A Nonsense Question: Do You Speak Chinese?

by setohj

While growing up in Canada, I could speak Chinese as my Mom nearly always spoke Chinese to me, and I answered back in Chinese, sometimes leading to furious arguments, often regarding the definition of a word. Also, the old timers spoke Chinese with us whenever our family visited them at some nearby Chinese restaurant or in Chinatown. Of course there was the usual attendant uneasiness whenever white classmates made fun of our chineseness which in hindsight was probably less Chinese and more of my Mom’s quirks that we picked up along the way. Until recently, my answer to the question, “Do you speak Chinese?” had always been in the affirmative. More recent revelations led me to ask if this question makes any sense at all. Is there such a thing as a single, monolithic Chinese language that is mutually intelligible to all Chinese, regardless of where they live?

My spoken Chinese was most questioned during the years following 1967 when Canada finally removed the last of its discriminatory policies toward the Chinese. The surge of new Chinese immigrants were mostly from Hong Kong. By the 1970s, I had assumed at first incorrectly that the Cantonese spoken by the newcomers is merely another Chinese dialect, similar to the dialect spoken in our family and among the old timers in Chinatowns across Canada. What surprised me, as I got to meet more people from Hong Kong, was that they didn’t understand most of the Chinese that I spoke, and I their Chinese. The new Hong Kong immigrants in fact spoke Standard Cantonese. (Henceforth, I shall call Standard Cantonese by the single moniker “Cantonese,” unless otherwise noted.) Cantonese is clearly different from the dialect we speak at home.

For a while, along with many of my cohort of Chinese born in Canada, I had thought that I spoke the dialect known as Toisan. (Some writers would anglicize such word into “Toisanese,” but I’m not doing so here. Chinese may often add the word yu (語), or sometimes hua (話) at the end of a compound word for naming a language, which I also omit occasionally here.) Whenever Hong Kong immigrants winched and asked what was it that I was speaking, or whenever they tried to correct my spoken Chinese, I would tell them that I was speaking Toisan, the dialect of the largest group of early Chinese living in Canada. It was only years after I graduated from university that my Dad clarified to me that we speak the dialect known as Hoiping (開平, or Kaiping in the Mandarin pronunciation). I’m not sure why it took so long for him finally to explain to me that Hoiping merely shares a dialect similar with those spoken in three other neighboring Chinese counties, including the county of Toisan. (Note that I use bold fonts for the romanization of Mandarin and italics for the Hoiping dialect.)

Later on, as I delved deeper into the mysteries of the Chinese language(s), I realized that I was wrong on a number of fronts. First of all, after my first undergraduate courses in Chinese 100 and 101, it was apparent that the difference between Mandarin and the Chinese dialect spoken in my home is as different as English and French, perhaps even more so. The spelling of English words may overlap French words as much as 33%. You might sometimes even guess successfully at the meaning of a French word, but I discovered Mandarin was much more difficult than French. While learning French, I could guess and use some familiar clues found also in English, but despite knowing Hoiping, I found it was of little help to me in learning Mandarin. I resorted to brute force memorization of the Mandarin words that sound wildly different from their Hoiping counterparts. Some words that are represented by a single syllable (word) in Hoiping, require two syllables in Mandarin. (In the balance of this essay, I will continue to refer to Hoiping as a county, even though Hoiping was designated as a city in 1993.)

In this article, I use the terms “dialect” and “language” interchangeably, even though the difference between the dialects that are spoken in various regions of China can be as different as English from French. Even those people expert in the study of the Chinese language have not yet come to a consensus on which word, “dialect” or “language,” should be used to describe the variations of spoken Chinese. In my opinion, as a layperson, I see the Chinese language not so much as one language with many dialects, but rather, I view China as one country in which the ethnic Chinese speak many different languages.

Today’s linguists would agree that there are at least seven distinct language groups of Chinese. Some linguists might set the number of Chinese language groups as high as 13, and this does not even include the dozens of languages of the minority nationalities within China, such as Tibetan. A typical classification of Chinese might consist of these language groups: Mandarin (Putonghua 普通話 in mainland China or Guoyu 國語 in Taiwan), Wu (吳語), Xiang (湘語), Gan (贛語), Hakka (客家語 Kejia Yu), Min (閩語 Min Yu), and Cantonese (粵語 Yue Yu). The preceding spellings of the various dialects, except those within the brackets, are the spellings used by English speakers living abroad, typically in North America. The spelling within the brackets are the romanization of Mandarin, according to the system of romanization developed in mainland China called pinyin. Linguistic experts may also refer to Mandarin by another term, Guan Hua (官話).

