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January 05, 2006

Comments

Kenji

Cantonese is a language and not a dialect? I hadn't heard of this before.

Abiola Lapite

I in turn am shocked that this actually comes as a revelation to you; mutual intelligibility is the measure used to differentiate languages from dialects, and Cantonese and Mandarin are less mutually intelligible than French and Italian, much less Dutch and German.

Kenji

I guess I'm thrown off by the fact that Cantonese and Mandarin have the same writing system. Is this not a factor in determining if two communication systems are languages or dialects?

bwail

Cantonese easier for Japanese speakers? Not sure about that. The nine tones of Cantonese would be more difficult than the four tones of Mandarin, so that might cancel out the "on reading" similarities. But then again, you're Nigerian? I would expect Nigerians to have a better ear for tones than native Japanese (or English).

Abiola Lapite

"Is this not a factor in determining if two communication systems are languages or dialects?"

Not if said communication system is an ideographical one. Languages are first and foremost oral entities, and for 99% of the time they've existed, no one ever wrote them down.

"Cantonese easier for Japanese speakers? Not sure about that. The nine tones of Cantonese would be more difficult than the four tones of Mandarin, so that might cancel out the "on reading" similarities."

I doubt the additional complexity introduced by having to deal with more tones would outweigh the burden of having to learn a lot more pronounciation. In any case, Japanese isn't entirely tone free - it has a two-pitch accent system, just like the Shanghainese strain of Wu,

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shanghainese_%28dialect%29

and without this pitch-accent system the sheer abundance of homonyms in Japanese would make it almost impossible for people to unambigously communicate while speaking. The difficulties posed by the two additional pitches of Cantonese compared to Mandarin are exaggerated in my view.

Kenji

" . . . and without this pitch-accent system the sheer abundance of homonyms in the language would make it almost impossible for people to unambigously communicate while speaking."

This is an interesting observation, but I'm not sure if the Japanese people's ability to deal with the abundance of homonyms has anything to do with their pitch-accent system. The Kanto (standard) dialect and Kansai dialect often flip accents on homonyms, and yet they generally do not have difficulty communicating. I believe they decipher homonyms through contextual information.

Abiola Lapite

"'m not sure if the Japanese people's ability to deal with the abundance of homonyms has anything to do with their pitch-accent system."

On the contrary, it has a great deal to do with it, and there's even an abundance of research on automatizing the process of disambiguation by using programs to listen to pitch changes.

"The Kanto (standard) dialect and Kansai dialect often flip accents on homonyms, and yet they generally do not have difficulty communicating. I believe they decipher homonyms through contextual information."

You ignore the fact that people who speak either enjoy a lifetime of being exposed to both: foreigners who learn only 標準語 certainly don't enjoy this understanding you speak of when they're first exposed to Kansai-ben. Kansai natives don't really have any choice as to whether or not they'd like to learn the Kanto variant, and the outsize prominence of Osaka dialect in the entertainment world (especially in comedy) means that at least the rudiments of the latter will be understood nationwide. I doubt you'd make much headway in understanding if you were to listen in on two older natives of northern Kyushu speaking in the first language of their youth.

Joel

Japanese regional variations in pitch accent patterns are much more complex than Kansai vs. Kanto. There are more than half a dozen major patterns, plus big "no-accent" chunks of Tohoku. One friend of mine from Tohoku says she still remains unsure of pitch accent in a lot of contexts and often gets corrected by a Tokyo friend who feels more confident about accent. And this is someone with a Ph.D. in Japanese linguistics (okay: syntax, not phonology) who taught Japanese using Jordan materials that scrupulously mark (標準語) accent patterns. I think most people rely principally on context, just as my old man does when he uses 'inkpen' or 'stickpin' to distinguish his homophonous 'pen' and 'pin'.

Abiola Lapite

I'm not claiming that context doesn't help clear up ambiguities - it clearly does even with a language like English which is supposedly* free of the complexities of pitch and tonality - but the idea that context alone would be enough to sufficiently disambiguate spoken Japanese without the use of pitch to queue one to meaning is one I don't buy: if it were true, who would so many native speakers have such difficulty understanding foreigners who are speaking otherwise perfectly grammatical Japanese?** Just because people from 東北, 近畿 or 九州 can still understand what's spoken despite variations in pitch-accent use doesn't mean context alone would have been enough to do so - context certainly wasn't enough to do the job around the start of the 明治 period, and it took many years of official propagation of 標準語 and harsh discouragement of anything else to get to a situation where everyone born in Japan can now understand (most of) what's said in NHK-style fashion.*** Your friend may have an imperfect grasp of 標準語 pitch accents, but that isn't the same as having no grasp of it whatsoever - just look at what happens when any foreign exchange student in Japan starts speaking what he/she's learnt back in school in sing-songy American style to see how far the complete absence of pitch indicators takes one.

