Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Who Gets To Speak "Real" Chinese?

Historically, the advent of mass communication in the form of television, newspapers, and radio tends to homogenize languages.  Regional English dialects in the United Kingdom were "normalized" by things like the BBC.  The American Mid-Atlantic Accent became the most popular accent for TV and film due primarily to market forces.  But now in China, social networking is having the reverse effect:

"This linguistic homogenisation is being enforced, however, just as a number of forces are pushing in the opposite direction. Technology is empowering regional languages, of which there are hundreds, and enhancing the centrifugal effect of migration, modernity and social change. Young people, empowered by mobile phones and computers, are changing the way they use their own language and breaking out of the straitjacket that has restricted communication for millennia. The trends in language mirror broader tensions between centralising, top-down forces trying to prevent dissent, and bottom-up trends among an increasingly empowered populace. They are adding to social fault lines that the Communist Party fears may threaten national unity. 
Linguistically, China wants to be like America—a country where language and script are unified. In reality it is like medieval Europe—a continent full of different languages, nominally united by a written lingua franca. Before the 20th century, regional Chinese literati could communicate on paper in classical Chinese, but barely in conversation, just as European scholars communicated in Latin. The fracturing of Europe, politically and religiously, led to the emergence of written regional vernaculars like English and German."
 I speak absolutely no Chinese, but apparently the Chinese government refers to Cantonese (the Chinese of Hong Kong and Guangzhou) as a "dialect" of Mandarin.  That's at very best an understatement, if not an outright howler.

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