Dialects & Kong Qingdong

It’s hard to research 方言. You want to talk to someone from outside Yangzhou about their 语言, about whether or not it’s 吴语. The term 吴语 inevitably causes confusion, and so you specify, but not by using the one thing you know would get to the point most quickly. You know you could just rephrase it as 吴方言 and that’d make things perfectly clear. But you resent the term 方言. So you say, “No, you know, 吴国的语言” but of course that doesn’t help either. “上海话,苏州话,温州话等。都是吴语” you say. “Ohhh. You mean 吴方言!” your interlocutor says.

So you give in. Maybe you argue that 方言 can be 语言 too. You tell him that in Tang times, 维语 was called a 方言, and that at times even English was called 方言 in official texts. But probably you don’t. Probably you just accept it and move on, knowing from experience that there’s little point in arguing this point.

And really there’s probably not. Maybe it’s your fault, coming from a Western context and all the baggage that “dialect” entails. Maybe it’s that you think 方言 means “dialect” to begin with, when you should probably just get over that too. But you’re a stubborn and often confrontational sort of person. A slow learner too, it turns out.

So all hell breaks loose about whether Hong Kongers need to speak Mandarin and if Mainlanders need to bother with Cantonese in Hong Kong. people are called dogs, other people call themselves monks. Kong Qidong, thanks in large part to himself, becomes a target of scorn once again. This is a brief bit of dialogue between him and some lady with strong eyebrows who otherwise isn’t important enough to warrant her name on the screen.

Two sides argue their own points, but here we see the argument in two different languages. Teacher Kong, what do you make of this issue?

Kong Qidong:两种不同的语言,你说这个细节很重要,两种不同的语言,一种是普通话,一种是方言。
Two different languages. This detail you mention is quite important. Two different languages: One is Standard Mandarin, one is fangyan/dialect/regiolect.

Those who speak Mandarin, they have no duty, no responsibility, to understand/use any fangyan.

Chinese people have a duty to speak Standard Mandarin. You have no duty to speak regional speech.

The video, with English subtitles, was put up on China Hush last week. The subtitles can be a little misleading, as they read “any other dialects” implying Mandarin is one. But he never says that. I kept thinking he would. As I said, slow learner.

In fact he consistently uses words appropriate to distinguish the standard speech (话) from the local (方) speech. In that section the only time he called topolects anything other than 方言 was at the end where he said 别的地方的话, “other places’ way of speaking”. The very phrase is exclusionary.

Putonghua, fangyan. Fangyan speakers (which is actually every single person in China, at least at home, I’d imagine) beware.

I don’t know Kong Qidong. I don’t really care to, though we could totally rock matching red scarves as we held hands and skipped down the streets of Xicheng. I don’t know what he thinks about whether China has many languages or one language with unintelligible dialects. I’d guess it’s the latter. Actually I’d bet huge sums of money on it. Ah well. 公说公有理,婆说婆有理。

So you continue trying to defend the 方言 to you friends. Once more you find yourself trying to explain your very English train of thought with pieced together word-by-word translations. Fortunately for you, your friends are very patient people.

- – -
note: The translation for the chengyu in the transcript is crap. I’ve tried to have it make sense, since it’s now removed from the longer paragraph that the host delivered.

3 thoughts on “Dialects & Kong Qingdong

  1. I don’t think there’s anything particularly “English” about your line of thinking or “Chinese” about Kong Qidong’s. I’ve met English teachers who make disparaging remarks about dialects or creoles, apparently blithely unaware that they were speaking a dialect as they said it or that English just doesn’t have a standard, let alone that creoles and pidgins are perfectly valid linguistic systems perfectly capable of developing into a language in their own right. The barrier’s to entry in this industry are shockingly low.

    I think the problem is that the Chinese words relating to speech varieties don’t correspond anywhere near as closely to the English words ‘language’ and ‘dialect’ as is commonly assumed, not that ‘language’ and ‘dialect’ have any hard and fast definition, anyway. Also, the level of basic linguistics knowledge of your average layperson is basically non-existent and they can’t really answer any technical questions with any certainty – firstly because they don’t fully understand the question, and secondly because they don’t possess the knowledge needed to answer. I don’t mean to disparage anybody – ask me about growing apples, I’ll refer you to my father in law. All I know about growing apples is that you pull them off trees when they’re ripe.

    So basically, what we’re left with is:
    1: Dialectology is hard; and
    2: Kong Qingdong is a dickhead.

  2. Since the first thing he said was “two different languages”, he probably thinks that there are many Chinese languages. The subtitle is indeed misleading. He didn’t say “中国人有义务说普通话,你没有义务说别的地方的话。” What he said is “中国人有义务说普通话,你没有义务说东北话,说四川话,说北京话,说天津话,对吧?你可能只掌握你长大那个地方的方言,你家乡的母语,你没有义务说别的地方的话。” which makes a lot more sense. He seems to agree that a 方言 can be a language.

    Of course the word “language” doesn’t mean the same thing for linguists and for common people. Take Tibetan for example. Most linguists would agree that Khams and A-mdo are mutually unintelligible languages. Yet Webster defines Tibetan to be the language of Tibetans.

  3. pot,
    You’re right, the subtitles are misleading. The whole 东北话,四川话,北京话 I let go for the sake of brevity. To me it seems the meaning is arguably the same.

    TIbetan is a good example. In fact anything in the Southwest is probably a good example. The Webster definition reminds me of an interesting thing in Islam. In part to combat racism in the early Islamic world, the idea of who was Arab was simple. Do they speak Arabic? They’re Arab. Sort of the same idea in reverse.

    By English I mean confined by the fact that English is my first language, not anything to do with English or ‘Western’ culture. You’re right that the issue (though maybe not a problem) is that the words don’t even begin to match up. Hence the reason I’m always telling myself that ‘dialect’ is a terrible translation for 方言.

    I think the takeaway is correct. Especially your second point.