On Saving China's Dying Languages

Kellen Parker, co-founder of the Phonemica project, believes preserving a language means preserving history.
phonemicabanner.jpgA map from Phonemica showing some of China's many language groups. (phonemica.net)

For a country so thoroughly associated with its national language, referred to in the West as Mandarin, China is remarkably rich in linguistic diversity. Unfortunately, the country's rapid development -- and government mandates to use Mandarin in schools and official settings -- has threatened the existence of many languages.

Earlier this month, Tea Leaf Nation profiled the Phonemica project, an effort led by two foreign-born linguists to record native speakers in each of China's surviving languages,  ensuring that their words will be understood after their passing. In this follow-up, I spoke to Kellen Parker, one of Phonemica's founders, about China's linguistic map -- and why preserving a language means preserving a history that may otherwise be forgotten.

What would you describe as the objectives of Phonemica?

Basically, we're trying to document the way Chinese people actually speak at home. We're then going in and analyzing the recordings of them speaking, eventually building up a database of linguistic features that will be able to be displayed dynamically. So, for example, you could go in and see all the different words used for "wok" in different dialects, or see variations in how Mandarin dialects pronounce ránhòu (nahou in Taiwan, zãho in Shanghai). Then all of this will be shown on dynamic maps. We're probably a year away from having this fully set up and usable. The core of the system is in place, but we only have one developer working on the whole system.

At the same that we're looking at documenting dialects, we're also attempting to do something to record oral histories of a time in Asia where there was a lot going on that people outside of the area might not be aware of. A lot of these stories are important to people in China. We want to be providing something for the general public in China, and so we're working with folklorists and oral historians at Chinese universities to this end.

We don't often think of China as a country rich in linguistic diversity, but there is a huge number of languages spoken in the country, as well as dialects. How many are there?

This is a very difficult question to answer. China has 56 official ethnic groups. Many of these individual groups self-identify as actually being multiple distinct groups with distinct languages, and other individual groups may actually have multiple languages. What many consider a single language may actually be three, which is the case for what we think of as Tibetan. Ethnologue, which is usually considered a pretty reliable source, lists 298 living languages in China's borders today.

So then there's the question of "what's a language and what's a dialect?" for which there is no real answer. The Mandarin a person from Xuzhou in Jiangsu would speak at home is pretty much unintelligible to a Beijinger. They form a continuum where people at the ends can't understand each other, but from one town to the next the degree of mutual intelligibility is pretty high, from town to town, all the way to Beijing. For Phonemica, we say that Wu and Mandarin and Cantonese are all different languages of the same language family, much like Italian and Spanish and French are grouped as Romance languages in Europe. Others might say that Cantonese and Mandarin are dialects of Chinese. Neither opinion is really wrong, because the language/dialect distinction is entirely arbitrary, and some scholars may have a broader or narrower focus in making such distinctions.

As to how prevalent the dialects are, they're ubiquitous. Every town in China has its own form of speech, and to a trained ear, the differences are pretty clear. However, since most people use Mandarin to speak to anyone not from their hometown, a person in Beijing could probably go a long time without hearing any dialects from other parts of China. The speakers are there, but they're probably not using the dialect of their hometown.

How did Mandarin emerge as the national language in the country?

Ultimately, Mandarin was the only choice that made sense. Even at the founding of the Republic of China in 1911, the Mandarin dialects were more widely spoken than those of other languages. The dialects of places like Manchuria, Sichuan Province, Yunnan Province, and Gansu Province are ultimately Mandarin dialects, thanks to different military campaigns into those regions over the past few centuries. Additionally,Mandarin was the language spoken in what was the long-standing capital of China. It just wouldn't have been reasonable to make something like Wu or Cantonese the national language, since both are limited to fairly small geographic areas.

Matt Schiavenza is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is a former global-affairs writer for the International Business Times and Atlantic senior associate editor.

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