Language, Politics

Via Language Hat, a New York Times article by Howard French on the complex linguistic situation in China.

For China, the consequences of this linguistic fragmentation are immense. Although no one in government says that local languages should be eliminated, there is a growing awareness that the country’s national construction cannot be considered complete until all Chinese can speak a common language, which remains a distant goal.

French highlights the particular diversity of Fujian province 福建, from where most Taiwanese are from:

Even by the standards of China’s complicated language matrix, Fujian Province stands out for its richness, a dense thicket of tongues laid down by waves of migration over time from central China.

We have an expression, that if you drive five miles in Fujian the culture changes, and if you drive 10 miles, the language does,” said Zhang Zhenxing, a linguist from Fujian at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing. In recent years, because of economic growth things have been getting better, but there are still an extraordinary number of dialects in Fujian.”

One of the things this reminded me of is how in early 19th century Taiwan, it was not uncommon to be killed over the differences between the two major dialects of Hoklo 福佬話 spoken in Taiwan. One was from Zhangzhou 漳州 and the other from Quanzhou 泉州, both in Fujian. There were various shibboleths which were used to test where people were from, the wrong answer resulting in death. However, over time, these differences eroded. (See my thesis for a more extended discussion of the reasons behind this decline.)

The opposite has happened with the languages formerly known as Serbo-Croatian, where differences are actively being created where none existed before. The process of standardizing Aborigine languages in Taiwan is creating problems because the decision to use a particular variety as the basis for textbooks will turn it into the default standard for that language. Before such differences were simply amusing, now they are political.

In short, regional differences can become more or less important depending on much more than linguistic grounds. At the same time, this is not completely independent of linguistic issues. Some languages are much further apart, making it more difficult to simply overcome regional differences simply by fiat.

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