Thursday, October 22, 2009

From Cantonese to Mandarin   posted by Razib @ 10/22/2009 07:00:00 PM

In Chinatown, Sound of the Future Is Mandarin:
He grew up playing in the narrow, crowded streets of Manhattan's Chinatown. He has lived and worked there for all his 61 years. But as Wee Wong walks the neighborhood these days, he cannot understand half the Chinese conversations he hears.

Cantonese, a dialect from southern China that has dominated the Chinatowns of North America for decades, is being rapidly swept aside by Mandarin, the national language of China and the lingua franca of most of the latest Chinese immigrants.

It's more complicated than that, as the article notes that Cantonese replaced the closely related dialect of Taishanese. Another interesting twist is that the new wave of migrants are themselves not necessarily native speakers of a Mandarin dialect as they are generally from Fujian. Rather, Standard Mandarin is a lingua franca among common people in the Chinese world now in a manner it may not have been when the earlier waves of South Chinese arrived in the United States. In Singapore and Taiwan the Chinese also derive from various regions of Fujian, but Mandarin is an official language, and the monolingualism in dialects is only common among the old.

This is just a specific case of a general dynamic; French, German and Italian all replaced numerous regional dialects, some of which still retain local vitality. Just as Taiwan's predominantly Fujianese population accepts Standard Mandarin, so Switzerland's dialect speaking population accepts Standard German as the official public face of the language (no matter that privately they may converse in Swiss German).

Though linguists and anthropologists bemoan the decline of diversity and local flavor, when it comes to communication this is probably a good thing for the individuals and the societies in which they live. Not only is language often a divisive fault line, but it serves as a barrier to the exchange of ideas and socialization. Whatever marginal cognitive benefits are accrued to individuals who learn multiple languages, on the balance uniformity of speech opens up many possibilities of coordinated action. Even the ancients knew that.

Note: Of course with the dying of a language with a large body of literature some aspect of immediate comprehension and memory of the past vanishes. When it comes to dialect traditions I obviously weight the loss of collective memory less because I tend to perceive oral cultures as encoding cross-cultural values by and large. There may be a thousand twists on the tale of the "Trickster god," but moral of the story is rather the same. In any case, when the last native speaker of Sumerian died no doubt there was a subtle shift in perceptions of the story of Gilgamesh, but I think such losses are a small cost to pay for mutual intelligibility.

Addendum: According to Peter Brown in The Rise of Western Christendom the shift from Syraic dialects to Arabic among the Christian populations of the Levant and Mesopotamia was the tipping point in terms of conversion to Islam. So from some perspectives unintelligibility and separation of language are beneficial. Consider Hasidic Jews and Amish who have long been resident in the United States but continue to speak dialects of German amongst themselves (in my experience the Amish speak English without any accent except for a somewhat quaint aspect, but I have read and heard Hasidic Jews who speak English with a very strong accent which indicates they learned the language in their later teens at the earliest).

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