Annals of Wu

a sinotibetoburman linguistics blog

Revisiting Tianweiban discussion - general

Today I was having a conversation with a friend about placenames in Southern China. I brought up Sawndip and the occasional non-Mandarin characters that show up in placenames coming from languages like Zhuang, with 岜 bya being one of the more common ones as well as one of the few encoded in Unicode.
In our discussion I did a quick Google search to bring up some visual examples and came across an old post on Language Hat from 2007 which quotes from an AP article.
Quoting a local resident speaking to Xinhua:
The character ere described is 湴, likely pronounced bàn in MSM. The interesting thing is that the problem which the villagers were facing, and the reason anyone was writing about this at all in 2007, was that people couldn't type the character 湴 for things like legal documents. The reason? The PRC is using an outdated character encoding standard, GB 2312. Newer standards such as GB 18030 or Unicode do support the character. It's not even an issue in the style of Ma Cheng (馬馬馬馬) where even modern systems have problems, but rather just that the systems in use by the State are outdated.
I realise I'm a few years late in writing about this. I vaguely recall being aware of it when it was happening, but since it came up and took a fair amount of time from the discussion today I thought it worth revisiting.

    Languages, Dialects And Varieties discussion - general

    Very often, people ask what the difference is between a langauge and a dialect, the idea being that there is some scientificly justified line in the sand. Linguists spend all this time studying language, so clearly they would have an answer.

    The problem is that there isn't one. There simply is no scientifically objective difference between a language and a dialect on any linguistic grounds. The distinction is entirely extra-linguistic, and is instead based on sociopolitical factors. That said, an military force is not a necessary or sufficient condition, and even those who are fans of quoting Weinreich would agree that some languages lack both but still get to be called languages.

    A common follow up question is about what linguists use. If the terms are based on extralinguistic determiners, then how do linguists talk about speech varieties? One way is simply to call them varieties, since that's a term which lacks the baggage of the other two options. I know a number of people who only use this term. Alternatively, linguists use the terms language and dialect, but with the full understanding that these are sociological labels and not scientific ones and are flexible regarding their referents. Of course, sometimes they are used with some intent, an effort to bring the listener to a certain frame of thought. If I call Cantonese a language, it's possible I mean something very specific by doing so. But even then, it's extra-linguistic. It might be a matter of minority langauge rights or it might be a point being made about distance to related languages. But in any case, it's not a scientifically meaningful term with static boundaries.

    There's another common response, which is to bring up mutual intelligibility. This is also insufficient for a couple reasons. To begin with, mutual intellibility doesn't take into account dialect continua. I can provide two dialects that everyone would agree are Mandarin but which to native speakers would not be mutually intelligible. A person from rural Nantong would need to accomodate pretty significantly to be understood in Beijing, to the point of speaking a whole different variety altogether. Another problem with mutual intelligibility is that it's very difficult to test objectively. I can find a number of Beijing Mandarin speakers who have no experience with Cantonese. It will be harder to find Cantonese speakers without any exposure to Mandarin. And then finally, you cannot account for motivation when determining mutual intelligibility. The two speakers do not have the same sorts of sociolinguistic pressures to understand the other's variety, especially when one speaks something quite close to the prestige variety.

    So it's problematic as we've established. That's not to say there aren't useful solutions, so long as we can keep in mind that they're simply terms of convention and not of scientific description. The following is a quote from Furgeson & Glumperz regarding the difference between languages, dialects and varieties. It's a set of definitions I find myself often repeating for how simply and intuitively they are defined.
    A variety is any body of human speech patterns which is sufficiently homogeneous to be analyzed by available techniques of synchronic description and which has a sufficiently large repertory with broad enough semantic scope to function in all normal contexts of communication.

    A language consists of all varieties which share a single super-posed variety having substantial similarity in phonology and grammar with the included varieties of which are mutually intelligible or are connected by a series of mutually intelligible varieties.

    A dialect is any set of one or more varieties of a language which share at least sone feature or combination of features setting them apart from other varieties of the language, and which may appropriately be treated as a unit on linguistic or non-linguistic grounds.
    Simple as that. I particularly like how it takes into account dialect continua. It's inclusive enough to be fairly unobjectionable, but simple enough to not get bogged down in the details or exceptions to the definitions.
    1. Furgeson, Charles A. & Gumperz, John J., Linguistic Diversity in South Asia, International Journal of American Linguistics, 1960


    A semi-academic linguistics blog about Sinotibetan, previously focused primarily on Wú, a Sinitic language spoken in the Yangtze Delta region. Topics now include historical linguistics, documentation, language rights, sociolinguistics and learning materials, as well as acting as the dev blog for Phonemica from time to time.

    I'm a linguist based in Asia, working on documentation and historical development of Sinotibetan. In addition to academic research, I'm heavily involved in Phonemica, an organisation that promotes crowd-sourced preservation of local languages.

    I'm currently in the field, so getting in touch isn't easy. However you can try to email me at the following address and I'll respond as soon as I'm able:

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