This new serial post is actually inspired by the fact two Internet friends asked me about the Chinese language, separately but with a coincidental timing that was very close to each other.
So let’s start with the basics. First, we have to distinguish with the written language and the spoken language. There are only two systems of written Chinese: the complicated (the original) versus the simplified. The complicated system of written Chinese dates back to the first Emperor of ancient China, to the Qin dynasty (221-206 BC). For a long time I believed that simplified Chinese dates back to the Communist party that holds office in Mainland China but apparently some of the simplified characters actually could date as far back to the Qin dynasty as well and others appeared in the work of ancient poets throughout Chinese history. So the Communist party did not invent it as I believed, only made it the official writing system. It used to be that Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau used complicated Chinese whereas mainland China, Malaysia and Singapore used simplified Chinese. But I guess now Taiwan is the only place that still uses complicated Chinese.
As to spoken Chinese, there lies your myriads of dialects or local/regional variants of Chinese. Now of course there is the official Chinese spoken: Mandarin which again dates back to the Qin dynasty which imposed one common written and spoken language for the whole of China. How close are these dialects to each other? Some are quite close, from neighbouring regions. Others are like foreign languages onto each other. If I borrow an analogy to the English spoken language, then I would say some of the Chinese dialects are like UK versus US versus Australian versus Canadian English whereas others are like English versus Spanish versus Italian, all derived from Latin.
Now, personally, I can speak in three separate Chinese dialects to varying degrees: Cantonese is my mother tongue and I can converse in accented Shanghai-nese and Mandarin. To me, these three dialects are quite distinct and let me summarise here how they feel to me in sound and impression:
- Cantonese- it’s a casual language and new slangs frequently crop up even before the advent of the Internet age, from TV dramas and movies (of course, I’m talking about the Hong Kong variant of Cantonese, can’t speak for the Canton region or Macau which also speak Cantonese, never lived in either place). There are no sounds in Cantonese that require you to roll your tongue or stick your tongue up to the roof of your mouth (which are both hard for me, at least I’m not aware that I have the ability to do either consciously). It’s funny but I can’t really speak for how it sounds like, perhaps it’s mother tongue bias. I should also mention that there is no pronunciation system in Cantonese that is equivalent to that in English or Mandarin pinyin. I learnt all my Cantonese pronunciation by being told in school how each character is pronounced. That was the way we did it in Hong Kong in 1989-1994. Since then, there had been a problem of people born after me that had a tendency to not pronounce words properly by swallowing part of the sounds in a character that distorted meaning. I think part of the solution offered was to sort of steal from English in order to coach people in proper pronunciation but I had already left Hong Kong by then. So I don’t know whether this meant a revamp in how you taught Cantonese pronunciation in school or not (and plus there was all that weirdness of what language you got taught in at school and how the same school rapidly changed between English versus Cantonese versus Mandarin after 1997. Heard this vaguely from Hong Kong news, not part of my personal experience).
- Mandarin- consistent with its status as the official language, it’s quite formal and I tend to associate it with announcement, news broadcasting and that kind of stuff. I also tend to think of it as having lots of tongue-rolling sounds.
- Shanghai-nese- to me, it sounds a bit rough and I often associate it with noise and bickering. On this mainland Chinese dating show, a girl from Shanghai once said that it was a dialect good for bargaining with shopkeepers when asked what the different Chinese dialects were good for. I agreed with that also.