The Place of Mandarin in Sinitic

In the comments, James Schipper suggests that Mandarin is to Sinitic what German and Russian are to Germanic and Slavic. He also offers that most Sinitic speakers also speak Mandarin and makes a comparison with Welsh and English and Frisian and Dutch, where every Welsh speaker speaks English and every Frisian speaker speaks Dutch, and each one would rather write in English or Dutch than in Welsh or Frisian.
My comments:
English and German have 60% lexical similarity. English and French have about 25% and English has about 29% with Russian (I need to check on that one!). I need to look at some charts here.
It’s not uncommon for Chinese lects to have 5-30% lexical similarity. Further, there are deep differences in tones, and even grammar and structure. Even the pronouns can differ. But clearly they are all related to German and they all derived form Chinese.
So yes, your analogy with Russian and German as super-languages on top of their families is correct, but it is important to note the vast differences in the lects. It was said that no one could understand Chairman Mao’s dialect, Xiang Nan (Mandarin dialect). Apparently his secretary could understand him, but few others could. I’m not sure how he got his points across.
Further, at this point probably most speakers of the Sinitic languages for sure speak Putonghua, which is the Standard Mandarin. It’s a standard the same way that High German is Standard German and Standard Italian is the standard for that language. However, overseas, many do not speak Putonghua, and in the Cantonese area, I believe many still do not speak Putonghua. English is a Germanic language.
Look at the vocabulary – closest language is Frisian with 64%. Dutch is 62% and German is 60%. French is 25%. English is clearly a Germanic language. There are similar cases with the English Latin layering in the Chinese languages. Some of them have heavy layers of non Sinitic tongues like Zhuang or Hmong.
Besides Putonghua, you are correct that the vast majority of Sinitic speakers are native speakers of some kind of Mandarin.
I believe that a lot of the older folks do not have very good Mandarin and may be monolinguals of their Sinitic tongue, but I’m not sure. The government has been pushing Putonghua very hard for the past decade or so, almost too hard. It’s been killing the smaller tongues. So it’s not quite the same way with Frisian and Welsh yet. I believe it’s pretty common in the South to find Cantonese speakers who don’t speak Mandarin, and it’s for sure the case overseas.
As far as writing, I don’t believe it’s a problem. An ideographic system was perfect for Chinese as it was the one way that all of the speakers of the various Chinese lects could communicate. My father was in China in 1946 and he said that the rickshaw drivers often could not understand each other, but they could all write Chinese, so they would communicate by writing notes.
All Chinese can write to each other, no matter what language they speak, assuming they are literate. A decade ago in a college in Henan, a professor said that the students would come to the college from all over the province and for the first month would communicate by writing notes to each other, so they all wrote a common language. In that province, every county has its own language, and there are even separate languages within counties. It took them about a month or so before they could start working out each other’s languages.
Some comment that the Chinese languages are like a Cockney accent of English. On a website, a commenter said that that’s not true. He said he can understand Cockney, but they had a speaker of an Anhui Mandarin lect as a professor at the university and no one could understand what he was talking about. So it’s quite common for the various Chinese lects to be pretty much incomprehensible to each other.
There are other comments around the Net that say that the Chinese lects are close enough to pick them up if you spend a bit of time there. That’s not really true. The differences between the Chinese lects are often as different as English and German. Now suppose you are an English speaker and you go to Germany. Are you going to “just pick up” German really vast? Forget it. I mean, if you stay there 3 years, maybe. Maybe! Someone else compared the differences between Chinese lects to the gulf between English and Irish. That may be too distant, but it may also be correct.
Differences between the lects ecompass tones, grammar and lexicon. All of them boil down to intelligibility. The major Chinese lects regularly score around 50-60% intelligibility. That is pretty bad and certainly does not qualify them as dialects. A dialect should have 90% intelligibility or more.
This is especially true in the center and south of the country. In Anhui, Fujian , Henan, Hunan , Jiangsu and Zhejiang there is an incredible diversity of tongues. It is said in Fujian that every 3 miles the culture changes and every 6 miles the language changes.
In these parts of China, there are lots of mountains and it is very rural. Many people never left their home village to go over the mountain to talk to the people over there, so a multitude of tongues arose. I understand that in this part of China there are even incomprehensible tongues inside major cities where the downtowners can’t understand the suburbs.

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5 thoughts on “The Place of Mandarin in Sinitic”

  1. I’ve never understood how the various Chinese languages can coincide in written form while being so widely divergent in spoken form. To take the analogy of Romance languages: even if you replaced all the words in Spanish with their etymological equivalents in French, you could not actually turn Spanish into something that a French person would readily understand. The word order would be different and the meanings of some of the words would be different.
    Suppose there is a Chinese character that in Mandarin means “eyelid”. What’s to stop the meaning from changing to “eyebrow” or “eyelash” in some of the various other Chinese dialects, parallelling the developments that happened to the same words in the Germanic languages?
    Do all Chinese characters have the same exact meaning everywhere, or are the claims that all Chinese can instantly understand each other’s written language exaggerated?