The above language group that linguists call Yue Yu, include Standard Cantonese as well as the other various dialects found in Canton Province, including Hoiping and Toisan. The word “Cantonese” is ambiguous and might be misleading at times, as this word often refers to Standard Cantonese, the dialect spoken in and around Canton City (Guangzhou) and Hong Kong. It is very different from the many dialects spoken in other counties within Canton Province (Guangdong). Cantonese is so important with regard to provincial government and business matters, that it is also called literally the Provincial Dialect (省話). What many people, including the more recent immigrants to Canada, do not know is that the majority of the early Chinese pioneers in Canada did not speak Cantonese as their native tongue even though these early pioneers originated from Canton Province. With the ascension of pinyin (Mandarin) as the default spelling of Chinese words in English publications, Cantonese might also be called Guangdong Hua (廣東話) or Guangzhou Hua (廣州話). In recent years, people in Hoiping County sometimes call Standard Cantonese vag va 白話, literally white language (bai hua in Mandarin). Unfortunately, adding to the confusion, this compound word (白話) coincidentally also means a style of writing in the vernacular.

Hoiping County is located next to Toisan County. The Hoiping dialect is virtually identical to the Toisan dialect and also very similar to the dialects spoken in two other counties, Yinping and Sunwui. The early Chinese immigrants to Canada are mostly from the four adjacent counties of Toisan (台山), Hoiping (開平), Sunwui (新會) and Yinping (恩平). The differences between Toisan and Hoiping dialects are slight. For example, sometimes Hoiping speakers use the initial consonant “v” where Toisan speakers use “b.” The lingua franca of these four counties is collectively known as the Sze Yap dialect, or the Four Districts dialect. The term “Sze Yap” is closer to the Cantonese pronunciation of the two characters meaning four districts: 四邑 (Sì Yì in Mandarin or Lhei Yib in Hoiping). The Oxford English Dictionary even has an entry for “Sze Yap.” Many researchers of Chinese Canadian history also translate “Sze Yap” as “the Four Counties” since the reference is to these four specific counties, the source of two-thirds of the early Chinese immigrants to Canada. (At the time of this writing, all four counties are designated at some level as cities (市).)

Even within the province of Canton (Guangdong), there are variations in dialects great enough to make monolingual speakers from different regions in the same province mutually unintelligible. Speakers of Cantonese as spoken in Canton City (Guangzhou) and Hong Kong would find the dialect spoken in the Four Counties practically unintelligible. I once witnessed a taxi driver from Guangzhou asking for a translator in order to understand the directions given by local folks speaking the Hoiping dialect. Today, Hoiping is only a three and a half hour bus ride from Hong Kong.

A brief review of the differences between Mandarin and the Hoiping dialect would show how different these two dialects (languages) are. In my opinion they differ more than the difference among modern English dialects. With some effort an English speaker from North America can find the English dialect spoken by an English speaker from India somewhat intelligible. This is not the case between a monolingual Mandarin speaker and a monolingual Hoiping speaker; their dialects would be practically unintelligible to each other.

An obvious difference has to do with different pronunciation of Chinese words (i.e., characters) which otherwise are recognized by both Mandarin and Hoiping speakers when they read a Chinese text. For, example the word “I” or “me” is ngoi in Hoiping and wo in Mandarin. Both pronunciations are represented by the same Chinese character 我. There are also more tones in Hoiping, nine in Hoiping compared with four in Mandarin. Some instructors might consider a fifth tone, the neutral tone in Mandarin, but nonetheless, there are more tones in Hoiping than in Mandarin, so that it seems we could get away with more monosyllabic words in Hoiping than in Mandarin. Furthermore, the Hoiping vernacular includes syllables ending with stop consonants which in Prof. Deng’s Hoiping romanization are b, d, and g. What is known as the entering tone is associated with such syllables. The entering tone has virtually disappeared from Mandarin, but remains prominent in Hoiping.

It would be a mistake to assume that the major difference between Chinese dialects is only limited to the difference in the pronunciation of words. There is also the difference in word choice. Words that are found in classical texts that may not be spoken in daily speech of Mandarin speakers, are used in the vernacular of the Hoiping dialect. Examples of this follow later in this article.

