Reflections on a Wandering Life.....

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Language. The idiots who tried to build that tower to heaven created quite a mess. In an international community like Beijing, one is reminded constantly. For one thing, there are the various dialects. People from the south who grew up speaking Cantonese have trouble understanding Mandarin. People from the North tell me Cantonese is impossible. And those are just the main dialects. When I was in Shanxi Province, Lucy told me there was a different dialect for each county. The folks who speak her native dialect sometimes have trouble understanding standard Mandarin. And Shanghainese sounds like a complete scribble to me. Much of this problem has been addressed by making Mandarin the official language of China. School children all learn Mandarin when they start school. At least that's how it's supposed to work. Kinda hard if your teacher doesn't really speak Mandarin, but it does seem to be working it's way down to the village level.

But beyond dialect, there is the issue of accent. When southerners say the Chinese words for "four" and "ten" I can't hear the difference. Northerners can, because the tone is different. Speaking of tones, that is really a stumble for foreigners. For Americans, the first part of the problem is that they just cannot bring themselves to believe that it makes that much difference. But it does, especially in a conversation with someone who doesn't speak English. Chinese English speakers have spent a lot of time with foreigners, so they are pretty adept at figuring out what you are saying. But folks who don't speak English really cannot understand you if you don't get the tones right.

Or it strikes them funny. Last semester, when I was teaching in Langfang, I was taking attendance or something and called out a student's name. This produced widespread laughter. I said, "What is so funny?" One of them sputtered through his all but uncontrollable fit, "You called him a wolf!" Good grief. One little tone. But it really does make a difference. And another thing. What is standard Mandarin? When I ask people, they tell me that Beijing is the standard. But that's not quite right, because natives of Beijing are known for their "R's" Everything ends with "R." Well, not everything, but lots of words that don't end that way if you are in another part of China. They actually have a character notation to indicate this in writing.

In general, I would say that North China sets the pattern for what is standard. Forget about getting a job at a Chinese language school if you are from South China. But having said that, I really don't know where perfectly "standard" Mandarin is spoken. I don't think anyone does.

And then there's English. It comes in several varieties, each with their own faithful. My friend who speaks American English refuses to listen to anything British. And my friend who speaks British English looks down her nose at me every time I say, "water." Neither of them have ever been outside of China. And the foreigners. They, of course, are also inclined to think of their own speech as the standard. Like the Australian business woman I was talking with at a banquet some time ago, "People tell me I have an accent, but I don't hear it. I meet these British people with this strange, weird accent, and they have the hide to tell me that I have an accent!"

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