"China's tower of babel" and the language / dialect question. Again.

China Realtime Report put up a good piece about Phonemica. I thought the title not bad: “Getting China’s Tower of Babel on Record“.

A lot of you might see the article anyway, but I doubt you’d make it over to the comments, and the very first comment is probably one that Sinoglot readers and writers alike have spent way too much time thinking about:

What is the distinction between a language and a dialect?

Since I thought Kellen’s response gave a pretty nice simple summary, and since I know he’d be too shy to repost it himself, I thought I’d give it its very own Sinoglot post:

The real answer is that there is no answer. The distinction is arbitrary and can be motivated by a number of different factors; It can be political, historical, sociological, or just based on convenience. For example High German, Low German and Dutch form a continuum where a speaker from one end can’t understand a speaker from the other end if each is speaking their own hometown dialects, but speakers from any two neighbouring towns will have little trouble in communicating. China is made up of a number of such continuums, Mandarin being one, Cantonese another, Wu a third. For the project we treat Cantonese as a language and Mandarin as another language, but with a distant common ancestor, the same as Italian and Spanish are related through Latin. This is the reason we tend to group the entirety of our focus in the project under “Sinitic”, referring to any modern language variety that is descended from Old Chinese. The shared relationship of these language varieties is known, and the appropriateness of different degrees of fineness in distinctions between them is different for different situations.


3 responses to “"China's tower of babel" and the language / dialect question. Again.”

  1. Sima says:

    Nice article from the WSJ. I certainly wouldn’t have seen it unless you’d pointed it out. But I took that first comment/question to be pure trolling.

    • Steve (Syz) says:

      trolling it might be, but I still think Kellen’s answer is about as troll-proof as they come, in that dangerous territory

  2. Kellen says:

    My troll-detection is pretty horrible.

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