*Few people who say this seem to acknowledge how easy it is to change an English-language phrase from a statement to a question simply by ending it on a high pitch ...

**Most such foreigners would like to think it's just sheer befuddlement at seeing a 外人 speaking Japanese, but this conceit is hardly plausible in Tokyo of all places, which is where most foreigners go.

***It's interesting to note that as late as 1945, Hirohito's radio broadcast announcing surrender was literally incomprehensible to a large portion of the listening audience, and not just because of its use of rarified terms. Radio and television have had an *immense* impact on the level of mutual comprehensibility which exists in spoken Japanese, just as it has in lots of other places like Britain or America - thanks to American entertainment's global scope I actually had an easier time understanding southern US accents than I did northern English ones even before coming to live in the US!

gene berman

With regard to your comments just previous, I once heard the statement (regarding mutual comprehensibility) that, in the U.S., the two most polar dialects were a black man from Georgia and a member of Boston's upper crust. It was said they were more mutually intelligible than a Londoner and someone from 30 miles away (location named but forgotten). This was said to me by someone over 50 years ago, so, homogenization had even then been fairly effective, given the more primitive state of mass communication of the day. One fault I'd find (with the statement) is that the Georgia man wouldn't have been the ultimate; I'd have voted for either Gullah-speakers (though that might be considered a separate language) or the dialect of the mountain people of extreme western NC and eastern TN. Their speech is so distinctively different that
several times I've been able to identify it in people whose families had lived in other parts for over a hundred years (some in eastern Texas and some in the hill country north of Austin, TX. These latter are sometimes referred to as "brush apes" by others in the locality).

With respect to the "struggle" between Mandarin and Cantonese, I can make no comment concerned with technicalities of the languages (about which I know absolutely nothing). But I'd suggest it's early to be declaring a "winner"; checking the situation after 50 years might be more valid. If I were betting money as to which will prevail, I'd be picking Cantonese or, perhaps, a blend in which Cantonese is dominant. It's a "gut" feeling, essentially, having to do with a dynamism (that I'd suspect of having some genetic bases) common to the general group, "overseas Chinese." I also think there may be something similar at work with English (both standard and American but more true of the latter than the former). In essence, I'm persuaded that there is something more elemental which accounts for dynamism in both peoples and their languages. Some might argue that it is due to industrial or commercial success or to the happy accident of having chosen a better political or economic system under which to live. To those, I'd suggest that even these appurtenances may have deeper sources. Without meaning to sound Panglossian, I'd further suggest that, because of the "monkey see, monkey do" mechanism by which people may progress substantially regardless of their position on some bell curve, whatever way those thing work out will be "for the best."

Malomas

Gene, I disagree. Mandarin is spoken by almost everyone in china while Cantonese is just one of the main "dialects"(languages) of china. It
Is the language of news and national Television in both the main laind and Taiwan.
The dynamism and color of cantonese may be more palatable but the practicality and popularity of Guoyu("National language" Used in Taiwan and other areas outside of traditional mainland territories) Putonghua(Common language used in the mainland) or Mandarin which has Government(both commie and nationalist) backing will be hard to beat.

But I don't see cantonese disappearing. I definitely would love to learn it as it has very cool or KU4 sound.

Malomas

Gene, I disagree. Mandarin is spoken by almost everyone in china while Cantonese is just one of the main "dialects"(languages) of china. It
Is the language of news and national Television in both the mainland and Taiwan.
The dynamism and color of Cantonese may be more palatable but the practicality and popularity of Guoyu("National language" Used in Taiwan and other areas outside of traditional mainland territories) Putonghua(Common language used in the mainland) or Mandarin which has Government(both commie and nationalist) backing will be hard to beat.

But I don't see cantonese disappearing. I definitely would love to learn it as it has very cool or KU sound.

Jim

Cantonese won't disappear, nor will a lot of the other regional languages. What is developing is a diglossia where people use their regional languages for popular entertainment and colloquial settings, and as cryptolects when dealing with outsiders, and then Mandarin for dealing with the wide world, or English in the case of dealing with foreigners. But Cantonese and the regional languages are also not where the lexical growth is; new terms are being borrowed in from Mandarin after they are generated there.

