‘dialect’ and ‘Chinese’ from a linguistic point of view

Another back issue of Sino-Platonic Papers has been released, this one of particular relevance to the themes of this site: What Is a Chinese “Dialect/Topolect”? Reflections on Some Key Sino-English Linguistic Terms (1991), by Professor Victor H. Mair of the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations.

Here is the abstract:

Words like fangyan, putonghua, Hanyu, Guoyu, and Zhongwen have been the source of considerable perplexity and dissension among students of Chinese language(s) in recent years. The controversies they engender are compounded enormously when attempts are made to render these terms into English and other Western languages. Unfortunate arguments have erupted, for example, over whether Taiwanese is a Chinese language or a Chinese dialect. In an attempt to bring some degree of clarity and harmony to the demonstrably international fields of Sino-Tibetan and Chinese linguistics, this article examines these and related terms from both historical and semantic perspectives. By being careful to understand precisely what these words have meant to whom and during which period of time, needlessly explosive situations may be defused and, an added benefit, perhaps the beginnings of a new classification scheme for Chinese language(s) may be achieved. As an initial step in the right direction, the author proposes the adoption of “topolect” as an exact, neutral translation of fangyan.

The entire text is now online as a 2.2 MB PDF: What Is a Chinese “Dialect/Topolect”? Reflections on Some Key Sino-English Linguistic Terms.

Strongly recommended.

Cris-atunity revisited

Benjamin Zimmer of Language Log has had a couple of recent posts on the crisis = danger + opportunity myth. First, in Stop him before he tropes again, he takes Al Gore to task for repeating the myth (again).

Then Zimmer posted his findings that the myth “was in use among Christian missionaries in China as early as 1938 and creeping into American public discourse by 1940.” (See Crisis = danger + opportunity: The plot thickens.) Nice work!

Meanwhile, Gary Feng of Shadow has voiced a dissenting position that “the urban myth has some kernel of truth in it.”

Orientalism and Chinese characters: the case of ‘busyness’

Professor Victor H. Mair has sent me another piece along the lines of his popular essay danger + opportunity ≠ crisis.

The new piece discusses a misinterpretation of the nature of the Chinese character for máng (”busy”).

Since the entire essay is just a few paragraphs long, I won’t excerpt from it here but simply encourage everyone to read the whole thing: busyness ≠ heart + killing.

For related examples of this fanciful approach to etymology that Mair exposes, see misunderstandings of biblical proportions. And for a detailed explanation of how Chinese characters really do function, see Chinese.