Chinese New Year’s resolutions: a suggestion

Happy year of the rat, everyone!

Several years ago I made some resolutions for Chinese New Year that others might find useful, if you haven’t adopted similar ones already.

  1. If I’m referring to Mandarin I will use the word “Mandarin,” not “Chinese.”
  2. If I’m referring to a language, I’ll call it a language, not a dialect.

Pretty basic. But these greatly help clarity. And they have the benefit of being correct.

The reason you’ll sometimes find the phrase “Mandarin Chinese” rather than just “Mandarin” on my site is I want to help people find this through search engines. But for the most part the inclusion of the word “Chinese” is easily accomplished through tags or mention of “Chinese characters.”

I’d like to note that even many of those who really should know better have things backwards. They might note that “Chinese” is not a language but a family of languages — and even then one that should be known as Sinitic rather than “Chinese.” And they tend to spend a line or so explaining that what many people refer to as Chinese “dialects” are really languages. This is all well and good. But then they go on to use “Chinese” and “dialects” over and over.

The messages they’re sending out:

Chinese Chinese Chinese Mandarin Chinese Chinese Chinese Chinese Chinese Chinese Chinese Chinese Chinese Chinese Chinese Chinese Chinese Chinese Chinese Chinese.

and

Dialect dialect language dialect dialect dialect dialect dialect dialect dialect dialect dialect dialect dialect dialect dialect dialect dialect dialect.

So what people hear is “Chinese” and “dialect” — both of which are usually wrong.

I have made some resolutions of my own for this year: the first being to answer e-mail messages much quicker than my present average of three or more months behind when I should. Although I’m terrible at writing, I am indeed grateful for all of the messages I receive.

Xinnian kuaile!

8 thoughts on “Chinese New Year’s resolutions: a suggestion

  1. I try to adhere to the Chinese-is-a-family-of-languages terminology myself. But sometimes when you’re in the midst of a layman’s conversation with people who only know China as someplace far away, it’s simply a lot easier to fall back on the vernacular acceptance that it’s all just Chinese.

    Can I presume to extend your list by one, though?

    3. I resolve to put tone marks on all pinyin, unless the word is intended as an English borrowing, like “pinyin” or “guanxi”.

    Otherwise it’s just baldly hypocritical to harp on the fact that tones are phonemic and an integral part of speaking intelligibly.

    On that note: thanks for a great year of pinyin.info and

    x?nnián kuàilè!

  2. san nin faai lok

    A good reminder to be mindful of terminology. Funny story, I was applying for a job at a firm online and they had a pre determined list of languages applicants could choose from. What was nice was that there was a choice between Mandarin, Cantonese, Hakka Shanghainese (better if they used Wu) and Taiwanese (politically sensitive I know but I would have liked to see Minnan). A pretty impressive list I would say!

    What was weird was that Chinese was also on the list. What do you think that means in relation to the other languages? It’s either an oversight or a fundamental misunderstanding. But thought I would mention.

    Anyway, keep up the good work here at pinyin.info

  3. Good post, I’ve tried to use “Mandarin” instead of “Chinese” for some time now. It’s hard though, when talking with the folks back home. It’s struck me for some time now as a glaringly ironic example, the title of John DeFrancis’ book, “Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy”. I guess that just shows how deeply ingrained the habits are.

  4. syz: I probably don’t go on too much about the tonal nature of Mandarin and the other Sinitic languages, though it’s an undeniably important aspect. Maybe it’s that I’m being a bit reactionary, having long ago grown tired of those who tell newbies that if they don’t watch their tones carefully their listeners won’t be hearing the intended “Excuse me, where’s the bathroom?” but instead “My hovercraft is full of eels,” “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously,” or perhaps some choice remarks about an impolite relationship between the listener’s mother and a goat. Hmph!

    When it comes to Pinyin as an orthography for those who know Mandarin, the truth is that most tone marks are unnecessary. (Consider, for example, how relatively few times you need to enter tone numbers when using Pinyin to get a computer to spit out Hanzi.)

