There’s an interesting thread at The Peking Duck that takes off from an article about “vanishing dialects and greater adoption of putonghua” and turns into a discussion of whether there is in fact a unified writing system in China. (My thanks for the link to afrophile, whose Africa-oriented blog is an excellent place to go for information and links about Darfur and other areas in the news.)


  1. Speaking of Chinese dialects, here’s something I’ve been wanting to ask someone with more knowledge than me for a long time. A few years ago, I was having lunch with some colleagues from work. One of my colleagues was originally from Beijing, another from Canton. At one point, the conversation turned to language, and I asked them to confirm what I’d always heard: that different dialects of Chinese are mutually unintelligible. They looked at me like they’d never heard such a crazy thing, and one said, “No, no. We all speak Chinese. Only Chinese.” Then they proceeded to have a short Chinese conversation in which they confirmed either that they could easily understand each other, or that I was a typically naive westerner.
    Allowing for my experience, exactly how different are, say, Mandarin and Cantonese? Is it comparable to the difference between English and Dutch? Spanish and Italian? or more like the difference between English and Scots or Castillian and Catalan? (Or is an analogy to related European languages/dialects way off base?)

  2. They were bullshitting you. They were undoubtedly conversing in Mandarin, the de facto national language; it’s extremely unlikely that someone from Peking would have learned Cantonese (the difference is at least as great as English vs Dutch or Spanish vs Catalan, certainly much greater than English v Scots; they’re quite distinct languages). Chinese, like Arabs, like to claim a far greater degree of unity than in fact exists (Moroccan Arabic is completely unintelligible to, say, a Syrian).

  3. Thelonious says

    You can always ask the Nushu.

  4. Good find, Thelonious!
    I knew about nüshu (which means “female writing” and characterizes a set of characters exclusively used by women in the Jiangyong County, Hunan), but never had thought about looking it up on the Web.
    Quick Chinese googling brought this extensive set of links on Nüshu culture on the site of the Yongzhou Municipality. Past the somehow pompeous language, there are some very interesting articles on lesbian love poetry in nüshu characters (with moving transcribed abstracts).

  5. HP and language hat: they were almost certainly talking in Mandarin, yes, because any mainland Cantonese speaker under a certain age will have learned Mandarin in school and from Tv, and while they will probably have a very telltale accent, they’ll still be highly functional in Mandarin.

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