"Mandarin isn't a Dialect"

Copied from a 1997 letter to the editor of the New York Times:

Mandarin Isn’t a Dialect
Published: July 08, 1997

To the Editor:

In your July 1 front-page story on the handover of Hong Kong to China, you say that China’s President, Jiang Zemin, delivered his speech ”using a Mandarin dialect as alien to Hong Kong’s Cantonese-speaking people as . . . English.”

Mandarin is no dialect. China has almost countless dialects, and Cantonese is one of them. But Mandarin is the standard Chinese language and the only one that can be rendered accurately in Chinese characters. President Jiang’s use of it in this moment was appropriate and inevitable, even if he might as well have been speaking English — or Greek — as far as much of his audience was concerned.


New York, July 2, 1997


Korea's Ethnic Chinese, continued

In a previous post I outlined some of the context and conditions of ethnic Chinese in Korea, known locally as hwagyo 화교. This is a follow up to that post.

While in Korea I was fortunate enough to speak to many hwagyo and learn a great deal about the history and conditions as well as the dialect of Mandarin spoken by the older generation. I conducted a number of interviews over the period of a year, mostly speaking with ethnic Chinese who’d grown up in Korea, but also with a number of recent Chinese expats about their own lives in Korea.

The following is an interview with Ethan Chiang, a Chinese who grew up spending time between Korea and Taiwan. This interview was done over email. My questions are bold.


The Dictator and Manchu

Sacha Baron Cohen’s new movie The Dictator, which I haven’t seen, apparently draws a bit from our neck of the woods. In a recent interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, Cohen explains a desire to get away from looking too Arabic in the film. One aspect of this was to create a writing system for Wadiya, his fictional dictatorship.

Conlangs are hard, and good ones, even if just an alphabet, take time. Cohen says in the interview that the short-cut in this case was to borrow some shapes from Manchu. You can see the name of the country on the flag in the image above. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, Manchu is referred to by Cohen as a dialect of Chinese. Ah well. Looks like the 方言 argument may have finally spilled over fully into English.

Sorry Randy.

Here’s a better example than the flag:

Mandarin Use Among Korea’s Ethnic Chinese Communities

I spent the last year in Korea doing (among other things) research on the situation faced by ethnic Chinese who grew up in Korea. The Korean term is hwagyo 화교, coming from the hanzi for huáqiáo 華僑, “overseas Chinese”. This is the first in a series of posts that is the result of this past year. This post will provide an introduction, while the following posts will be excerpts from interviews conducted over the past year.

The Korean peninsula is often believed by its inhabitants to be ethnically pure. This sense of identity has provided a foundation for group identity that is shared by ethnic Koreans around the world. It is a source of immediate trust and friendship between Koreans abroad meeting for the first time. Not surprisingly, the history of East Asia does not support the idea of ethnic purity going back for more than a few generations, for whatever that is worth. In truth, Korea, and the Republic of Korea in particular, has a fair degree of ethnic and cultural diversity. Despite historical precedents, changes in national law in the past 15 years have made it easier for foreign nationals to live and work in the country, though in the past year things might have begun taking a turn for the worse.


New linguistic corpus of Sina Weibo messages

While Kellen and Steve are still working hard on their fascinating new project, I just wanted to tell Sinoglot readers about my new corpus of Sina Weibo messages.

In the past few months, I’ve been building the Leiden Weibo Corpus (LWC), and I’m now proud to announce it has become publicly available. The LWC is an annotated linguistic 100-million word corpus containing 5.1 million messages from Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter-like microblogging service. It’s freely available online at http://lwc.daanvanesch.nl/.

Because I collected the data for the LWC in January 2012, the LWC contains many linguistic phenomena that may not be found in older corpora, such as suffixation with “-ing”, an aspectual marker borrowed from English (covered on the Log and on Pinyin.info). Furthermore, Sina Weibo messages come with valuable meta data, such as the gender of the user and their location. This means the LWC can show how often words are used in different provinces and cities across China, which may be useful if you’ve always been wondering where that pesky 方 word in your dictionary is really used :) Continue…


Much like what happened to Sinosplice a while back, Sinoglot has been hacked. In fact it was the exact same hack that hit John’s site.

The hack is the eval(base64_decode javascript injection that you may be familiar with if you’re a web developer. It is fairly benign, as hacks go. You’ll notice it as a user when your browser is suddenly redirected to a website in Russia which you had no intention to visit. Otherwise it’s business as usual.

What does this mean for readers?
It’s Saturday and a busy one at that. Steve and I are working to contain the problem and get clean installs of WP and other CMSs up, stripped of the offending files. The source of the problem, again mirroring John Pasden’s case, seems to be an outdated WP install that got left on the server.

Again, this hack operated by inserting a Javascript redirect into php files, so there should be no risk to people reading the site. If you’re concerned, just make sure your anti-virus software is up to date.

We will probably not be migrating to another server, as that won’t prevent future attacks. Instead we’re re-installing the different content management systems. As a result there may be some down time this weekend.

Fortunately, we were able to find the problem, so now it’s just a matter of repairing the damage done. Unfortunately, those repairs are time consuming. Please bear with us as we get this all cleared up. We thank you in advance for your patience.


I’ve had this conversation a dozen times with friends. Chances are so have you. It starts when someone asks if there’s such a thing as dyslexia in the Mandarin-speaking world. After all, if dyslexia means mixing up letters, and there are no letters, then there must be no dyslexia, right?

This came across my Twitter radar earlier today. It was a quick conversation between Matthew Stinson and Kane Gao, the latter having provided fodder for posts in the past. Today it was about why there seems to be few (if any) known cases (in the mass-consumer English speaking world) of dyslexia among Chinese speakers.


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.


Number Taboos in Sino-Korean

This post is an exploration into a bit of Sino-Korean etymology and usage of certain vocabulary.

On the 22nd I wrote about the use of F in place of 4 on elevator keypads, even when it comes to Braille. Zrv made a good point about the pronunciation of 四 and 死, both 사 (sa) in Korean. From his comment:

I think it’s really not accurate to say that the homophones in this case are in a “foreign language”. Sino-Korean words are as much Korean as Latin-English words (like “very”) or Franco-English words (like “enter”) are English.

That’s absolutely true. While a Cantonese speaker would likely understand much of what was said around them while in Seoul, it’s all still Korean.

However, aware of the 죽다 verb form that’s most commonly used for “to die”, I wanted to look into the homophones. The question I left in the comments is this: By modern standards, can we consider ‘death’ and ‘four’ homophonous in Korean if 죽다 is the preferred word?