Massive Update of A Reworking of Chinese Language Classification

My Internet enemies (you know who you are) love to rip me to pieces over this stuff, but I suspect that is because they operate under the cover of anonymity plus the general loud-mouthed jerk “troll culture” of the Internet combines to provides a Linguisticus Sociopathicus that is seldom found in the hallowed halls of reserved academe.

The funny this is, if this Chinese work is so horrible, why has it earned praise from some of the world’s top Sinologists, who in fact actually assisted me with the project? Perhaps they should answer that. If I “know less about Linguistics than a Linguistics 10 student” then why do I sit on the review board of a peer-reviewed linguistics academic journal? Why did an 80 page paper of mine that will soon be published in a book make through two peer reviews and a dozen editors, including some of the world’s top Turkologists?

The funny thing is that I get along pretty well with other linguists outside of the Internet. We work together calmly, chat about this, that and the other, share papers and gather information from each other, all the things that academics do. I even get addressed as Dear Colleague. And then on the Internet, suddenly I’m so stupid I don’t know what a verb is. Whatever.

Anyway, a huge project of mine, A Reworking of Chinese Language Classification, has received a massive update. It underwent a ton of fixes, a lot of dead links were removed, and many matters were cleared up or explained better. Also the language count jumped by 200 from ~360 to 573. Now some of these may not be full languages and I may be exaggerating but I believe that using the 90% intelligibility criterion, there are a good 2,000 separate languages within Sinitic alone.

We simply cannot carve them out because the Chinese government will go crazy, and no Sinologist wants to make the Chinese government mad. The Chinese government lies and says there is one Chinese language with 3,000+ dialects in it, including such massive lects as Cantonese, Hakka, Min, Hui, Wu, Peng, Gan and Ji? Not to mention that Mandarin itself is of course not a single language but is actually a collection of scores or more languages inside of itself.

The project involves a brief description in English of the Chinese lects, stating such things as names, where they are spoken, the number of speakers, classification, degree of endangerment, linguistic history and development, classification issues, mutual intelligibility issues, dialects within, membership in language groups, the language/dialect question, anthropological history, sociolinguistic issues historical and modern, future trends, controversies, and sometimes more arcane linguistic data.

I am not trying to brag here and I am not real familiar with the literature, but my account of Chinese dialects is the most thorough such account I have ever run across so far in English. Now there may be better publications out there, but I am not aware of them. Further, most do not seem to have tackled the dialect vs. language problem.

Almost all of the good material on this stuff is in Chinese, and I do not read Chinese, so this caused massive problems, but I seem to be able to deal with them ok, as a lot of the research that I referenced was in Chinese and I am able to sort of make my way through it to get the gist of it despite the language barrier. I have also come up with a few native speaker informants who have given me excellent information on their particular lects. For instance, I recently ran into a speaker of something called Cambodian Teochew (I had no idea such a thing existed) who told me that the four SE Asian Teochew lects, Malay Teochew, Thai Teochew, Cambodian Teochew and Vietnamese Teochew, were not mutually intelligible. That is, there are four separate languages within Overseas Teochew alone! Unbelievable.


Filed under Asia, Cantonese, China, Chinese language, Comparitive, Dialectology, Government, Language Classification, Language Families, Linguistics, Mandarin, Regional, Sinitic, Sino-Tibetan, Sociolinguistics

6 responses to “Massive Update of A Reworking of Chinese Language Classification

  1. Pingback: Linguistic “Science”: Let’s Get the Scientists out of Science and Let the Politicians Do Science Instead | Beyond Highbrow - Robert Lindsay

  2. James Schipper

    Dear Robert

    I’m of course not classified to pass judgement on the number of languages spoken in China, but isn’t everybody whose mother tongue isn’t Mandarin nowadays bilingual? After all, Mandarin is the language of instruction, administration and the media. All Chinese people today go to school, have access to the media and must deal with the government sometimes. No doubt, there are areas with diglossia in China, but there can’t be any regions left where people don’t know any Mandarin.

    Regards. James

    • A LOT of the older people only know Mandarin. A LOT. It creates a lot of problems.

      I was on a forum and some English teacher was living in Liuyang. He said there were four separate Xiang lects spoke in Liuyang City in the north, south, east and west in particular, and none of them could understand each other. In the time he was there, a 5th language somehow got created that out of the other four so that the other four could understand each other, and now they all used that for talking to different parts of the city. In the time he was there, he eventually learned the new Standard Liuyang and in addition he learned North and East Liuyang. But he said in the whole time he was there, he could never understand a word of South and West Liuyang!

      I was on a forum and some English teacher was living in Changsha. He went some get-together at a Chinese friend’s house and no one could understand each other because they were all from different parts of Changsha City!

      So does China have a language problem? Yeah, I would say it does.

  3. Ed

    “Almost all of the good material on this stuff is in Chinese, ”

    OK, but now you are having me convinced that “Chinese” doesn’t actually exist.

    Or its the equivalent of taking about a language called “Romance” which of course has various dialects such as French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian etc.

    • Nope! It doesn’t matter if there is one, 14, 573 or 2,000 spoken Chinese languages because they there is a single written language with characters for all of Chinese! So there is really one written language and a multiplicity of oral languages in the case of Chinese. Some of the other major languages of course have developed their own romanizations, but most Chinese people who went to school at least know how to write character-based Chinese.

      My father said when he was in Peking in 1946 after the war, a lot of the rickshaw drivers could not understand each other because they spoke different Chinese lects. So they would try to talk to each other, and if they could not understand each other, they would get out pieces of paper and write what they were trying to say on the paper, and then they could communicate.

      • Ed

        With most non-alphabetic scripts, if two languages share the same script, you don’t need to speak the other language to read it since how the words are pronounced has nothing to do with how they are written. This is in fact a big advantage of having such a script, though there are other disadvantages.

        While the Latin script is obviously alphabetic, people continued to write in Latin during the Middle Ages long after different regions started pronouncing the words differently. Once people started writing the words they actually spoke, the Romance languages were born. Presumably if the Romans had adopted a non-alphabetic script, say based on hieroglyphics, Romance language speakers would still be using it to this day and they would all be considered to be Latin speakers.

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