Phonemica: A Quest to Save China's Languages

Two linguists have developed an innovative new way to preserve Chinese languages, many of which are on the verge of going extinct.


An ethno-linguistic map of north, central, and western China (Wikimedia Commons)

Phonemica, or xiangyinyuan, is an innovative project that documents China's myriad dialects and languages. Founders Kellen Parker and Steve Hansen started the open-archive, ethnographic project in 2009. Both worry that the strong presence of the official language of mainland China, Mandarin, will speed up the disappearance of Chinese dialects.

Mr. Hansen of Phonemica knows many different languages, including Chinese, Spanish, Korean, and Latvian, which he learned while teaching in Latvia during his 20's. He personally conducts some of the Phonemica interviews, such as Ms. Qin's Beijing-dialect account of her experiences as a doctor in rural China during the 1970's. Having lived in Beijing for several years, Mr. Hansen thinks that Beijingers lack awareness of other dialects and languages in China. "Beijingers are like New Yorkers," Hansen jokes, "They think they're at the center of the world." As a result, Hansen argues, they are not that familiar with other dialects or languages of China. They often mistake accented Mandarin (Putonghua) spoken by people from all over the country as different "dialects," he notes.

Each Phonemica entry includes a story excerpted from a long dialogue. This method allows for a natural presentation of the interviewee's speech. Phonemica presents the recordings as well as ethnographic information about the interviewees on an interactive map. A story told by a Sichuanese girl about her negative impressions of Shanghai can be accessed with one click, making Phonemica's interface more accessible than most academic research on Chinese linguistics.

Phonemica could not have been possible without social media. The project encourages anyone to submit a story to the website. The stories are collected, translated and subtitled with the help of many local volunteers who have connected with Phonemica through social media. The team uses its blog to find volunteers and interviewees; currently, the team is searching for interviewees from the greater Beijing area, including parts of Hebei province. Phonemica is also fundraising for their project through the social media platform Indiegogo.

Mr. Hansen envisions that future interviewees may even include members of the Chinese diaspora who have never set foot in China. The map reflects Phonemica's interest in how Chinese is spoken beyond the mainland. Even though most entries are from residents of China's eastern coastal areas, there have been participants from as far away as Taiwan. There is no clear border on the map delineating where "China proper" ends, suggesting that one day even Chinese-speaking people from Singapore or Mongolia might have their stories documented and plotted. This presentation questions the usual understanding of "Chinese" as a language particular to a single nation-state.

Language plays a large role in politics. In Taiwan, the go-to method of determining person's political stance is to listen to their language -- do they speak Mandarin or the indigenous language, Hokkien? If they speak Mandarin, they are probably part of the Pan-Blue Coalition, which is led by the Kuomintang Nationalist Party. If they speak Hokkien, they are probably supporters of the Democratic Progressive Party's Pan-Green Coalition.

Pushing back against linguistic standardization -- a movement in which Phonemica participates -- is a cultural as well as political act. Cantonese speakers protested in 2010 against the limitations on Cantonese programs on Chinese television. Indie bands like Top Floor Circus from Shanghai and Five Folks from Haifeng, Fujian Province, also proudly sing in their local languages about their unique experiences. Social media has allowed bands to gain followings, protesters to make their voices heard, and Phonemica to connect volunteers and interviewees everywhere in a common cause -- preservation of their linguistic heritage in a rapidly changing world.