WILD changes?

Garrett Wollman wollman@bimajority.org
Wed Jun 1 22:45:30 EDT 2011

<<On Wed, 1 Jun 2011 17:18:36 -0400 (EDT), TVNETDUDE@aol.com said:

> If you can read and write Chinese it makes no difference what  dialect you 
> speak.

That is simply not true, on two accounts.  

1) Because Han (Chinese) characters do not include a phonetic element,
modern Chinese writing includes a great deal of what could be called
"puns", where certain characters are used not for their (common)
meaning but for their (language-specific) sound, particularly when
representing names or borrowed words.  A Min or Wu speaker will not
use the same characters, since the corresponding words are not
pronounced the same.  (Of course, any PRC-educated writer will have
been learned Putonghua, but the converse is not true.)  Japanese,
which also uses Han characters (kanji) in its writing system, has not
one but two phonetic auxiliary scripts, which are used much more
frequently than the official phonetic romanization of the PRC, hanyu
pinyin, or the common phonetic script used in the ROC, bopomofo.

2) The PRC government likes to denigrate the other languages of China
by describing them as mere "dialects" of one common[1] Chinese language.
However, by modern linguistic standards, Wu is no more a "dialect" of
Putonghua than Portuguese is a dialect of Romanian.  Western linguists
working in China today tend to use the neutral term "topolect", which
avoids the government's sensitivities over the word "language" without
angering speakers of minority languages.  (There are, of course,
non-Sinitic minority languages in China, the most notable of which is
probably that of the Uighur people in Xinjiang.)

There is a similar situation in the Middle East with respect to
Arabic, where the prestige position is held by Modern Standard Arabic
but most people speak a vernacular arabic topolect.  This issue came
to some prominence in the Tunisian revolution, when then-president Ben
Ali gave a televised address for the first time in Tunisian rather
than MSA.  (The prestige position of MSA is due in part to the fact
that it is a modernized version of the classical Arabic of the Quran
-- which is considered to be perfect and unchanging -- so local
topolects are portrayed as "corruptions" of proper (Quranic) Arabic.
Nobody looks down on their local language the same way in the non-Arab
Muslim world, where the local languages are invariably not

Historically, there have been similar situations in European
languages, leading to the (sometimes violent) suppression of minority
languages like Catalan and Breton.  The PRC at least does not forbid
parents from teaching the children their own language -- but when they
go to school, they will learn Putonghua.


[1] But illusory.  The basic requirement today is that speakers of the
same "language" be mutually intelligible at a fairly high level.

[2] Most Muslims in the world speak either Indo-European (Persian,
Hindi/Urdu, Bengali) or Austronesian (Malay) languages as their mother
tonuges.  Afro-Asiatic languages, including the Semitic languages
(Arabic, Hebrew, Aramaic, and a few others), come third, IIRC.  (I'm
not sure whether Turkic ranks ahead of or behind Afro-Asiatic, but I
think it's behind.  Turkic languages are spoken in a large swath of
central Asia where country names end in "-stan"; Uighur is a Turkic

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