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  • Writer's pictureDr. Chi

Politics of Language

Updated: 4 days ago

One of the things we like to do as humans is use language to build ethnic and national boundaries, whether within or across nation-states. While I am not an expert on East Asian relations, I am an expert on race and ethnicity, as well as its links to nationalism, gender, and class. Every country/culture/society has its particularities. However, for better or for worse, we are all human beings and we tend to do similar things no matter where we are in the world.

Tensions between Yoruba, Igbo, and Hausa speakers in Nigeria are as real as tensions between French and German speakers in Belgium, Cantonese and Mandarin speakers in China, or Quechua and Spanish speakers in Peru. Living in the United States, closer to home for me are the issues surrounding bilingual education for Spanish speakers, retaining Navajo and other indigenous languages, and struggles to learn Igbo among second-generation Nigerians. Sociolinguists have shown that those who do not speak the dominant language can experience stigma, poorer socioeconomic conditions, less political power, and a lower sense of well-being.

Languages vs. Dialects

I recently watched a Tik Toker defend the Chinese government instilling instruction in Mandarin in Cantonese-speaking areas of the country. Some have called her a propagandist because she argues for the impracticality of teaching what she calls "dialects" of different regions in China. For this reason, she advocated for schools continuing to teach Mandarin alone and not providing instruction in "dialects." Whether she is or is not a propagandist can be up for debate. But from a linguistic perspective-- the science of studying languages-- what she said has a lot of issues and raises a lot of questions.

Linguists have a phrase that I love: "A language is a dialect with an army and navy." This maxim points to how what gets officially designated as a language versus a dialect is about power, whether political, military, or soft power. It is why the Tik Toker can refer to the hundreds of "dialects" in China and turn to UN definitions without referencing linguistics.

In linguistics, there are a variety of different forms of speech from languages and dialects to creoles and pidgins. In the case of languages and dialects, the thing that distinguishes them is mutual intelligibility. To be labeled a dialect, the forms of speech must be mutually intelligible, as in both people speaking different forms of speech must be able to understand what is being said. When people cannot understand one another, then they are not speaking dialects, they are speaking different languages.

For example, if an English-speaking American encounters a person from England, we can converse with one another. Our speech shares a grammatical structure, even if we occasionally trip over a few vocabulary words. This is why, even though we like to compare and contrast American versus British varieties, English is a language we both speak. We just speak different dialects. Of course, there are many sub-dialects of English within each country, but we can still mainly understand one another, even if there is some cringing involved. As a country that broke free from Britain's grasp almost 250 years ago, it is not surprising that our speech varieties have diverged so widely. It is likely why US voices sound so odd to the British and well as it's more recent colonies and former colonies.

In the case of Portuguese and Spanish, two languages with Latin roots, we see that this common heritage has led to major differences in these varieties. Portuguese speakers often have no problems understanding Spanish. However, the reverse is not true-- Spanish speakers often have trouble recognizing what Portuguese speakers say without prior exposure. This is why we refer to them as languages today-- not dialects of Latin. Their shifts and changes over centuries, along with the influence of local languages, have caused them to not be mutually intelligible.

In China, Mandarin is the dominant language. However, people from Fuzhou province do not speak dialects of Chinese. Mandarin speakers cannot understand any of its speech forms. This is why they speak different local languages, not dialects. Within that province, there are both mutually intelligible local speech forms (dialects) as well as non-mutually intelligible speech types (languages). Yet in comparison to Mandarin, they indeed are all different languages. The same is true for Cantonese and languages in Fuzhou province-- they are not dialects because apart from occasional vocabulary words, people speaking only Mandarin, Cantonese, or Fuzhounese cannot understand one another.

China and Language Power

The speaker's incorrect use of dialects versus languages may stem from a translation issue. At the same time, she is from China, a country with a lot of nationalism. China is also in the midst of acquiring more territory in its attempts to take over sovereign peoples and nation-states, like Taiwan. National pride may its citizens to the colonial practices occurring in front of them. I say this as an American who has had conversations with many people who do not think about US "territories" like Puerto Rico and US Samoa as colonies, and are in denial about our last state, Hawaii, being acquired against the wish of the native Hawaiians. I also say this as someone who recognizes that the presence of US military bases have a major influence on a country regardless of the will of the people living there.

The amazing thing about China is how the country has been able to regularize different speech varieties by having them use the same writing systems. Written Cantonese and Mandarin are mutually legible because of this standardization. However, it cannot be taken for granted. Six centuries ago, when Joseon (present day Korea) was a vassal state of China, writing was only in Chinese, despite people speaking Korean on the peninsula. Literacy was reserved only for elites, so while few Koreans could speak Mandarin, some could read it without speaking it.

Korea had no other form of writing until King Sejong created hangul in the mid-1400s. His goal was to create a simpler writing system based on just 24 syllabic characters. This was in contrast to the hundreds of characters in written Chinese. This feat was successful in that it led to large increases in literacy in Korea. Chinese characters had a major influence on the Korean writing system, and several are understood by Koreans today even if speaking and writing Chinese fluently is not pervasive. But Koreans are very proud of hangul and I've heard several times (from Koreans) that it is the most efficient writing system.

In the video, the Tik Toker referenced pushback from Cantonese-speakers against the increased use of Mandarin in official capacities. Despite sharing a writing system with Mandarin speakers, Cantonese is the dominant language of Hong Kong. Much like Macau, another Cantonese-speaking region, with the Portuguese, the people of Hong Kong were under British rule for over a hundred years. In the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, Britain agreed to hand Hong Kong over to China in 1997. China agreed to maintain Hong Kong's sovereignty under a "one country-two systems" structure.

However, there have been many, many struggles for Hong Kong to retain its sovereignty while confronting China's nation-building efforts. Most recently, it has emerged in efforts to promote Mandarin in official communications there. This is despite Cantonese speakers' long history and contributions to Chinese culture. It is to be expected that the people of Hong Kong would object to this despite agreements enshrined in the 1984 agreement.

The downside of everyone formally learning only Mandarin in school is that local languages are likely to die out as a result. That has been happening in the United States in which the imposition of this language from the British Isles has led to the loss of Mamulique, Adai, Awaswas and Miwok-- several of North Ameruca's indigenous languagaes. It was purposeful. The US government has engaged in the cultural genocide of native peoples-- eradicating their languages and world views-- for centuries.

Something similar is happening in Nigeria with the Igbo language in which many people, especially outside of Igboland, may understand but not write in Igbo. There are many of Igbo ethnic background who can do neither. While individual effort is important in reviving the language, without learning native languages in school, they are under threat of what linguists call "language death." This is especially true in post-colonial contexts where European languages and contact with native languages create creoles spoken as the mother tongue of younger generations. If schools do not offer at least some formal teaching in the native language of the region, only dominant and creole speech forms like Pidgin English, will survive.

Thankfully, the Chinese government recognizes the value in preserving local native languages. They've implemented billingual education in Xinjiang, which has a large population of Uighurs, but with mixed results. In 2005, they started programs in school to revive Shanghainese, a dialect of Mandarin. The Ministry of Education says they have increased efforts to protect them through establishing Cantonese clasees and setting up exhibitions of Shanghainese. However, records of the languages and dialects are not sufficient. As seen in dual-language programs in the United States, teaching students math or history in another language facilitates their ability to learn Spanish and Chinese in an English domiant society. Countries like China and Nigeria would do well to not only preserve local languages but promote their use alongside national or global languages.

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