From Cantonese to Mandarin

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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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  1. Thanks for this article on Chinese languages. It has been difficult for people, throughout history to accept a governments force to use a different language, and yes, as a consequence, many languages have, well, become extinct. Modern China, or the recent idea of a Greater China, is a good example of how a nation, which has recently come together, as a confederation, chooses to become, one people, through the acceptance of one language. Britain, United States, France, Germany, Russia, in fact, all large modern nations, have at some time, implemented the same pressure on the people, as a means of creating communication easy throughout a population, which has chosen to call themselves, a same name, such, as being a United States – American, or being French, or being Swiss, or being British. 
    In China’s case, judging from recent publications, in the general media, in defense of “Mandarin”, it has been so interesting seeing Chinese scholars finally admit, that Mandarin, is a NEW LANGUAGE, created as a national language for China. The truth is that, due to the many languages spoken in pre-modern China, the case of there being an “OLD CHINA” was very weak. Even Mao Tse Tung and Deng Xiao Ping, did not speak Mandarin. In fact, they both spoke Old Xiang (pre-modern-Hunanese), which meant that when Mao and Deng gave a speech in the Great Hall of the People, the majority of officials, only understood what was being said, by reading a transcript of the speech, or by having a translator whisper in their ears. 
    The fact is that at every moment in history, modernity rules, and the people of any nation, have the ability to join in, or loose out.

  2. the case of there being an “OLD CHINA” was very weak.  
    i would disagree with this. what i would say is that old china consisted to a great extent of literate males bound by a common culture. i.e., “the mandarins.” the roman empire was bound the same phenomenon, literate men in a world of ubiquitous functional and prevalent absolute illiteracy who would share common allusions at dinner parties drawn from shared educational background. and so forth. 
    the modern nation-state of mass literacy and collective consciousness, the destruction of the villages and the expansion of elite networks to the point where they blot out local political ties, is qualitatively different from the above. but i do not think we can say because the sense of nationality in the past was qualitatively different that we should deny it the term itself. rather, differences must be acknowledged and kept in mind when we shift across time in our discussions. 
    the universal world of islam which ibn battuta experienced was only accessible to him because of his status as a literate elite muslim male. but for a man of his station that common identity did exist.

  3. Mark Houston said: “as a means of creating communication easy throughout a population” 
    I think other motives were prevalent in the U.S. For example, they wanted to prevent balkanization and, in particular, stamp out German sympathies. This was largely carried out by compulsory public schooling, first, and then mass media later, I believe.

  4. “Amish speak English without any accent”: that’s an impossibility. I take it that you mean that they speak in an accent like your own?

  5. latin was the lingua franca of Europe before the Reformation, and remained so at least for “classically educated” persons up to the 20th century. I had a German professor who had gone through the German academic system during the 30s, and he learned Latin. Greek also, I think. The Roman Catholic clergy communicated in Latin during the Vatican Council of the 1960s, but I don’t know if they still do. 
    Both Muslims and Christians had a common language if they were educated.

  6. Razib, have you written anything on the Fujianese? They seem to be the dominant group of overseas Chinese in almost every country (Taiwan, Singapore, Indonesia, the Phillipense, increasingly the USA via Taiwan or directly from China). I wonder if there is something in their culture that makes them more open to emigrating. 
    It’s also interesting that the proto-Austronesians originated in the same region, before colonizing Taiwan and expanding across the Pacific.

  7. I just wanted to note that the situation in Singapore is not comparable because there are and were strong measures from the state actively suppressing the use of non-Mandarin Chinese languages. Dialects were outright banned from public radio, and still remained banned. Schoolchildren of Chinese ethnicity were forced to learn Mandarin. The government embarked on a not-so-subtle propaganda campaign to instill the perception, now an entrenched prejudice, that people whose main language was a non-Mandarin Chinese dialect are lower class, uneducated, and uncouth. 
    The rise of Mandarin among immigrant Chinese in the US isn’t backed by institutional measures that are anywhere as strong.

  8. Human society has been evolving just like GGS of Jared Diamond. Different nations of Han-speaking people were conquered and unified 2000 year ago by one nation which likes to make terracotta warriors. Hanzi or kanji (chinese characters)was standardized. Only country of yue (Canton) was not conqued and not brought into this empire because Cantonese were not considered as Han people back then by Qin congerors. Canton nation was able to keep their language and writing for another 500 (or 1000) years until Tang dyansty. Cantonese characters newspaper is still visible in Hong Kong. Cantonese characters share similarity with Han characters, but quite different, even more different than Japanese Kanji comparing to Hanzi.

