Chinese is a Single Language

I was thrilled to get my hands on a copy of Zhu Xiaonong’s book A Grammar of Shanghai Wu today. I was not thrilled with how it began. Below is the first paragraph in full:

Whether Chinese is a single language or a group of languages depends on the judgment criteria applied. The view that Chinese is a single language is reflected in Chinese linguistic literature. In the Western literature, however, Chinese is often regarded as a language sub- family containing separate languages like Wú 吴语, Mandarin 官话, Xiāng 湘语, Gàn 赣语, Kèjiā 客家话 (Hakka), Yuè 粤语 (Cantonese 广东话), Mǐn 闽语 (Hokien 福建话), etc. The linguistic differences between them are admittedly as large as those between, say, English and German or even larger. However, the shared culture, the uniform writing system, the same linguistic norm, and especially the common psychological identification by the speakers of these varieties make the identifying task relatively simple: Chinese is a single language with arguably the greatest linguistic diversity among languages.

He goes on to say that “Wu” is not a language but a collection of dialects. Specifically, he points out that “The term ‘Wu’ never occurs in everyday speech; it is a highly specialized technical term used only in linguistics.”

Can’t really argue with that last part. Still, damn. I keep hoping that, some day, I’ll come across someone from China who studies this stuff that says “yeah, we’ll just go ahead and call this a language”. Some day…

12 responses to “Chinese is a Single Language”

  1. Josh says:

    I don’t see how ‘Wu’ I highly technical or linguistic related when it is used in everyday conversation in China when identifying oneself and ones culture.

    I’d like to see ome serious linguistic researchers in China who stop inisting on a spoken dialect being linguistic diversity, when the next sentence they say they ar completely different. The written and spoken Chinese languge really are quite separable.

    • Kellen says:

      Well, for clarity, I should declare that I think of Wu as a language, and probably always will. That said, I can’t think of any specific times I’ve heard or successfully used Wu that wasn’t among people with a background in language. The times I’ve tried using it with others have all failed spectacularly. Only when I said something like “You know, 吳方言, like 上海話,蘇州話………” and then they’re like “ohhh ok yeah those 方言”. I’m not sure many people do actually use the term that much.

  2. Chris Waugh says:

    And what, precisely, is “common psychological identification by the speakers” supposed to mean? Is that code for “nationalism”? If so, then we’re back to the age old problem of politics inserting its ugly beak where it just doesn’t belong. Not a uniquely Chinese problem, of course, Europe’s just as bad, and I’ve heard Ryukyu suffered a similar problem after its absorption into the Japanese empire. But it would be nice if we could boot the politics out of linguistics, we’d make so much more progress that way.

    • Peter Nelson says:

      I think it just means “self-identification”. Yes, it’s political, and yes, I think it’s bullshit. But on the other hand, it’s hardly an unprecedented approach to treat certain demographic features (race, religion, language) as being defined by the respondent’s answer on a survey. (I.e., if a Mormon ticks the “Christian” box on some survey, then he is, so far as the social scientist analyzing the data is concerned, a Christian. Theological arguments do not factor into the operational definition.)

    • Kellen says:

      I think that’s every true researcher’s dream. If there’s interest, I can post some more of the chapter, but it basically follows down the same path where, despite an appearance of neutrality, Chinese ethno-nationalism quietly seeps through the cracks.

  3. Bathrobe says:

    The problem is the model of language adopted. The modern Western concept of a language as ‘a standard language with dialects’, which tends to be associated with the nation-state as a political entity, is just as misleading and inappropriate as the Chinese model. For instance, German was also originally composed of a large number of mutually unintelligible dialects (which could be stretched to include Dutch dialects), but the acceptance of a German written standard (excluding Dutch) is what ultimately decided that German was regarded as a single language. There is nothing like that in the Wu area. Cantonese, with a strong standard dialect centred on Guangzhou, is probably a better candidate for identification as a separate language than Wu is.

    The Chinese model of a single strong written standard and a hodgepodge of largely undifferentiated, mutually unintelligible spoken languages is probably just as valid a model of language as the Western one. If through some fluke of history Spain and Italy were a single country (with Provence thrown in for good measure), I wager that there would be no separate Spanish and Italian languages, merely a motley collection of local dialects versus standard Italo-Spanish.

  4. stevelaudig says:

    Perhaps a bit off topic but I am searching for a Changshahua-English dictionary and/or any materials on Changshahua in English. my email is hope it is okay to seek assistance this way. i reside in Changsha.

    • Kellen says:

      While it’s not super common, occasionally major bookstores have books on the local dialect. You might want to try checking out the biggest bookstores in Changsha and see what they have. Unfortunately there aren’t many well-known books or papers on Xiang dialects (of which Changsha is one) in English. I’ll be emailing you momentarily.

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