... (What constitutes a "dialect" to the Chinese layman?)

    I'd recommend that newcomers (both speakers and non-speakers of Chinese languages) peruse these threads in order to understand both the nationalistic/traditional viewpoint and the scientific/linguistic one.
  24. So I wonder, do speakers of Cantonese understand speakers of Mandarin or is it only the educated lot who take trouble to learn the Northern dialect?
  25. john_riemann_soong

    john_riemann_soong Senior Member

    Singapore / United States
    English, Singlish, Chinese; Singapore
    I think the major concept that needs to come into play is "dialect
    continuum". Most people have a hard time accepting this, hell
    Westerners too (English speakers have fa[y]r less contrastive dialects
    and hell the regional aspects are often separated by great bodies of
    watah, and most are monolingual so pfffft to them, mate.) but it is
    the a badly needed concept.

    My mother has a rather dogmatic stance on regional features, including
    the diglossia, high-low register aspect, despite her being a rather
    literary scholar herself (from Aramaic to Classical Chinese) so there
    are some rather entrenched values there.

    It's the paradox of being all the same language yet differing at the
    basest level, all at once. I used to be overwhelmed with the idea of
    dialects differing from village to village, or hell neighbourhood to
    neighbourhood, - so much to classify, an impossibility to learn. Yet,
    each village can understand second village over, despite being
    slightly different. They are quite the same language. They are quite

    Spanish and French for example, are quite distinct languages, but to
    account for all the mini-language-dialects between them becomes
    overwhelming, if one treats them as distinct languages that
    genetically descended discretely (like quantum particles). So it becomes easier if you treat the entire thing as one superlanguage and then analyse the language of a village or city or region as a dialect, with various spheres of influences (or isoglosses) that abound for different parts of the language . For example, how the superlanguage ends up breaking up (nondiscretely) could be that it starts meeting influences in different parts of the vast region it covers (either self-generated or cross-genetic), and new features tend to be distributed areally.

    These features overlap some areas and not others, thus it's really hard to classify dialects within the major families into discrete classifications. There is a theory that Old Chinese was not tonal and it was borrowed from (a rather small minority of 4-5 million compared to the entire Sinophone population) the Hmong languages - the isogloss has simply spread over most of the Chinese superlanguage family. There perhaps is a surviving dialect of Chinese around that is not tonal - the lack of one is one of the points of the side opposing this theory - but it would be really old.

    Linguistics is a bit like quantum mechanics. The basic unit of a dialect is a village, sort of like an atom, but it's possible to split a language down to the quarks of discrete idiosyncrasy and person (all of us have our own unique idiolanguages, from the unique ways we learned our own language - we will prefer to use some vocabulary over others). But it's really hard to analyse a language group that way, so we perform wavefunction collapse on it and collapse the entire group into one language, like we collapse the myriad behaviour of discrete electrons into a wave. But there are some things that can't be explained from the perspective of a wave as a whole, nor can the features of a language, so we treat it like a group of discrete languages again.

    It's the fact that most people ignore the concept of continuum, that sometimes some unconscious bigotry surfaces when talking about relationships of one language to another. For example, the entire idea of a Gallo-Romance family, Gallo-Iberian and so forth, is very misleading.

    I think I need to find out more about say, whether the border between the Wu and Mandarin regions is continuous - I suspect though they are different language families there are curious influences that arise just like French in the north (where it meets the Germanic family). The entire Chinese superlanguage seems slightly younger than the Indo-European language family actually.
  26. vince Senior Member

    Los Angeles, CA
    Let's not bring quantum mechanics into this subject, it is complicated enough already :)

    The problem is not that there is a dialect continuum. I mean, historically, there were dialect continua in Europe (and still exists in some areas to some extent). The difference is that in the 19th century, there was a great movement of nationalism that involved standardization of each nation-state's language. Also, in the mid-20th century, World War II and its aftermath caused forced migrations of non-standard-language speakers to one or the other nation-state. This resulted in a smaller number of "dialects" (in the Chinese sense of the word) than exist in China, which has managed to stay as one nation (but with 4 political entities: HK SAR, PRC proper, Singapore, and ROC). The small number of languages only makes it easier to categorize a certain speech as a certain language. This can still be done in China, only that the boundaries of each language (Wu, Xiang, Min, Yue, Gan, etc) are less defined.

