“Jesus” in Dungan.

Victor Mair has a fascinating post at the Log about Dungan, a variety of Chinese (or Sinitic, if you prefer) spoken in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan and written in Cyrillic:

Naturally, separated as they were from their homeland and its speech community, the language of the Dungans has undergone considerable change, especially through the borrowing of terms from Russian, Persian, Arabic, Turkic, and other languages. Even more radical was the adoption of the Cyrillic alphabet for their writing system (nearly all of those who fled were illiterate in Chinese characters).

For a brief introduction to the Dungans and their language, see “Dungan: a Sinitic language written with the Cyrillic alphabet”.

For those who want to hear what Dungan sounds like, there is now an excellent opportunity, since the movie “Jesus” has been dubbed into Dungan. For someone who knows Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM), it’s amazing to listen to — sometimes partially understandable, sometimes dramatically affected by Turkic and Russian.

He gives links to both the full movie and the movie broken into clips, and the reactions from commenters who know Chinese are very interesting. Here’s the first, from Natalia:

I am fluent in MSM, and Dungan sounds like someone is narrating or several persons are having a conversation in the next room just out of hearing range.

The rhythm and cadence of the speech is familiar, and I can catch specific words or phrases. However, the speaker will suddenly use an unfamiliar phrase in that same rhythm and I am once again wondering if my ears have stopped working.

And Matt Anderson writes:

That whole site is a great resource. I just watched the same 30 second clip in each of the Sinitic topolects, in rough order of intelligibility (from my perspective), starting with Mandarin varieties and moving on through Cantonese, Xiang, Shanghainese, Hakka, and Mindong & Minnan varieties, etc. Watching it over & over like that allowed me to pick out a lot more from some of the topolects than I would otherwise have been able to, but it really does reinforce how insane it is to consider all this diversity to be part of the same language.

I’ll be curious to know what Bathrobe makes of it!


  1. Siganus Sutor says

    It looks as if Bathrobe has still not come out of the bath.

    It’s the first time I hear about a language called “MSM”, which for people like me is primarily a political party. Is it what other people call “putonghua”?

  2. Indeed it is, and it means Modern Standard Mandarin. (Or Main Stream Media, in other contexts.)

  3. J.W. Brewer says

    I know someone who deals professionally with a lot of scholarly social-science stuff who was taken aback when “MSM” became widespread shorthand for “mainstream media” because her prior default reading of the initialism had been http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Men_who_have_sex_with_men

  4. OK, I’m out of the bath.

    My first impression was that this was NOT Chinese. Impressionistically it sounded like some East European language, especially with its plentiful use of voiced alveolar fricatives and multi-syllabic words. So no, I would never have picked it as Chinese. But then every so often it would break out into some kind of regionally accented Chinese of the type that sounds really rustic when you’re used to putonghua. It was like islands of lucidity in the middle of some totally unintelligible foreign language.

    However, I have to admit that I cheated. After 5 minutes of watching this I wandered off looking for other languages that I might know, such as Mongolian, Japanese, and Chinese dialects (topolects). Having done so I grasped one reason why I had trouble understanding it. My Chinese aural comprehension is not always stellar, and when the film started throwing fancy vocabulary around (which it does at places) I tended to have trouble understanding even the Chinese version. Listening to the Dungan, however, was of quite a different dimension of unintelligibility. Even after I’d become more familiar with the content, Dungan really left me completely puzzled for long stretches between the short snippets of intelligible Chinese.

    In cases like this the native speaker has a huge head start over the foreign learner. I’m sure that people with strong regional English accents that I wouldn’t have that much trouble understanding might be extremely difficult for many (most?) foreign learners of English. Similarly for this language. I suspect that native speakers of Mandarin dialects, especially northwestern dialects, could pick up a lot more than me.

    I think this film really underlines how large a role familiarity and standardisation play in language comprehension. Even though Dungan may be ‘Chinese’ in a linguistic sense, it has too much foreign vocabulary for people speaking putonghua to feel that it is really Chinese. Presumably most language was always like this before the advent of heavily standardised modern languages.

    A few things I noticed: 1) the use of the 把 construction, which was obviously already a part of the language when it split off, 2) the regional (non-Beijing) word for ‘baby’, which is ‘wawa’, 3) the pronunciation of 我 as ‘vo’, at least by some people, which sounds very Slavic. (Forgive me if I’ve got any of these wrong).

  5. Dmitry Pruss has for some reason been having trouble posting this comment, so I am posting it for him:

    The ethnonym “Dungan” is forever linked in my mind with Obruchev’s wonderfully written book, “Gold Prospectors of the Desert”, who investigated abandoned XIX c mines and mining towns in Dzhungaria which used to operate before the Dungan uprising, and wrote a historical account of the times, of the patchwork of Kalmyk, Dungan, and Han, and of course of many geological stories. Obruchev depicts the Dungan of racially starkly distinct from the Chinese, but speaking fully mutually comprehensible languages

  6. John Emerson says

    My understanding is that the Dungan are an exile branch of the people the Chinese call Hui, Muslims who are ethnically Chinese. There are about 10 million Hui, a fair sized nation outside China but a tiny minority inside.

  7. They are. And their language began as a dialect within the Mandarin dialect continuum, and in some ways remains so — but the effect of early mass literacy and the ability to absorb loan words more or less unchanged has had a major effect on it.

  8. Just wondering how Chinese (Han) people embraced Islam, and when it took place. I suppose it can be found on the internet, but it’s Sunday morning at the centre of the World and a decent cup of coffee is lying somewhere there, waiting…

  9. In a word, the Silk Road. Arab and Persian traders settled down in China and sometimes converted the locals, while themselves assimilating to Chinese culture in all ways except their distinctive religion. In addition, the Yuan (Mongol) dynasty expelled many Muslims from Mongol lands, and they fled east into China proper. The same happened to Jews and Christians, but in much smaller numbers. Later dynasties were tolerant to Islam, especially the Sufi-flavored varieties common in the East.

  10. Chris Beckwith has, or had, in his office a Hui wall hanging of a large Koranic quotation (in green ink, iirc) that’s really an unintelligible tangle of strokes.

  11. Jean-Michel says

    3) the pronunciation of 我 as ‘vo’, at least by some people, which sounds very Slavic.

    The Wikipedia article suggests that MSM /w/ maps to Dungan /v/. The same phenomenon is found in some modern northwestern Chinese dialects (e.g. Lanzhou), so given the Dungans’ origins I wouldn’t be surprised if they do the same thing.

  12. Dungan and Hui people in general are thought to be descendants of Central Asian immigrants to China from the Mongol empire period. Some of them might actually be descendants of surviving Tanguts of Xixia state who were converted to Islam.

  13. Belated comment:

    I looked at the English version of ‘Jesus’ and I must say I found the accent of the narrator rather curious. It was somewhat reminiscent of the formal pronunciation of American English found in old newsreels, one which an earlier LH post said was now pretty much dead — although an American ear might pick up subtle differences that I can’t. At any rate, it seemed to have been chosen to be American without being aggressively so, which would be consonant with the aim of (1) presenting the Jesus story reverently, and (2) presenting it in a way that people outside the U.S. would not find offputting.

  14. Speaking of unusual American(?) accents, does anyone know what the deal is with TS Eliot’s accent?

  15. Probably an acquired Conservative RP accent layered over his original American base. Compare our own Mattitiahu’s accent these days (the last video on the page), and don’t miss my analysis in the comments.

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