DATIAN, China – As a crowd formed around a rare foreign visitor in this town’s open-air market, the conversation turned quickly from the price of dried fish and fresh fruit to how many dialects people here could muster.
Hoisting her cherubic 6-month-old daughter, Lin Jinchun, a 29-year-old dumpling seller, claimed that she could speak two, drawing a quick counterclaim of three from her mother, Lin Guimei.
What was the third dialect? someone asked. “Putonghua,” the mother answered, counting the standard national language of China as if it were just another minor tongue. Meanwhile others, shouting above the din, chimed in that they could speak four, five or even six tongues…
China has 55 ethnic minorities, many of them with cultural roots in neighboring countries. The linguistic diversity among these minorities, however, pales in comparison with the variety of tongues spoken among China’s Han, the ethnic group that makes up more than 90 percent of the population. The Han speak as many 1,500 dialects, with the bulk of those concentrated in the southern half of the country.
The official view here is that all of the tongues spoken by Han are variants of one language, Chinese. But in a country with a traumatic history of civil war and fragmentation, many specialists say this theory may have more to do with politics than with linguistic reality. Many of the Han dialects are almost entirely mutually incomprehensible, more distinct than languages from disparate regions of Europe.
“No one can clearly answer the question how many dialects there are in China,” said Zhang Hongming, a professor of Chinese linguistics at the University of Wisconsin who is in China doing fieldwork. “The degree of difference among dialects is much higher than the degree of difference among European languages. In Europe they call them languages, but in China we share a culture, so the central government would like to consider that one language is shared by many different peoples. It is simply a different definition.”…
Even by the standards of China’s complicated language matrix, Fujian Province stands out for its richness, a dense thicket of tongues laid down by waves of migration over time from central China.
“We have an expression, that if you drive five miles in Fujian the culture changes, and if you drive 10 miles, the language does,” said Zhang Zhenxing, a linguist from Fujian at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing. “In recent years, because of economic growth things have been getting better, but there are still an extraordinary number of dialects in Fujian.”
If Fujian Province can be said to have a Babel, tiny Datian County can stake a pretty solid claim. In this 800 square miles of rural central Fujian, where fields of rice and tobacco grow in the shadow of tall mountains, no fewer than five dialects are spoken in addition to Mandarin.
To drive a few miles down the road from one village to another is indeed to plunge into a new linguistic universe. Things can be as confusing for someone from the next town as they are for the total outsider.
In one village near the county seat, where an old Daoist shrine sits high above the roadside, a man who said he spoke southern Min, one of Fujian’s most widely spoken dialects, tried to exchange words with some boys who said they also spoke southern Min. A few words from each side, however, sufficed to show they were mutually unintelligible.
Chen Wenxian, a shopkeeper in his late 20’s in another village, grimaced with incomprehension when a driver pulled up and inquired about the price of shoes in his glass display case. The two switched into heavily accented but mutually comprehensible Mandarin.
Mr. Chen, slouched in his chair behind his counter, shrugged when asked the name of the village’s language. Consultations with a cluster of family members did not unearth a name either.
“It’s just what we speak here,” he said. Asked if he could understand the language in the next village, a short distance down the road, he said: “I have no idea what they speak. Those people talk too fast.”
Ethnologue says: “Putonghua is inherently intelligible with the Beijing dialect, and other Mandarin varieties in the northeast. Mandarin varieties in the Lower Plateau in Shaanxi are not readily intelligible with Putonghua. Mandarin varieties of Guilin and Kunming are inherently unintelligible to speakers of Putonghua.”
In the same article they mention this interesting form of speech: “Hezhouhoua is spoken in the Linxia Hui Autonomous Prefecture and Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of southern Gansu Province, and in neighboring areas in Qinghai Province. The grammar is basically Altaic or Tibetan, while the vocabulary and phonology is basically Northwestern Mandarin, or a relexified variety of Tibetan.” I don’t know why they don’t include it in their list of mixed languages (see also an earlier LH post on the subject).