    If you read my post in the last link that I gave in my previous post, you will see that the difference is due to most Chinese laypeople's definition of a dialect: each village/city/county is assigned a dialect: Beijing has Beijing-hua, Sichuan has Sichuan-hua, Shanghai has Shanghai-hua, and Suzhou has Suzhou-hua. In this way, China has over 10000 "dialects". Therefore it is logical that they would think that the scientific belief of separate Chinese languages is absurd.

    Contrast this with the linguist/scientific view:
    China may have 10000 dialects, but each dialect is grouped into one of 12 to 17 languages: Wu, Mandarin, Xiang, Gan, Yue, Min, Hakka, etc.

    These two views lead to two very different conclusions.

    Consider Beijing-hua, Sichuan-hua, Shanghai-hua, and Suzhou-hua. According to the Chinese layperson view, these are four dialects of equal status: they are four Chinese dialects, simple as that.

    However, according to the scientific view, these four dialects constitute TWO separate languages: Beijing-hua and Sichuan-hua are dialects of the Mandarin language, while Shanghai-hua and Suzhou-hua are dialects of the Wu language. Comparing Beijing-hua and Sichuan-hua is a comparison between two dialects of the SAME language, but comparing Suzhou-hua with Beijing-hua is a comparison between two separate LANGUAGES.

    In response to the original question, here is a rough estimate of the closeness of Chinese dialects:

    Japanese & Mandarin ~ Russian & Finnish
    Tibetan & Mandarin ~ Russian & Panjabi
    Mandarin & Cantonese ~ Russian & Serbo-Croatian
    Min Nan (Taiwanese) & Minzhong (Fuzhou-hua) ~ Polish & Russian
    HK Cantonese & Toisan-hua ~ Ukrainian & Russian
    Taiwanese Mandarin & Beijing Mandarin ~ Serbian & Croatian
  27. john_riemann_soong

    john_riemann_soong Senior Member

    Singapore / United States
    English, Singlish, Chinese; Singapore
    Wait a minute, we're not offspring of China... we're not another political entity of it, no matter how much our government tries to kiss the feet of the Beijing oligarchy. :p

    Many of us actually quite resent the PRC nationals in terms of immigration and there's a sizeable Malay and Indian population too. There is Chinese hegemony (which I try to fight) but I don't like the government's attempts to enforce it.

    At most we regard China as one of those ancestral homelands, like people in the USA do for Britain. Hell yes Tan Kah Kee raised millions of dollars from Singaporeans in 1937 with his China Relief Fund (a lot of money at the time) to fight the Japanese invasion and sent it back to China as aid, but that's when most people were still immigrants and also the sentiment was aslo that of duty and obligation to one's allies, like the US to the UK and France during WWII.

    Singapore huayu has its own distinct features, notably because it developed out of the government's encouragement as well (in 1979, only 29% of the population spoke Mandarin - the rest spoke the dialects), and also with influence from the other dialects and languages, and the creole Singlish. The government then tries to counter this by hiring teachers from China, to try to drive out the local influences, because their divergence from the Beijing standard is interpreted as low-class and vernacular (but we make fun of the people with the northern accent all the time). I'm very cynical of it.

    Apparently according to the government we Singaporeans aren't native speakers of anything, because the government wants to get "native-speakers" teachers from Western nations to teach us English, even though we are native speakers of it (I don't mean Singlish!) though sometimes we are prone to syllable-timed suprasegmental features in our English, which is an influence from Chinese in general (which is syllable-timed) - I can codeswitch in and out of it by choice. Then we must have native speakers from China, because a teacher from the original homeland of a language is always better! (Wonder why we don't get English teachers from Anglia in Germany then, or teachers of IE from the Caspian steppe) I think they do this for Tamil and Malay too.
  28. john_riemann_soong

    john_riemann_soong Senior Member

    Singapore / United States
    English, Singlish, Chinese; Singapore
    It was an analogy!

    So there are 12-17 different separate continua then? They don't cross interact? (I've never been to the border regions, nor out into the villages, nor has the situation in such cases been covered for me, so I have no idea.)

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