In Chinese as in English there are synonyms, different words that have the same or nearly the same meaning. For example, we can say “I talk English,” or “I speak English.” They both convey the same meaning, although the latter is more commonly found in most of the English speaking world. Similarly, the Chinese language has two words to mean speak or talk. The Chinese speaker can use 說 or 講. The Mandarin speaker in Beijing would use 說, pronounced shuo, but a person from Hoiping would say 講, pronounced gong. Another example is the Chinese word for “Mandarin” (the dialect). In mainland China, “Mandarin” is called Putonghua or in Chinese characters: 普通話. In Taiwan, it is called Guoyu, or 國語. Early Chinese immigrants in Canada would follow the Taiwan usage and use the latter word to mean Mandarin, but they would pronounce the characters 國語 as Gog Ngui, while more recent Mandarin speaking immigrants from mainland China would say Putonghua.

Hoiping speakers and Mandarin speakers quite often use entirely different words to mean the same thing in English, for example the simple expression, “to drink.” Using the Hoiping romanization of Prof. Deng, “to drink” in Hoiping is pronounced ngem. (Prof. Deng uses marks at the end of a word to indicate tones in contrast to Mandarin pinyin which has tonal marks over the vowels. For brevity, I leave out the tonal marks in this article for both Mandarin and Hoiping romanizations.) Using the Mandarin romanization (pinyin), “to drink” in Mandarin is pronounced he. Not only is the Chinese word for “to drink” pronounced differently in Mandarin and in Hoiping, but entirely different Chinese characters are chosen to represent the English equivalent “to drink.” A Mandarin speaker would normally use the word 喝 (he in pinyin) to mean “to drink.” The Hoiping speaker would choose usually the word 飲 (ngem in the Hoiping dialect) to mean “to drink.”

A literate Mandarin speaker can recognize the word 飲 (yin in Mandarin) when it is recited in a poem or proverb, but she would normally not use it in everyday language. On the other hand, a Hoiping native would use the same word 飲 (ngem) in everyday conversation. While the word 喝, or hod in the Hoiping dialect, is seldom spoken in the conversations of Hoiping speakers, but quite common in the conversations of Mandarin speakers, pronouncing it as he. Another example is the Chinese word for “refrigerator.” The Mandarin speaker would use the compound word bing xiang (冰箱), literally “ice box.” In contrast, the Hoiping speaker would say song gui (霜櫃), literally “frost cabinet.”

There are words that Hoiping speakers use in daily speech that a Mandarin speaker would find the Hoiping usage surprising. An example is the Chinese word for “this.” In Mandarin, the word 這 is used to mean “this.” The character 這 is pronounced zhe in Mandarin and jie in Hoiping. While in normal Hoiping speech, an entirely different word 該 is used to mean “this.” The character 該 is pronounced gai in Mandarin and koi in Hoiping. Adding more confusion, both languages use the character 該 in the same compound word for “ought to.” That is, the compound word 應該 means “should” or “ought to” in both languages, only it sounds like ying gai in Mandarin and yen koi in Hoiping.

The above examples show that Hoiping speakers use words that are absent or rare in the common speech of Mandarin speakers, but a literate Mandarin speaker can recognize the word if he is shown the character of the word which the Hoiping speaker is using. This sampling of Mandarin and Hoiping words seem to suggest that the vocabulary used in the Hoiping dialect contains more words from classical Chinese than Mandarin does. I would be interested to know if anyone has done any research to confirm this hunch.

There are also quite a few words in the Hoiping dialect that are totally unexpected in Mandarin. The compound word for monkey is 猴子 or hou zi in Mandarin. If a Hoiping native were to see these characters, she would know they mean monkey and the Hoiping pronunciation of them is hao du, but she would not use this word in her normal conversation. Instead, she would use the word represented by 馬騮 which is pronounced as ma liu in Mandarin and as ma lao in Hoiping. The Mandarin speaker would likely be very surprised by this combination of a compound word meaning monkey. Literally, the dictionary meaning of these individual characters refer to a famous horse with a black mane. But in the Hoiping dialect ma lao (馬騮) means monkey. I’m not sure how a word referencing the equine world has anything to do with the simian one.

Despite the county of Hoiping being within the province of Canton (Guangdong), the Cantonese of Canton City (Guangzhou) differs from that of the Hoiping dialect so much so that they are mutually unintelligible. There are some similarities between these two dialects but not enough for a native of Guangzhou to understand a native of Hoiping without a concerted effort by the Guangzhou native to learn the other’s dialect. It is somewhat more probable though for a Hoiping speaker to understand Cantonese since Cantonese is used often in business and government matters throughout Guangdong, irrespective of regions within the province. But if both speakers are monolingual then it is very unlikely they would understand each other.

