The Economist: What is the Chinese Language?
Ten pages of comments. Struck a nerve.
he2xu4December 20, 2011, 04:22 PM
It asks: Is Chinese a language with dialects or a family of languages?
OK, OK, I'll stick my head above the parapet. Cantonese and Mandarin are about as much the same "language" as Portuguese and Italian are the same. We refer to a large and disparate group of European languages as "Romance languages" so we could call Cantonese and Mandarin "Chinese Languages." Calling them dialects makes them seem more similar than they are, since the different "dialects" of Chinese are often mutually unintelligible. Have a listen to the recent Beijing Standard Time shows on this topic for some sound samples.
My impression is that Cantonese and Mandarin are more different than most Romance Languages are from each other. Cantonese has a number of sounds that Mandarin does not, and words for such basic things as numbers sound quite different to me. However, I don't know Cantonese. I have just learned to recognize it, when looking for movies that are in Mandarin. So, my impression might be wrong. Probably, calling them both Chinese has more to do with geography and history, than being mutually intelligible. Even if they are as different as, say, English and Russian, I think they are both still Chinese.
bodaweiDecember 21, 2011, 07:23 AM
He2xu4 - what exactly struck a nerve?
(Before you answer, does that mean that it irritated you in an unpleasant way? Or do you mean that it 'struck a chord' - you found reading the comments interesting?)
This question of language versus dialects has been discussed quite a lot here. The bloggers list of views of 'Western lingusts' I think might attract criticism from linguists because point 2 is so patently wrong.
he2xu4January 01, 2012, 09:53 PM
I created this post almost two weeks ago and the page is still at the top of the most commented and recommended list in The Economist. The comments are an interesting read. Yeah, there are crackpot and silly posts, but muddle through them and you'll find many interesting ideas and opinions. And now it's at 85+ pages of comments.
FWIW, the Mandarin/Cantonese discussion gets thrown around here every once in awhile as well. It hasn't been thrown around much recently prior to your most recent post. Cpod at one point was planning a few Cantonese lessons, but it doesn't seem the current planning is around providing lessons anytime soon.