Not only is Cantonese a language rather than a dialect, but it is reality a cluster of languages. Toisaan and Guangzhou languages (100 miles apart)are so unintelligible that I have seen interpreters used to render speeches back and forth for audiences.

As for the "more classical sounding Cantonese"; don't fall for that Cantonese myth! Cantonese retains the stop finals, and that is the only point on which it is more conservative than other languages. In everything else it is either innovative or else just flat foreign, mostly Thai - long vs short vowel distinction, masses of common use vocab, big inventory of final particles, etc. Mandarin is more conservative when it comes to initials, or else just coincidentally retains a larger number of distinctions. And then there are the even more consonantally eroded Wu dialects around Shanghai, which still manage to retain a voiced/non-voiced distinction none of the other langugaes retain. As for tones, more tones is not more conservative but rather the opposite, and something else - Cantonese tones are pitch tones, level, where Mandarin tones are contour tones. No one will hazard a guess as to what any tones sounded like in the Tang era language(s). Botton line - Cantonese may or may not be closer to Tang dynasty Chinese, no one can say for sure, but the likelihood is that it isn't.

I agree that a lot of the simplified characters are ugly, but that is more a function of the typefont - basically any printed form of a charcter is going to be ugly. It is the hand written form that is the beautiful version. And when it comes to the beauty of a written character, that depends on balance between the strokes and their form, not the number or shape of the strokes. But anyway, almost none of the simplified forms are new and the commies didn't invent them, just license previously existing cursive variants as "official". I also agree that simplicity of the characters has nothing to do with ease of learning them. That was only an excuse. The real reason for those changes was to manufacture a break with the past and with the Confucian tradition of scholarship. But my point is that what you are calling the old style orthography was never as invariable as you may think - these simplifed forms were universally used in various sorts of documents, and a literate person had to know them. And even where the form was not "simplified" there was a lot of variation. Many words which are considered separate and different in fact have the same semantic content as words with suspiciously similar phonetic components. In other words, they are the same words written with phonetically similar characters.貲 zi4 and 資 zi1 are the most recent example I ran across.

"*Few people who say this seem to acknowledge how easy it is to change an English-language phrase from a statement to a question simply by ending it on a high pitch ...
"

Amen, and that is just the beginning. Emphasis is a morphological process in English, changing verbs to deverbative nouns but not the reverse, nouns to deverbative nouns, so you get what look like random doublets - 'to conTRACT' (draw together or shrink up) versus 'to CONtract' (draw up a CONtract)

gene berman

Malomas:

I can't argue that the "facts on the ground" point the way you indicate; I merely meant to point out that there may be other elements, no less factual, which may emerge over time and with certain changes in conditions. I don't know the extent to which Mandarin has become widespread because it's the "official" language or was the language of the educated classes but those are marks
AGAINST the likelihood of its prevalence over the long run. There are multitudinous tests of a language's fitness to serve and most of them have to do with its common utility. I can, with almost no effort whatever, speak or write in nearly perfect (American) English but the fact that I almost never do has to do, not with any desire to avoid some appearance of pretension but because I realize that more ordinary expression fits the common needs more closely and far more frequently. In that regard, I'm like almost everyone else and my expressed judgment is merely an extrapolation of that recognition. I'd offer to back my prognosis with something material but I doubt either of us will be around for the length of time necessary to a fair trial.

Jim

Gene,

Mandarin is based on the language of the north, and the speakers of that groups of dialects far outnumber those of other dialects, and always have. What we call Mandarin did develop as a creole of northern dialects among educated speakers, but it is not some artificial creation forced onto the common people. It certainly has more common utility than any of the southern languages, most of which differ from each other at least as much as they differ from Mandarin. There will never be any common langugae developing out of southern dialects or languages in any forseeable future.

Abiola Lapite

"Cantonese retains the stop finals, and that is the only point on which it is more conservative than other languages."

I can't agree - when looking at the 音読み readings of compound 漢字 in Japanese and comparing them with the native readings of the same terms in Mandarin and Cantonese, it is *very* obvious to me that there is far more agreement between the latter and the Tang-era borrowings which became fossilized in Japanese; looking beyond just readings, it is also clear that the shared vocabulary of core terms is also greater between Cantonese and Japanese, as there are many for which Mandarin has adopted entirely new characters and yet for which Cantonese and Japanese still use the old symbols. We also know from reconstructions of Tang and Song-era pronounciation (lots of tone-guide material survives from the period to do this) that Mandarin has suffered a major simplification in tonal structure that Cantonese has not, and we even know why this is so - Mandarin is like English in being the simplified version of a pre-existing local language propagated by invaders from a different language family who had an imperfect command of their adopted tongue.