    The case of Chinese characters with multiple pronunciations provides a useful perspective on this, I think. Characters with multiple pronunciations are more likely to differ in tone than in other aspects of their pronunciation. (I really should do more to draw attention to that page, since I spent such a long time working on it.)

    This is of course not at all the same thing as saying that tones themselves are unnecessary — something I would never do.

    My guess is that when Pinyin finally becomes a widely used script in its own right, it won’t have many tone marks, in much the same way that most Hebrew texts aren’t pointed even though vowels are certainly important in the Hebrew language itself. That’s the way that Sin Wenz worked long ago.

    But regardless of my own occasionally heretical practices, I certainly don’t object to tones being indicated all the time and applaud those who take the trouble to do so.

    David and Aaron: I agree that “Taiwanese” is problematic. But “Minnan” seems even more so to me, as that has become more a Mandarin name for the language than anything else. Or is that now embraced enough by the speakers of Taiwanese/Minnan/Hoklo/Holo/Hokkien/Southern Fujianese, etc. for it to work? What to call the language (and how to spell that name!) is one of those issues that needs to be revisited from time to time, since things are still in flux. A poll of native speakers would be ideal — but without a greater general understanding of the issues it might not be of much use just yet.

    Aaron: Yes, that’s one of the things that really bothers me about calling Mandarin “Chinese,” because Cantonese, Hoklo, etc. certainly can’t be classed as “dialects” of Mandarin.

    Chris: I agree. Oh well, nobody’s perfect.

  5. When it comes to Pinyin as an orthography for those who know Mandarin, the truth is that most tone marks are unnecessary.

    Yeah, fine, I acknowledge your rightness on this. My desire for tone marks is entirely self-serving, since as a sorry student of Beijing Mandarin I don’t know the tones on any new vocabulary I come across, and I usually guess wrong.

    Still, for those of us who write in English about Mandarin, I’d maintain that taking a vow of tone-mark allegiance is a pretty useful thing.

    Regarding your frustration with

    those who tell newbies that if they don’t watch their tones carefully their listeners won’t be hearing the intended “Excuse me, where’s the bathroom?” but instead “My hovercraft is full of eels,” “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously,” or perhaps some choice remarks about an impolite relationship between the listener’s mother and a goat.

    I hear you — the warnings can be over the top. HOWEVER, if I had 1 kuài for every time I’ve gotten stuck, mid-conversation, because I guessed the tone wrong on a key word and therefore my interlocutor didn’t understand, I’d have enough at least to get myself that electronic version of DeFrancis’s ABC Ch-En dict I’ve been coveting.

    [Apologies in advance if, upon hitting submit, I discover that html tags are not allowed]

  6. Unfortunately the power of numbers is against us. None of the CCP approved langauge materials and exams used in China use the word “Mandarin” so even people who are fairly good at English in the PRC have never heard the term. They are taught to call it “Chinese” and then call any other type of Sinitic “dialect”. So Chinese are taught to say “Cantonese is a Dialect of Chinese” in English but you can also get them to say “Cantonese is not Chinese”. Some English-Chinese dictionaries published here have “Mandarin” as an entry but define it as “the old name foreigners had for guanhua”. Not exactly lying but not telling the truth either. Another similar “unword” in China is (believe it or not) “Chinese New Year”! They are are taught to say “Spring Festival”, which I have tested on native English speakers for recognition and recieved nothing but blank stares in return!!

  7. Ah, what to call Taiwanese/Minnan/Hoklo/Holo/Hokkien/Ban-lam-gi/Tai-gi/Southern Min? A tricky one – throughout my site I use “Taiwanese”, but the truth is that there is no uncontroversial choice. I generally choose to use “Taiwanese” as that is the name most people in Taiwan use (either in English or as a translation from Tâi-gí), but I can see a good case for using “Hoklo” too, something I do sometimes when the need arises.

    You’re right about “Minnan” – I don’t think it’s a great idea to use a Mandarin term for the language. “Bân-lâm” is the equivalent in the language itself, but I’ve honestly never heard a Taiwanese person use that.

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