  9. . This was largely carried out by compulsory public schooling, first, and then mass media later, I believe. 
    the catholic school system also got involved. world war 1 sealed the victory of the pro-english irish hierarchy against the german american churches. 
    Razib, have you written anything on the Fujianese? They seem to be the dominant group of overseas Chinese in almost every country (Taiwan, Singapore, Indonesia, the Phillipense, increasingly the USA via Taiwan or directly from China). I wonder if there is something in their culture that makes them more open to emigrating. 
    an element of geographic determinism and historical contingency helps to understand i think. look at fujian. faces to the ocean. also far enough from the centers of power, or isolated enough, that even when there were imperial bans on ocean-going trade they regularly evaded or defied them, sometimes with impunity.

  10. I admit that official langugage is a means for easy communication through a population,but it doesn’t mean that dialects should be abandoned. 
    Like me,I am a student in Guangzhou.I speak cantonese,mandarin and English.My younger brother is not the same as me.His first language is Cantonese.Before he can speak Cantonese well,he was taught mandarine and English.Now he confused all the three languages’ pronunciations.It is terrible to hear him speak. 
    People learn second language based on their first langugage.When they learn a new language,the first think in their first language and then translate it.Later when they are more familiar with the second language,they will think in its way.So,like my brother,he didn’t get the basic language and he fail to get the hang of all three ones. 
    Besides,to some extent,language is a political tool.Dominators spread their language as the official language.If President Hu speaks Cantonese,there will be a different situation.However,language is a kind of culture rather than just a tool.When the particular speakers have gone and the new generation cannot speak it,this language has been dead,and there’s nothing you can do to get it back at that time.Like Cantonese,you cannot record it in documents,books or any soundtrack,because language is only alive with the speakers.The mutual trend for this world is democracy but not centralism.Freedom for individuals is encouraged.So variety is also encouraged.The trend for communication should be various languages rather than “official language”.Otherwise,how can we come up with the same language in this gobalized world,regardless of all the differences?Being the same is not the best solution,just look in 1984.We can speak the official language for social communication,but we also have the rights to keep our own language.There is a ban,there is not always a follower,there will be a fighter. 
    Once the language is gone,there’s nothing we can do to save it.

  11. razib, the idea of a newly created Han identity is nothing but a false illusion created by Western “Sinologist” Orientalists, who while admiring Chinese (Huaxia) civilization, also see it as a threat to their personal Euro-centered egos. I’d apologize for being so condescending, except for the fact that what Mark Houston said has been so oft-served up as some Western Sinologist wisdom, as stale as 10,000-year old fortune cookies. The fact is that the common ethnic identity was formed before linguistic intelligibility issues. No modern governments tried to convince different ethnic groups that they were the same “Han”. Referring back to a past discussion, “Tang” and “Han” are just different dynasties of the same Huaxia civilization. Southerners like to use “Tang” because that’s when the South was colonized. Southerners were Tang people in relation to aborigines.

  12. Shnugi, the Fujianese, or more precisely the Minnan (Southern Min) group of Fujian have an excellent seafaring tradition, and thus they make up the majority of overseas Han communities. 
    They are poorly known in the English-speaking world, but in fact Minnan (and all Min speech forms) are farther away from both Mandarin and Cantonese in terms of linguistic phylogeny.

  13. AG, Cantonese language and identity came about way later than what you said. Cantonese seems to come about from a sudden wave of migration into the Pearl Delta from a northern Guangdong village in the 12th Century. In the Pearl Delta, they experienced a demographic explosion, which saw them replacing (linguistically) and assimilating older “Han” layers ?possibly Min) and Tai-Kadai and Hmong-Mien people. 
    As for Canontese characters, we are referring to certain words which only exist in Cantonese, not that the whole script is a different creature from Kanzi. Mandarin has its own unique characters. 
    Most of them were invented in modern times, while some were vernacular forms that were invented as the literary form became further and further away from actual speech.

  14. razib, I would disagree that mutual intelligibility is always a good thing. It does reduce diversity of culture. Heterogeneity was an essential ingredient in creativity in America, in Renaissance Europe and the following eras of Western and world civilization. The history the Mediterranean world was so creative because of an interaction of so many civilizations. In fact Western civilization was so robustly creative because it inherited many different layers, from Summer and the Egyptians to Rome. Most of what China has to offer as a civilization were created during the Spring and Autumn/Warring States period. The same can be said for Greece. If it were just one state instead of many competing city-states, I doubt we can refer back to them as the fathers of Western Civilization. In the New World the Meso-American phenomenon is no different. And this is so perhaps even in South Asian civilization.  
    If we McDonaldize the world with people all speaking English, or Mandarin, or Hindi, we will get stagnancy, like much of America in-between the two coasts.

