note: Sinoglot readers rock. Seriously. You guys have consistently provided good discussion, which is what we talked about wanting, what seems like ages ago, when we decided to put this site together. We’ve all been a bit busy these days so the posting has slowed down. To remedy that, I have a few quick posts I’m going to throw up here in hopes of getting some more discussion going. This is the first. Thanks for kicking ass.
I’ve written elsewhere about trying to talk to the elerly in China. On a trip to Henan province last year i was somewhat surprised by the fact that I could actually understand people and communicate with putonghua. I thought that this was a strictly southern phenomena, being unable to talk to anyone over 50, but today it seems to have crept further north than I’d otherwise thought.
Today I was talking to a friend of mine from northern Jiangsu province about dialects and communication. She was saying that her parents, not yet 50 years of age, cannot speak standard Mandarin. I figured it was not a big problem since it was still beifang-hua, so to test I had her run through the usual phrases I make everyone say. Not terribly surprisingly, it didn’t sound much like Mandarin. It was clearly a northern dialect but one that I’d have a hard time to understand in the context of a real conversation. Not yet 50.
There’s a book I read about a year ago about language death. In it, the author states that the biggest reason to care about language death is that we lose a worldview when we lose a language. Maybe. But a more interesting thing to me is not so much about losing a way of viewing the world held by 20k people, but by the collected wisdom of an entire populous country’s worth of old people being largely inaccessible. Of course, that’s not really true, since their children and grand children can understand well enough, but from the outsider anthropologist’s point of view, those people are just not available. Most young people don’t much care what their grandparents have to say, in any country. So the people who could communicate don’t really care to.
Of course, the wisdom of “cold water makes you sick” probably isn’t so important as to lose any sleep over. I still think it’s an interesting situation.
So here’s what I’d like you to do. If you speak Chinese and live in China, go outside, find the oldest person in your neighbourhood, and try to have a conversation. How’s the weather, what’d you do before you retired, would you lie a nice cold glass of water. Simple stuff. Then report back here. Give a percentage estimate of how much of the conversation was mostly effortless. Also tell us where the conversation happened, geographically. I wonder if we couldn’t draw an elderly comprehension line on the map.
Get thee to a mah-jonggery!