Both Hoiping and Cantonese speakers would imitate approximately the English pronunciation of the word “bus,” but the Chinese characters representing this pronunciation differs somewhat in each other’s dialect. In Cantonese, the compound characters for bus are 巴士, but in Hoiping, this compound word is pronounced ba lhu, where lhu is a romanization of the second character and sounds like a hybrid between the letters “L” and “TH” in English. The Hoiping speaker would use instead the following two characters to imitate the sound of the English for the word “bus”: 巴市, pronounced ba xi in the Hoiping dialect.

Another example of the difference between Cantonese and Hoiping is their use of more common prepositions. The English sentence, “Where is the bus station?” translated in Cantonese is “巴士站喺邊度?” In Hoiping, a person would say, “巴市站到乃?” This sentence in Hoiping romanization is “Ba xi zam o nai?” The Chinese preposition for “at”–which is missing but implied in the English interrogative sentence– used in Cantonese is 喺, pronounced “hai” and is not found in the Kaiping dictionary. The preposition used for the same purpose in Hoiping is another character 到, pronounced o. Incidentally, in Mandarin it is yet again different: 在, pronounced zai. The same question however in Mandarin is more likely to be “公共汽車在那兒?” which in pinyin is transliterated as “Gong gong qi che zai na er?” (It should be noted that by convention, the pinyin of compound words are joined together with no space in between words. For the convenience of readers unfamiliar to pinyin, I chose sometimes to ignore this convention in this article.)

There are words used in Hoiping that have no corresponding Chinese characters from the usual lexicons in Mandarin or Cantonese, so sometimes other Chinese characters with different meanings are used to represent their pronunciation and the exact meaning is to be derived from the context of the situation. The character 呃 means a hiccup or belch in the standard lexicons of the Chinese language. In contrast, its pronunciation is used sometimes in Kaiping speech to mean “to cheat or deceive” (ngag). In Prof. Deng’s Hoiping romanization, this character is accompanied by a curly bracket “}” on the right side of it to indicate that it is used merely to represent its homonym pronunciation, not its lexical meaning. The Mandarin speaker would normally use the lexical word 騙, pronounced pian in Mandarin, to mean “to cheat or deceive.” Prof. Deng uses a marker such as the curly bracket to indicate that a character is being used outside of the standard Chinese lexicons.

True, all Chinese dialects use the same writing system of characters (ideograms), but prior to the May Fourth Movement in the early twentieth century, the writing style, one might even say the predominant written form of Chinese, was in the classical style that had been in practice for centuries, a difficult, and some might say arcane form, that created an onerous barrier to entry to literacy. In order to write or read classical Chinese, the writer or reader in effect has to learn another language different from the one he normally speaks. Classical Chinese might be akin to Latin in the West where the literate and educated of every European country during the Middle Ages could correspond in writing with one another in Latin, but most common folk would be left out in the cold. It is only recently within about the last one hundred years that written Chinese reflect a spoken dialect in plain and clear language. There have been earlier Chinese works written in plain language, a style known as bai hua, but until the early twentieth century, such style is considered vulgar and seldom used by the literate population. This was a time prior to the May Fourth Movement, when classical Chinese was still the common written language among the Chinese literate throughout China irrespective of the different spoken dialects.

But even after the May Fourth Movement inspired writing in the vernacular, there is the question of which plain language should be adopted as the standard for writing plain and clear texts. After the adoption of Mandarin as the official lingua franca, the current standard of writing in Chinese has defaulted to the plain language developed for writing by predominantly Mandarin speakers. The grammar and diction used in published texts in plain language anywhere in China today follow that of Mandarin speakers. There has been recent attempts at preserving the Cantonese dialect in written Chinese, such as the Apple Daily newspaper published out of Hong Kong.

There is no single, monolithic Chinese language spoken uniformly by all Chinese whether in China or in other parts of the world, despite the official policy of Mandarin (Putonghua) being the national dialect in the People’s Republic of China. Yes, there is a government push in the education of the masses in the official lingua franca, but how successful will China be in creating a nation state of one common tongue, is anybody’s guess, despite the progress in recent decades. The invention of the Internet and smart phones certainly will advance this national objective of one monolithic language. But I’m not so sure if this is an entirely good thing for China. Historically the linguistic landscape of China is more like that of the countries of Europe during the Holy Roman Empire than like English in America, both regions being of equivalent size to China. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Diversity might help maintain a robust and healthy nation, not the monolithic, dark empire that Western pop culture has sometimes portrayed in its stereotypes of China.

Meanwhile, the more sensible question to ask is, “Which Chinese language do you speak?”