Chao on the relationship of dialects to the standard
Qian Nairong 钱乃荣 is a pretty big name in the world of Shanghainese. He’s compiled a dictionary or two and is fairly respected for his work with Wu. And he has a blog.
The following is from a post he wrote at the end of December giving different linguists views of the relationship between dialecs/languages (“fangyan,” basically) and Standard Mandarin. They’re a couple quotes from YR Chao 赵元任. More are available here.
Note that in some places I’ve taken some liberty with the translation and in other places an inconsistency with the Mandarin is just my Mandarin being crappy.
“Academically speaking, the standard language is a dialect, what we usually call dialects of the standard are also dialects, and so the standard in a sense is a kind of dialect as well.”
That is, dialects are different varieties within a language and so since the standard constitutes one of these varieties it itself is a dialect.
Dialects are usually said to be within a single family, spread over the geography blending one into the next; As for what constitutes a language, this is affected by the political situation of different branches, and the origin of these languages isn’t a factor. For example with the former use of Latin in Rome, which gradually changed up to the present where we now have many branches, with one factor being government, and another being differences in writing. We think of Italy, Spain, Portugal and France as having different languages… …But if we look at these languages the similarities become clear. We have places like China with several dialects like Beijing hua, Wu, Cantonese, Hokkien and so on, but because China has always used the same script to write all these dialects, on the surface it seems that the differences (between the dialects, in comparison to the Latin languages) are somewhat smaller…., In China, the dialects are all branches from the same source, (and) although the divergence is, at times, extreme, we think of them as dialects of the same language.
I read the last 我们 as “people in general” and not being inclusive of Chao himself, but I could be completely wrong. I have no evidence that he was in any way supporting the idea of Cantonese as a language.
At any rate it’s true of most people that they believe the writing system to be uniform across the board. And I’ve met more than my share of people who believe all of these to be dialects of some language called Chinese.
The part with which I’d have to disagree is that in large part Mandarin feels constructed to me. Yes it’s based on natural dialects and to a large degree. But since it was itself not a naturally developed language, it seems harder to make the case for it as a dialect than, say, Castillian Spanish. Thoughts?
You can read more opinions here at Qian Nairong’s site (also in Chinese).
edit: Updated w/ Sima’s improved translation.