2/02/2009

Narrowed My Focus?

I've finally settled on one main theme in the online discussions I've been reading that I want to focus on... especially because of it's "real-life" connection here in Shanghai. Specifically, I've narrowed down my examination of how people are expressing themselves online in China, to how people are expressing themselves in what I'd call "the Great Shanghainese Debate".

"Let's all speak Putonghua!" In the photo above, taken on the campus of ECNU this Fall, an art class project encourages university students to speak Mandarin (rather than other Chinese dialects) and also is branded with the slogans and logos of this latest round of monolingualization campaigns tied to the upcoming 2010 World Expo.
There is nothing more familiar or divisive to Canadians than struggles over prominent dialects, French being the most important in Canada. In Canada, the climax of our struggle over language rights was la charte de la langue française was seen by French speakers as a necessary step to preserve Quebecois langauge and culture. On the flipside, Anglophones looked upon the change in status of Quebec to French official language province in a country they saw as being Anglophone (incorrect as they may be) as proof of the dissent and rebelliousness of our belle provence. The issue became one wherein the preservation of the French language somehow "interfered" in the "rights" of English speakers living inside and outside Quebec vs. the devastating effects of English economic dominance on the French culture and language in Canada.

In China, the language issues are far more complex, and likewise, far less openly discussed. Here is a map from the University of Texas that gives us some notion of the size and scope of the linguistic differences in China. I would note that while Sichuan Mandarin and Beijing Mandarin are only barely intelligible to each other, "Southern dialects" like Shanghainese Wu and Hong Kong Cantonese are even further apart, with such distinctive features as more tones (Cantonese with it's ear-mind-coordination-shattering nine versus Mandarins paltry four. And since these linguistic groups could be easily misunderstood, it's important to not that this is a map of native languages. We can consider Beijing Mandarin, Zhongyuan Mandarin and Taiwanese Mandarin to form an ubiquitous lingua franca in the media landscape of spoken Chinese. Less media saturated dialects, for example Henan or Sichuan Mandarin, feature seperate pronunciations and idioms, but are more or less comprehendable to "Standard" Mandarin speakers.

My interest rests with the everyday conflicts between Mandarin as lingua franca and the local Wu dialect of Shanghainese. Not just some little ethnic language either, as we should keep in mind that Wu native speakers number in the area of 80 million, on par with native speakers of such a major world language as French. I'll follow up with examples in a similar format to my previous post on human rights.

4 comments:

Brian Barker said...

As the "International Year of Languages" comes to an end on 21st February, you may be interested in the contribution, made by the World Esperanto Association, to UNESCO's campaign for the protection of endangered languages.

The following declaration was made in favour of Esperanto, by UNESCO at its Paris HQ in December 2008. http://portal.unesco.org/culture/en/ev.php-URL_ID=38420&URL_DO=DO_PRINTPAGE&URL_SECTION=201.html

The commitment to the campaign to save endangered languages was made, by the World Esperanto Association at the United Nations' Geneva HQ in September.
http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=eR7vD9kChBA&feature=related or http://www.lernu.net

I'm a University of Victoria student said...

I really can't see how Esperanto can make a contribution to the survival of endangered languages, though I would be interested to hear an argument for it.

Besides, with almost 80 million native speakers, Wu Chinese is not likely to become extinct anytime soon.

kellen said...

I'm not sure I buy the Esperanto as World Language idea. It's 110 years on now, give or take, and hasn't really caught on but with a few people.

And, despite 80 million people, I'm pretty certain it won't take long for Wu to be blended out. You can see it happening already from one generation to the next. There's a lot of pressure, especially in the non-Shanghai Wu regions, to not sound like you're a Wu speaker. Jobs are given or denied to people based on how well they speak standard Mandarin. I know a number of families in the area where the grandparents can't speak any Mandarin, then their children speak both but with heavily accented Mandarin, and then their children can understand Wu but can speak only Mandarin. I can only imagine the l33t Wu skills of the 4th generation.

I'm trying to track this, and other things, on my blog strictly dedicated to the topic of Wu. If you're interested, and I may make the plug, it's here: http://www.bjshengr.com/wu/.

Nice blog by the way. I found it through my Google Analytics that said someone came to my Xiaoerjing blog from here. So thanks for the link. I'll put one up on my own.

I'm a University of Victoria student said...

Thanks for the plug, I already have links up to both of your blogs, which I must say I enjoy both (especially this one) immensely.

On this topic though, I have to categorically disagree (with the caveat that I can really only make a confident knowledge claim for Shanghai). There have already been a century of attempts to rid Shanghai of Shanghainese, yet baring some exceptions, the vast majority of youth speak it fluently. If it was going to "phase-out" that probably would have already happened. The thing is, they also speak Putonghua fluently, without a very strong accent. In general, the Putonghua of Shanghainese is considered to stand fairly high along the imaginary ranking system of accents in China. For the most part, Shanghainese speakers are native Putonghua speakers. If there's a conflict, it's not because they are unable to speak Mandarin, it's because they choose to speak Shanghainese within the public sphere. The degree to which Shanghainese is spoken in the workplace and how it is felt that Putonghua speakers are "shut-out" by the second language is one of the main issues I've been looking at (blog posts to come...).

And there is a false assumption in your statement: speaking dialects necessarily equals accented Putonghua. Certainly it can. But the most discriminated against for their accents are not Wu speakers or even Cantonese, but speakers of Southern Mandarin, who's accents are far less comprehensible then bilingual Wu Chinese.

I agree, Wu is on the decline, but I see a certain undercurrent of the kind of cultural conflict that could revive it's flagging fortunes (hence my tie-in to the French Canadian language law).

 
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