Chinese Corner

Language or Dialect?5 min read

The continuum of regional Chinese speech – Kellen Parker van Dam


If internet forum discussions are any indication, there’s something of an obsession with pinning down the difference between a dialect and a language. In Chinese language circles, we’re hit with the additional complexity of the term fāngyán, translated variously as “dialect,” “variety,”  “regiolect” and “topolect.” Every new arrival to Chinese language learning wrestles with fāngyán at one point or other.

Typically, fāngyán refers to just about anything that isn’t Standard Mandarin. It’s normally used in reference to other forms of Chinese, such as Cantonese or Wu. However, membership in the Chinese language family is not required, and just about anything can be considered a fāngyán in the right context. The term itself goes back at least to the first century, when it served as the name for one of the earliest dictionaries on regional (fāng) speech (yán).

In truth, the language versus dialect debate is not one that linguists are having, at least in terms of two demonstrably related language varieties. The reason is that there is no difference, at least not one based on anything linguistic, between any two varieties in question. It is entirely sociopolitical. Whether you think Scots is a dialect of English or its own language is not based on something that can be quantified. Many academics eschew these labels in favor of the more neutral “variety.”

Map of Chinese varieties spoken in China and Taiwan. (Wikipedia)

Why can’t we pin down the point when the shift between language and dialect happens? In most cases, related speech forms exist along a continuum, often called a dialect continuum. This describes a situation where neighboring varieties are quite similar, but the difference increases the more remote any two varieties are from each other, such that on either end of the continuum, they might not be able to communicate at all, i.e. their varieties are mutually unintelligible. Dialect continua exist everywhere. Often when we see a something emerge as a “language,” it is the result of one variety somewhere on that continuum gaining status as a standard and absorbing its nearest neighbors.

If you’ve ever been in a place with a long history of using a single language — such as China or the UK — you’ve witnessed the subtle shifting of speech from one town to the next. If you’ve ever wondered why Spanish and French are similar but not the same, it’s because you’re looking at two points on an erstwhile continuum (Latin) that grew so far apart they broke away from each other.

Each of the major varieties of Chinese, such as Mandarin and Cantonese, exist with their own internal continua. A Mandarin speaker from the central inland city of Zhengzhou may have considerable trouble understanding a Mandarin speaker from Nantong, some 520 miles to the east, if both were to only speak their own local variety. Both varieties are Mandarin, and in going from Nantong to Zhengzhou the linguistic changes are gradual. Continua are eventually broken up, either through standardization of one form above others, the mixture of multiple varieties, migration, or a handful of other reasons. We cannot actually point to any single factor as distinguishing a language from a dialect. It’s a difference of degree, not kind. The terms “language” and “dialect” are a useful convention, but an entirely unscientific one.

A question that is often asked of new learners of Chinese is “Which dialect will you learn?”, Cantonese and Mandarin being the usual options. But is it appropriate to consider Cantonese a dialect of Chinese? While this is a question of politics and not science, it is important for one reason: languages have a perceived legitimacy that dialects lack.

To marginalized speakers, the difference may be of the greatest importance. Language is an important part of identity, and recognition of one’s language is a major step in the  recognition of one’s identity. Few people take interest in what are perceived as dialects of a well-established language, but by applying the “language” label to a given variety, it helps to legitimize that variety.

This is one of the criticisms of the way that minority languages have been classified throughout modern history, where a single defined group may actually speak many mutually unintelligible and otherwise unrelated varieties. Onen example of this in China is the Gaoshan nationality – one of the official 56 nationalities recognized by the government – which is actually made up of over a dozen distinct Taiwanese indigenous groups, each with their own mutually unintelligible languages and distinct customs, but who for administrative purposes are considered a single unified group. (Taiwan recognizes 16 of these as distinct ethnic groups.)

Often for the people who are actually affected by these decisions, the application of one label over another is ultimately an argument over values. States often value standards and uniformity. Minority language communities who want language status often do so for the recognition and the rights that often come with it. Both sides may have entirely reasonable motivations for their positions. Unfortunately, we do not always see the smoothest implementation of whichever policy becomes official.

Fortunately there is often a chance for change. This past December, Hakka was made an official language in Taiwan. It signalled a final step in the slow reversal of longstanding oppressive language policies in Taiwan. Prior to 1993, the language could not be broadcast over the airwaves. Recognition of Hakka as a language was an important milestone. It is easier to disregard a dialect than a language, even when the distinction is entirely subjective.

There is never one answer to a  language versus dialect debate, but the answer you choose can mean a lot. It is something to keep in mind the next time someone tells you a variety of Chinese is “just fāngyán.” ∎

Featured image via Wikipedia.