Abiola Lapite

"almost none of the simplified forms are new and the commies didn't invent them, just license previously existing cursive variants as "official""

I am aware of that, but I still maintain that the Chinese government had no business giving them the stamp of exclusive official approval.

"The real reason for those changes was to manufacture a break with the past and with the Confucian tradition of scholarship."

At which they have of course brilliantly succeeded ...

"I agree that a lot of the simplified characters are ugly, but that is more a function of the typefont - basically any printed form of a charcter is going to be ugly."

This is just bollocks - I don't find the traditional orthography used in Taiwan or the mildly simplified characters in use in Japan at all ugly whether or not they're in printed form. Simplified Chinese characters are an aesthetic monstrosity, fine for use by dim-sum waiters in a hurry, but not fit to grace computer screens.

Randy McDonald

Why _are_ the simplified characters considered ugly?

Andrew

"I guess I'm thrown off by the fact that Cantonese and Mandarin have the same writing system"

Not exactly - because of differences in grammar and vocab, it's not really possible to write Cantonese sensibly using standard (Mandarin) Chinese characters. See for example

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cantonese_language

A similar thing is true for Taiwanese and, I'd assume, for other Chinese "dialects" (ie languages) as well. (20-25+% of Taiwanese morphemes are currently "unwriteable" with standard Chinese characters.)

http://www.pinyin.info/readings/mair/taiwanese.html

Re whether conservativeness of Cantonese v. Mandarin, one other consideration is that because Mandarin lost so many sounds (eg final stops as Jim said) it now has a lot more homophones than Classical Chinese, and many syllables that sound the same in Mandarin are the different in Taiwanese or Cantonese. That's partly why there are so many polysyllabic words in Mandarin where the characters all mean the same thing, eg "weixian" (dangerous) where both wei and xian mean danger - the ambiguity is too great otherwise (as exemplified by this bit of constrained writing - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lion_Eating_Poet_in_the_Stone_Den ). You also get affixes added to Mandarin words - to say 'stone' in Mandarin you say 石頭, though 石 means 'stone' on its own (頭 is, literally, 'head'), whereas in Taiwanese you could get away with just saying 石.

I think Cantonese is still strong in the UK, compared to the US. Part of this is probably that there was a large influx of Taiwanese immigrants into the US in the 50s-80s, but the corresponding influx in Britain was from Hong Kong.

Jim

"I think Cantonese is still strong in the UK, compared to the US."

It is quite strong in the US, probably stronger than the UK, for several reasons. One is that there are long-established colonies of both main varieties, rpimarily in California and Hawaii. Naturally thse people all speak Englsih in most domains, but even fiftha nd now sixth generation people use Thei particualr form of Cantonese for foods and to talk to babies. That is not a thriving langugae community, I admit, but five and six generations is a real achievment. New immigrants still use Cantonese for everything. In San Francisco it is quite possible to live and conduct all your personal affairs in nothing but Sam Yap Cantonese. This is a West Coast thing rather than American; Vancouver is another obvious example. Of course no one foregoes the opportunity to learn English, since it is the only way to get ahead.

Andrew

Oh, for sure Cantonese is strong in the US - by strong I meant "strong compared to Mandarin." I haven't noticed the trend described in the LATimes article to be happening in Britain - i.e., in Britain Mandarin is not replacing Cantonese as the dominant language of the Chinese population to the extent that it is in America.

Sebastian Holsclaw

"Few people who say this seem to acknowledge how easy it is to change an English-language phrase from a statement to a question simply by ending it on a high pitch ..."

Likewise, perfectly innocuous seeming phrases can be turned into cutting remarks with a sarcastic tone of voice.

Jim

Andrew,

That all makes perfect sense, because of who is making up the main flows of migration. In the UK it's well-off and capable people leaving HK, the same demographic as is going to vancouver. In the US the main flow is from Taiwan, often but not exclusively into the software industry, or other kinds of work that appeal to ambitious people. What you hear is Taiwan Mandarin rather than norhtern accents, but you do hear northerners often enough. Bonus - they expect and get a high grade of restaurant - winners all around!.

Tom

Here's an excellent research that Rutgers did explaining the relationship between Korean, Mandarin, and Cantonese.

It supports the fact that Cantonese may be closer in origin to classical Chinese when compared with Mandarin.

http://www.scils.rutgers.edu/~weyang/ejournal/volume03/simmkang/simmkang.htm

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