Mandarin and Putonghua or Standard Languages and Their Dialects

I recently received a comment, which I deleted due to tone, which asked how I could possibly state that Putonghua (Official Mandarin) is incomprehensible with “Mandarin”. Truth is, there are 1,500 dialects of Mandarin. Putonghua is only an official form of Mandarin based on some of these dialects and instituted after 1949.  In time, Putonghua itself has changed so much that it is no longer intelligible with the pure form of the very dialect that it was based on! Furthermore, new forms of Putonghua have already developed that are incomprehensible to other Putonghua speakers! The truth is that forms of a language may not be intelligible with each other. That is why I (with the assistance of some of the world’s top Sinologists) am working to redo the classification of Sinitic and carve new languages out of it based on intelligibility. As it stands, there are 14 Sinitic languages. Based on intelligibility, there are far more than that. The Chinese style of promiscuous use of the word “dialect” for both languages and dialects has been very destructive in terms of our understanding of what is really going on there. Similar things occur in many large languages. Within Macro-Dutch, we probably have 14 different languages, Dutch, 10 forms of Dutch Low Saxon, Zeews and Flemish, and that’s just getting started. For one thing, Flemish is looking like more than one language. None of these lects are mutually intelligible. So there is “Dutch” and then 13 other languages under the “Dutch” rubric. Within Macro-French, there are 4 languages, Standard French and three others – Cajun French, Walloon and Picard. None of these lects are mutually intelligible. Actually, there are quite a few more, but those are the only ones accepted at this time. There are 20 different forms of Macro-German – Standard German, Eastern and Western Yiddish, Lower Silesian, Upper Saxon, Bavarian, Cimbrian, Mocheno, Hutterite German, Walser, Swabian, Colonia Tovar German, Schwyzerdütsch, Pennsylvania German, Kölsch, Limburgisch, Pfaelzisch, Mainfränkisch and Luxembourgeois. None of these lects are really mutually intelligible. Actually, there are more than that, but those are the only ones that are recognized. So we have “German” and 19 different languages inside of “German.” Within Macro-Italian, we have Standard Italian and 13 other languages – Dalmation, Istriot, Neapolitan-Calabrese, Sicilian, Emiliano-Romagnolo, Lombard, Ligurian, Piedmontese, Venetian and four different kinds of Sardinian – Sassarese, Gallurese, Logudurese and Campidanese. None of these lects are really mutually intelligible. So we have “Italian” and 13 different languages inside of “Italian.” These stuff drives laypeople and Internet cranks completely insane, but linguists look at all it and shrug our shoulders. National chauvinists are particularly irked by this stuff. Italian nationalists say there is “Italian” and the other 13 languages are Italian dialects. Dutch nationalists insist there is one Dutch and the other 13 languages are Dutch dialects. German nationalists say there is German and the other 19 languages are German dialects. There’s a tendency among these types to not accept that languages closely related to theirs are actually separate languages and not dialects. This is due to the consolidating, assimilationist, anti-liberationist agenda of the nationalist. You can go around the Internet and see the wild debates ranging over whether Scots is a separate language or a dialect of English. What’s interesting is that inside the field and especially in academia, all this stuff causes is just yawns and shoulder shrugs. But outside of the field, ordinary folks are driven mad by this. This is one reason why people want you to get a degree in a field before you call yourself some kind of an expert. People who call themselves linguists, anthropologists and economists who lack degrees in Linguistics, Anthropology and Economics have a strong tendency to not know what the Hell they are talking about. Many are hacks, cranks and fringe nuts. Within the fields themselves, especially in academia, there tend to be consensuses about a variety of things, a deep familiarity with the basics of the field and most importantly, a spirit of collegiality and professionalism. I have nothing against autodidacts in principle, but they often lack all of these things. Go to sci.lang on Usenet and look at all the autodidacts calling themselves linguists. They are passing themselves off as the world’s leading experts while having raging debates that you won’t hear one peep about in academia. None of these guys would last 10 minutes at a university. It always pissed me off when people said, “You can’t be a [whatever] unless you have a degree.” But I’m starting to understand what they are talking about. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

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3 thoughts on “Mandarin and Putonghua or Standard Languages and Their Dialects”

  1. Linguists strike me as having some pretty stupid dogmas. For example, the idea that no families higher than those currently accepted (Indo-European, Afro-Asiatic, etc.) can possibly worked out. Not that there haven’t been some bad ideas proposed before, but to say that it’s completely impossible and brand anyone trying to work on it as a complete kook is just ridiculous.

  2. That’s actually correct Reader. However, there are a number of linguists working on these higher families, and not everyone working on these higher families is considered to be a kook. Mostly just the Greenbergists who are using the mass comparison method. Those who are attempting to use reconstruction to posit higher families are not necessarily called kooks, for instance, the Nostraticists are not so branded. It’s always been acceptable to look for high level stuff, just not using mass comparison. Greenberg mostly drove people insane with his Americanist approach – Amerind, etc.
    Also, higher families are still being discovered. Ket and Na-Dene were considered to be two very high level families and everyone thought it would end there. They were the equivalent of the IE and AA you mention. However, Ket-Dene (or whatever) has recently been proven, that is, Ket and Na-Dene are part of a supergroup. Also, it looks like Austronesian and Tai-Kadai have finally been proven, as Austro-Thai. People have been fighting that one forever. One of the top people working in that area is a friend of mine. He has always resisted these higher groupings, though he had respect for guys like Paul Benedict who were proposing them.
    Problem is these guys demand reconstruction to prove these ancient families, and past a certain point, it gets really hard to reconstruct forms anymore. There’s so little left.
    Thx for keeping up with the field. I’m impressed.

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