25 Tibetan languages?

Victor Mair has an article on Language Log that discusses a favorite Sinoglot topic: the scope of language in China. The information on Tibetan is fascinating:

Tournadre estimates that there are 220 “Tibetan dialects” derived from Old Tibetan and currently distributed across five countries: China, India, Bhutan, Nepal, and Pakistan. In a forthcoming work, Tournadre states that these “dialects” may be classed within 25 “dialect groups,” i.e., groups that do not permit mutual intelligibility. According to Tournadre, the notion of “dialect group” is equivalent to the notion of “language,” but does not entail standardization. Consequently, says Tournadre, if the concept of standardization is set aside, it would be more appropriate to speak of 25 languages derived from Old Tibetan rather than 25 “dialect groups.”

Mair uses the analysis of Tibetan as a jumping off point for a rhetorical question about “Chinese”:

Whether or not Sinitic and Tibetic are genetically related, how can it be that there is only a single Sinitic “language” with 1.2 billion speakers of innumerable “dialects,” while Tibetic — with somewhere around two million speakers worldwide — is divided into 25 “languages”?

For Sinoglot and our perspicacious readers, this is hardly news. The linguistic diversity within “Chinese” (even moreso within China) is part of who we are. Still, it’s always good to see this idea shown to a wider audience from a new angle.

8 responses to “25 Tibetan languages?”

  1. Julen says:

    Very interesting post, I just commented there as well. This would explain why I observed the Tibetan people in Sichuan didn’t read Tibetan books. They probably couldn’t understand anything coming from Lhasa.

  2. Zev Handel says:

    Mair’s arguments are a bit odd, even if his conclusion is correct. The number of speakers in a community is not directly correlated with the number of languages. The roughly 300 million English speakers in the US all speak one language — even though this number is 150 times higher than that of the population of Tibetan (or “Tibetic”) speakers. And that doesn’t even count the English speakers of England, India, New Zealand, Australia, etc. whose languages are mutually intelligible with American English. So the Tibetan situation has no actual bearing on the Chinese situation.

    I don’t know of any linguists with the slightest familiarity with Chinese who aren’t aware that the so-called “dialects” constitute quite a number of distinct languages. Yet Mair seems to think there is some sort of cover-up going on. In fact, all over the world, the concept of language and dialect is a disputed one, intimately tied to issues of nationality, identity, writing system, religion, etc. The linguistic viewpoint is only one of several valid and meaningful viewpoints. Linguistically, Arabic is many languages. By some measures, Norwegian, Danish and Swedish are all dialects of one language, as are Hindi and Urdu, and as are Serbian and Croatian.

    The fact is there are important cultural and historical factors that have led the Chinese languages to be viewed as one language, and there are important cultural and historical factors involved with Tibetan. We must remember that a technically accurate linguistic conception need not be the only way of looking at things.

  3. I kinda feel like there is a coverup going on, at least as far as Zhongnanhai is concerned, and at least as things like Jin, Wu, Hui etc are concerned. But then it’s the same coverup that might exist in any country where there’s some political gain to claiming reduced diversity.

    But yeah I agree that any linguist not operating under the thumb of the state doesn’t really think there’s just one language here.

  4. Zev Handel says:

    Every nation-state has a stake in fostering a sense of shared identity among its populace. It can be done in a lot ways — the notion of linguistic unity is one. In the US we do it by fostering notions of shared ideals through a mythical narrative.

    I don’t know of any Chinese linguists who claim that the forms of Chinese are mutually intelligible, under the thumb of the state or no. Nor do I know of any Wu speakers who think their speech is mutually intelligible with Mandarin. Who exactly is being fooled here?

  5. Syz says:

    Zev: good pt about # of speakers not having much or really any relationship to # of languages.

    I also sometimes use “Chinese” as a shorthand (usually for modern written Mandarin) but I agree with Kellen that there’s at least some level of official pressure not to promote too vigorously the case for distinct languages, even as a technical definition.

    But that’s not why I posted it. I thought it was interesting mostly for the Tibetan info and I think it’s worth reminding the vast majority of non-linguistic folk who don’t know it that the idea of a single “Chinese” language does not mean what they might think it means.

  6. Syz says:

    Zev, we just cross-commented so I missed your last note. But I think indirectly I’m answering your question. The vast majority of folks in the US — even a lot who care something about language, I’d be willing to bet — don’t realize that “Chinese” is a family of languages, at least in the way that most people would usually understand a “language.”

  7. Syz says:

    Zev: That said, Mair’s approach is NOT the way I’d go about helping spread the word that Chinese is a language family. I think it’s too heavy on the “coverup!” and funny math, as you’ve so rightly pointed out.

    To me, the educational point (about Chinese = family of languages) should always be made with a “gee, bet you didn’t know” kind of attitude.

  8. Zev Handel says:

    I agree completely, Syz!

    It’s also useful to remember that “dialect” has a number of different meanings in common English usage, and it’s important to make sure everyone in the conversation is on the same page so you’re not just talking past each other. One common meaning of “dialect” in English usage is “non-standard language variety”, rather than “regional variant that is mutually intelligible with other varieties”. In other words, many people use the word “dialect” to refer to language forms of lower prestige. I often have to start a conversation about the family of Chinese languages by first explaining what a linguist means by the terms “language” and “dialect”, and specifying that these are technical terms whose definitions may differ from other uses of the two words.

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