Politics Magazine

Diglossia in China

Posted on the 27 November 2017 by Calvinthedog

Dear Robert

I have no basis on which to agree or disagree with your assessment of the linguistic situation in China. However, aren’t nearly all Chinese born after 1949 sufficiently conversant with official Mandarin to understand it, read it and also carry on a conversation in it? In that case, China would be a country with diglossia, with all the non-Mandarin languages/dialects spoken in informal settings between locals, and official Mandarin spoken in formal settings and between people of different regions.

Regards. James

The younger people speak, read, and write Putonghua (a version of Mandarin) very well. A lot of the older adults can do the same. I believe there may be some monolinguals of the other tongues out there. And there are also monolinguals under age 5. Some Westerners adopted a 2-3 year old girl, and the girl could only speak some obscure Gan language. It took them a while to figure what the Hell language she even spoke because it was not obvious and the tongue was not well-known.

A problem is that some varieties have actually developed their own Putonghuas now! So in a sense the experiment is having unexpected consequences. Putonghuas of various regions can hardly be understood by Putonghua speakers of other regions. So even the standard is starting to split! However, getting everyone to speak, read, and write was definitely a good idea.

My father was stationed in China in 1946 after the war for a while. The US occupied China for a while there. He said that when he was in Peking (the old Beijing), there were rickshaw drivers everywhere. If you wanted to get anywhere, you summoned a rickshaw. He said that the rickshaw drivers had the pens and pads and they were always running around offering the pens and pads to passengers and other drivers because the other person spoke some other lect, so they could not understand each other. But most of them could read and write Mandarin! So if worse came to worse and you could not talk to each other, you could always write it down! So actually, China had a Putonghua of sorts even before the Communist victory and the introduction of Putonghua.

And I do not believe that Putonghua was introduced in 1949. I think it took the Communists a little while to come up with it and formulate it properly.

The “Speak Mandarin” campaign has had some unintended consequences because it is not allowed to teach school in any language but Mandarin for Sinitic speakers. I believe that speakers of other tongues such as Tibetans can have home language education, which is considered a progressive thing. I know that teachers were still teaching classes in Shanghainese not so long ago. Also speaking dialects was discouraged and possibly even punished at school. I am not sure if even today you can take courses in other Chinese languages at school. But the Mandarin only campaign went too far and it has led to the destruction of a lot of the less spoken varieties, which in many cases are full languages and not dialects at all. So it has been very controversial.


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