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Old 02-21-2014, 07:31 PM
 
Location: East coast
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I heard that there is huge debate over whether or not Chinese dialects should really be called dialects, because some of them are different enough to be separate languages. Cantonese and Mandarin are said to be separate languages.

How different are they? When I imagine dialects, I typically think of variation in the same language on the level of a New Yorker speaking to a Texan or American vs. British English. I don't think there would be so much controversy over Chinese being called only a language with multiple dialects if they were so similar.
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Old 02-21-2014, 07:42 PM
 
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They're very different. These "dialects" all evolved from Old/Middle Chinese, the same way as the Romance languages evolved from Latin, so there's a similar relationship there. These Chinese "dialects" are not mutually intelligible with each other.

I know how to speak Mandarin and Min Nan, and you pretty much need to learn both. Despite that, I can hardly understand anything when someone speaks Wu.

I learned basic Spanish, and it has done wonders in making me understand a bit of Italian when I visited Italy.
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Old 02-21-2014, 08:20 PM
 
Location: East coast
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If they are not mutually intelligible, shouldn't they not be called dialects but languages then? I can't imagine calling Portuguese a dialect of Spanish or something.

Also, when people talk about Chinese as a language, do they typically mean Mandarin Chinese or typically every kind of Chinese spoken lumped together? Does this mean, people see the Cantonese and Min Nan, Wu dialects as being "dialects" of Mandarin Chinese which is the default, or they see them all dialects of one big category that is just called "Chinese"?
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Old 02-21-2014, 08:50 PM
 
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Yes, they are classified as separate languages in linguistics. The problem is that there is no exact word that corresponds exactly to "dialect" in Chinese. There is "fangyan" which basically just means something like "local" language as opposed to the "standard" language, whether it's mutually intelligible or not with the standard language is not part of its definition.

When you say "Chinese" in English, which Chinese you are referring to depends on where and the context. If you are talking to people from mainland China, Taiwan and Singapore, it almost always refer to Mandarin Chinese. If you are talking to people from Hong Kong and Macau, then most likely you are referring to Cantonese. In a lot of Chinatowns in the USA and Canada, it can also refer to Cantonese.

Chinese can also mean just all dialects in one big category, especially written Chinese. This is because Chinese writing is more unified than the spoken form. There are two standards of written Chinese in current use, simplified Chinese which is used by mainland China and Singapore, and traditional Chinese which is used by Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau. As you see, Taiwan using Mandarin and Hong Kong/Macau use the same characters, and aside from some colloquial Cantonese terms/slang, people can generally read and understand each other's newspapers. Learning simplified characters after knowing the traditional characters or vice versa is also a relatively easy process for most educated Chinese.
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Old 02-21-2014, 10:07 PM
 
Location: In the heights
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Quote:
Originally Posted by markovian process View Post
If they are not mutually intelligible, shouldn't they not be called dialects but languages then? I can't imagine calling Portuguese a dialect of Spanish or something.

Also, when people talk about Chinese as a language, do they typically mean Mandarin Chinese or typically every kind of Chinese spoken lumped together? Does this mean, people see the Cantonese and Min Nan, Wu dialects as being "dialects" of Mandarin Chinese which is the default, or they see them all dialects of one big category that is just called "Chinese"?
Well, there's the saying that "a language is a dialect with an army and a navy" and that holds pretty true for Chinese dialects as well.

When you say "people" that includes you. Basically, most people don't bother to go into the details especially if it's not their language.
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Old 02-21-2014, 10:38 PM
 
Location: Melbourne, Australia
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They're separate languages, as we define them. They're only called 'dialects' for political reasons, largely by the PRC to legitimise Mandarin as the default or 'standard' Chinese 'dialect.' Cantonese and Mandarin are as different as English and German.

Using the shared written language thing is obviously a moot point. Indonesian and English share the same alphabet yet they're as different as can be. Written and spoken languages are totally different, throughout most of history most Chinese people have been illiterate anyway.
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Old 02-22-2014, 04:25 AM
 
Location: singapore
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Hmm there is Hakka and Teochew too.... They are dialects too.
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Old 02-22-2014, 08:00 PM
 
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Originally Posted by The Postman View Post
They're separate languages, as we define them. They're only called 'dialects' for political reasons, largely by the PRC to legitimise Mandarin as the default or 'standard' Chinese 'dialect.' Cantonese and Mandarin are as different as English and German.

Using the shared written language thing is obviously a moot point. Indonesian and English share the same alphabet yet they're as different as can be. Written and spoken languages are totally different, throughout most of history most Chinese people have been illiterate anyway.
Your analogy is not good though. Cantonese people certainly understand novels written in Ming dynasty by northerners, so do Mandarin speakers and Min speakers, Wu speakers.

An American adult will never understand German if he just lives in Berlin but does not learn German formally. A Shanghainese adult will generally understand Cantonese after living in Hong Kong for a few months.
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Old 02-22-2014, 10:11 PM
 
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Originally Posted by The Postman View Post
Cantonese and Mandarin are as different as English and German.
A Mandarin speaker can generally understand several words, and even sentences, when listening to a conversation in Cantonese. It's more like the relationship of Spanish to Italian or Portuguese.

Some dialects - such as Sichuan dialect - use many different words that typically aren't in vocabulary of standard Mandarin speakers. In addition to changes in accent, the tones and grammar are often all over the place and don't follow the norm. A pain in the ass if you're a student trying to learn standard Mandarin, but not impossible. In some occasions, people have from different areas have difficulty understanding what the other is saying when speaking their local language, but not to the extent that they are completely incomprehensible. It's more than just different accents, but I wouldn't classify every region or province as having it's own dialect. Shanghainese might be the only thing I would truly consider as an official dialect on the mainland. It actually sounds like Japanese to me.
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Old 02-23-2014, 12:31 AM
 
Location: Melbourne, Australia
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Originally Posted by Bettafish View Post
Your analogy is not good though. Cantonese people certainly understand novels written in Ming dynasty by northerners, so do Mandarin speakers and Min speakers, Wu speakers.

An American adult will never understand German if he just lives in Berlin but does not learn German formally. A Shanghainese adult will generally understand Cantonese after living in Hong Kong for a few months.
Well true Chinese characters are not phonetic characters but ideologues so it's not exactly the same. In the same way, however, a Japanese person can understand some Chinese writing because the meanings roughly correspond. A Korean or Vietnamese might also understand some words of Chinese here and there because of shared vocab. In the same way, when I read something in German I can pick up bits and pieces...many words are basically the same, like mother and muther/mutter.

Is that based on anecdotal evidence? Not sure how distant Cantonese and Wu is. In the same way though i've heard a Portuguese speaker can pick up Spanish after a few months yet they're still separate language. The fact one can pick up another fast still does not mean they are mutually intelligible.
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