  2. I guess there are some problems with writing Chinese, but they are not vast. I understand some of the Mandarin characters do not carry over into the other lects.
    I do not believe that the meaning of the characters changes.
    The claims that all Chinese can instantly understand written Chinese are indeed exaggerated. Further, we only speak here of Chinese characters. There are various Romanization schemes that definitely will not translate over.
    Bottom line is I really do not know the answer to your question! However, in cruising about the Chinese sites and forums researching this stuff, I did come across some comments that all is not perfect in the world of written Chinese.
    Also, there are definitely some very major word order and grammar issues between the Chinese lects. And I do mean major!

  3. Dear Robert
    There is abook that I can recommend to you. It is THE CHINESE LANGUAGE Fact and Fantasy, by John deFrancis. The author contends that Chinese writing is not ideographic at all, but that the Chinese writing is actually a syllabary, which has strayed very far from a phonetic model because it has remained unchanged for many centuries. Suppose that the syllable man were written with a symbol that looked like a man, then we would find that symbol in mansion, mangle, mandarin and manger, even though those words have nothing to do with man. In Chinese, according to John deFrancis, it works the same way.
    A Chinese student told me recently that, although ta can mean both he and she, different characters are used for male and female. What probably happened is that at some time in the past there were different words for he and she. They became the same in pronunciation but remained different in spelling, in the same way that knight and night, knit and nit and knot and not were once pronounced differently.
    In English and French there are also many words that are written identically but pronounced differently, such as culture, nature, nation, rupture, danger, ravage, intelligence, ranger, etc.
    I find it hard to believe that there is 60% lexical similarity between German and English. That probably applies only to root words, not to compounds. Also, lexical similarity does not mean semantic similarity. For instance, Meinung = opinion, not meaning; Witz = joke not wit; Kind = child, not kind; Zaun = fence, not town; Tier = animal, not deer.
    In Dutch we have the verbs opstaan, opstappen, uitspreken, uitgeven, but they don’t mean stand up, step up, speak out and give out. They mean get up, leave or resign, pronounce and publish.
    Here is what I wrote to a Dutch friend recently. Let’s see how much you can figure out.
    “De tijd gaat inderdaad razend snel. Ik meende dat je dochters nog op de middelbare school zaten, en nu blijkt dat ze al volwassen zijn, althans in leeftijd.
    In m’n flatgebouw wonen tegenwoordig veel studenten. Als ik hen gadesla, dan kan ik me moeilijk aan de indruk onttrekken dat, hoewel de lichamelijke volwassenheid reeds op 18-jarige leeftijd bereikt wordt, de geestelijke volwassenheid vaak veel langer op zich laat wachten.”
    Regards. James

  4. The current major language of China “Mandarin” was invented by Manchus for Chinese people, which isn’t the main language of Chinese language before, long before the Qing Manchu dynastic rule of China, Chinese commoners speak Southern Chinese dialects like Cantonese, hakka and Fujian etc.. And most Han Chinese have SE Asian gene rather than Northern Asian gene. But Manchus spoke completely different dialect themselves.
    These Northern Asians lived on Northern parts of current China wasn’t Chinese people, mostly were Xanbei, Khitan, Mongols, Uighur, Jurchen and Koreans. Their language dialects are completely different from Chinese dialects.
    Today, only Mongolian and Koreans survived as true North Asian, Uighur and Tibetan are now under Chinese rule; and their languages is threaten by Chinese language.

  5. @ Euro
    You have to consider written chinese as an independently coined language. Even if the meanings of a word can vary allover China, the fact that Literary Chinese (written Chinese) was standardized and used independently as a written media, would sweep away the problems. It’s as if French Italians and Spanish would all use Latin. Even though both latin french and spanish may have different meanings for a same word, as latin has its own standard, there would be no understanding problem.
    for instance “please give me his book”
    Literary written form would be
    (a) 求你給我其書。 (please-you-give-me-his-book)
    While spoken lects would be
    (b) 請你給我他的書。
    Mandarin:Qǐng nǐ gěi wǒ tā de shū
    (c) 唔該 (請) 你畀 (給) 佢本書 (他的書) 我。
    Cantonese:M4 goi1 nei5 bei2 keoi5 bun2 syu1 ngo5
    While talking a northerner would say it like (b), a cantonese soutehrner like (c), but both would write it like (a).

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