Here’s a new series on the Chinese Language. I’ll examine a little piece of the Chinese language every Friday and try to build a more complete picture of Chinese. Especially in the light of our large Chinese population in Vancouver, it may help to understand this large group in our city. Also, I do hear misunderstandings and misnaming of different parts of how the Chinese language works. I hope we’ll be able to clear the air and create a better understanding.
I don’t know if there is a more complicated language on Earth than the Chinese language. What people call Chinese is comprised of thousands of different dialects. These dialects can be so different, that some linguists argue that they are totally different languages on their own. However, geopolitical status and the written language stand to unify all these dialects under the one umbrella of Chinese. The written language is also a totally different complicated can of worms.
A person from the Northeast of China will likely not understand the dialect of somebody from the South Coast of China and vice-versa. Those dialects are simply worlds apart. Many of the words are the same, but the sounds may be very or completely different. Even villages miles apart will sound different from each other. Some people compare the differences in Chinese dialects to the differences between Spanish, Portuguese, and/or Italian. Not entirely sure if that’s accurate since I don’t speak any of those Romance languages.
Spain, Portugal, and Italy are entirely different nation-states, but China is one large entity. There is definitely a sense of unity amongst modern Chinese. There is a certain homogeneity in the Chinese psyche. It’s a very strong unifying force for consider Chinese as one singular language with thousands of dialects. In fact, Chinese is part of the Sino-Tibetan language family which includes Tibetan and Vietnamese. However, because of different writing systems and geopolitical differences, they are considered independent languages.
In Guangdong province in the south, for example. Guangdong province is home to Cantonese, the language from Canton, or now known officially as Guangzhou, the capital city of Guangdong province. Cantonese is also the primary language in Hong Kong and amongst most Chinese in Canada. When you go to the different counties in Guangdong province, the dialects can sound very different and be hard to understand for someone from Guangzhou. It’s more than a difference in accent; it can be a difference in diction, or word choice.
Next week, we’ll take a closer at the written language that has existed for a few thousand years in mostly the same form.