Chinese: Dialects, Topolects, or Languages?

Growing up, my idea of “Chinese” was Cantonese. As an ethnic Chinese born and raised in the States, I primarily encountered English on a regular basis outside and Cantonese at home; I rarely encountered Mandarin when I was young, or even when I did, I didn’t know it was also “Chinese.” My parents and all of their Chinese friends primarily spoke Cantonese, I attended a Chinese school that held instruction in Cantonese, and frequented a Chinatown in which most people I saw as Chinese spoke Cantonese.

Thus, identifying as “Chinese” at school and in the greater American community, Cantonese and Chinese were the same to me. I was Chinese, I spoke Chinese, I went to Chinese school and learned Chinese; in all situations, Chinese seemed synonymous for Cantonese. But perhaps I first learned of Mandarin in first grade when some classmates were also Chinese, but didn’t quite speak the same. It was much later that I learned about “Chinese” in a more general sense – the plethora of “dialects” and the differences between simplified and traditional Chinese.

In recent times, as I find myself more perceptive of people’s perspectives on “Chinese,” I have observed some young family friends (10 years old and younger) who are also American-born Chinese and their perceptions of “Chinese.” In a sense, they are more tied to their Chinese roots than me: they continued to primarily speak Cantonese with parents and schoolteachers perhaps even up to age 10 (while Cantonese was never really the main language I used) and learned Mandarin in Chinese school, additionally visiting Hong Kong quite much more frequently than me (about every other year). But moving on from their backgrounds, perhaps this is telling of Chinese people’s natural perspectives of “Chinese” – these children refer to Cantonese just as “Chinese.” If speaking about both Cantonese and Mandarin, for example, they might ask, “Does he speak Chinese or Mandarin?” In this way, with their frequent visits to Hong Kong, I feel that they have developed the concept of Hong Kong specifically (in contrast to Guangdong or the whole of China) being their ethnic “Chinese” home – where Chinese people speak Cantonese, what they perceive as “Chinese.”

Speaking from my experience and how I believe these young children perceive “Chinese,” from a non-political standpoint, it seems rather odd to deem your native tongue a mere second-class “dialect” when you feel it is a complex and complete language in itself — one you can fully express yourself in. Additionally, while being told that you are “Chinese” and speak “Chinese,” you can’t help but see little reason to make a distinction and call the “Chinese” you speak – Cantonese – something other than “Chinese.”

But in another sense, I think that our interpretations of “Chinese” reveals some disconnect between the way we think about and speak of dialects or languages in English and Chinese. In Chinese, we call Cantonese and Mandarin “方言,” which is seen as the Chinese equivalent of “dialect.” But as this academic paper, Language or Dialect—or Topolect? A Comparison of the Attitudes of Hong Kongers and Mainland Chinese towards the Status of Cantonese, suggests, “topolect” seems like a more accurate translation of “方言” and classification of “Cantonese” and “Mandarin”: regional speech. And although reading such a paper may seem like a daunting and laborious task, I would highly recommend it to those interested in thoroughly learning what we should call Chinese “dialects” and why. (Otherwise, I think the abstract (page 3) would suffice.) As a paper published about five years ago (it was published in February 2008), this paper is relatively recent; I found it in part intriguing because of its relevancy to the current(ly being molded) identity of Cantonese in Hong Kong. (In other words, you should read it.)

Language or Dialect—or Topolect? A Comparison of the Attitudes of Hong Kongers and Mainland Chinese towards the Status of Cantonese, is just one of many Sino-Platonic Papers at the University of Pennsylvania which present research centered on East Asian studies. While exploring the site, I have also found a paper more on Chinese in general: What Is a Chinese “Dialect/Topolect”? Reflections on Some Key Sino-English Linguistic Terms. Although I have yet to read this latter paper, perhaps it would be informative and suitable for those more interested in linguistics and Chinese in general (as evident, I tend to focus on information and readings primarily relevant to Cantonese).

(Yay for happy and leisurely academic readings!)


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