  15. The shift to Mandarin in Taiwan was pushed by brutal imposition from the KMT during martial law starting from ~1949. Given the forbidden nature of Taiwanese (southern Min, Hokkien, etc. blah blah) under the police state of the KMT, there was hardly any alternative unless you were speaking privately. Of course, now given that everyone was educated in Taiwanese and the economic advantage of speaking the language of the rising giant China, the impetus is too great to avoid adopting Mandarin permanently. However, without imposition of Mandarin by state power (which was met with great opposition), I seriously doubt Taiwan would’ve just spontaneously adopted Mandarin. 
    I think there are a lot of parallels with Catalan, actually.

  16. Thanks for your interesting post “ren”. My take on Chinese history is of course personal since my words represent my own experience living many decades with the Cantonese people in Hong Kong. I have some interesting media articles, published by both Hong Kong and Taiwanese scholars, which have a very similar idea of Chinese history, to what both you and I have pointed out. But of course, these reports present more official knowledge, from the mouths of Chinese people. I wonder if you could comment.  
    May 6, 2001 
    Tracing Taiwanese bloodlines  
    by Tsai Ting-i  
    Taiwanese have long faced a crisis of identity. The people who call this island-nation their home have been ruled by a wide range of foreign governments. Trying to shed light on this complex issue, a blood geneticist at Mackay Memorial Hospital recently released a report on the origins of the Taiwanese people which shows that Taiwanese and Hakka bloodlines can be traced back to the Yueh ethnic group, and not northern China as has long been assumed.`Taipei Times’ reporter Tsai Ting-I spoke with Dr Lin Ma-li yesterday about the implications of her research  
    Taipei Times: How did you get involved in your current research.  
    Lin Ma-li (???): I originally spent 10 years studying the origins of native Taiwanese [ie, Aboriginals], but I discovered that Taiwanese were not very interested in this type of research, despite the attention international research institutes have paid to the genetic purity of Taiwan’s Aboriginals. After publishing my research on the Aboriginals I received many e-mails from Taiwanese who were interested in learning more about their origins, but refused to consider themselves Han (an ethnic group from northern China). Since I had already studied native Taiwanese I decided to switch my research focus to the origins of Minnan and Hakka people [descendants of early settlers from the southeast coast of China]. I didn’t expect that the release of the research would attract so much attention, because very few people in Taiwan paid attention to my native Taiwanese study when it was published.  
    TT: Isn’t the attention your research has received due in part to the fact that it challenges Han centralism and gets caught up in the political debate over unification with China?  
    Lin: Yes. I did think about the controversy my findings could cause a long time ago. But two prominent anthropological ethnologists had already pointed to the conclusions that my genetic research has proven, even before the issue of unification and independence existed. Lin Hui-Shiang’s (???) The Ethnology of China published in 1937, and W Meacham’s Origins and development of the Yueh coastal Neolithic: A microcosm of cultural change on the mainland of East Asia, released in 1981, both point to similar conclusions. A paragraph in Lin’s book reads: “If the Fujianese insist that they are pure-bred Hans, then they will be deceiving themselves and showing their foolishness.” The book was published in 1937. At that time there was no controversy over unification or independence.  
    TT: How would you like Taiwanese to interpret your research?  
    Lin: Taiwanese should look at themselves as native Min-Yueh (??), rather than Han from the northern part of China. I don’t know to what extent the blood of Min-Yueh and Han people have become mixed, but, according to historical explanations published in China, Han from the north relocated to the south during the Chin Dynasty (??), but later moved back north. I believe in history, but I can’t shed any light on the question of mixed blood from my material. What I can say is that the genes of Taiwanese are different from those of the northern Han.  
    TT: Many are already looking at your research from a political standpoint. Do you think your research is political in nature?  
    Lin: I think that everyone should understand their origins. I don’t think it’s right not to know one’s origins. I am just trying to trace the origin of native Taiwanese. I don’t understand why African- Americans can go to Africa to trace their origins, but Taiwanese can’t say, “We are ancient Yueh.” 
    The study is simply about understanding origins. I don’t know anything about politics. I don’t belong to any political party. I just try to do what I should to help people learn where they are from. It’s not my business if anyone puts a political spin on my research. I am looking for a way to discuss the search for one’s origins.  
    I don’t want anybody who has a political agenda to destroy the research. That’s why I insist on leaving politics to politicians.

  17. Just a typo correction: 
    “given that everyone was educated in Taiwanese” 
    should be 
    “given that everyone was educated in Mandarin”

  18. Mark, thanx for posting a 10-year old political article. What are you really contributing here in all your posts every time something about the Chinese gets posted by razib? Do you ever ask yourself that? I see the same White guys (who live in China, Taiwan, etc.) writing the same type of posts in all the China forums. What do you really get out of it?