In a recent post at languagehat, entitled The Chinese Babel, an NYT article detailing some of the more extreme cases of linguistic diversity in China is presented. This seems like a good time to mention some of the more interesting points in a book I’ve been reading recently, The Languages of China by S. Robert Ramsey. This is an overview of the many Chinese languages spoken on the mainland (including mini-grammars), as well as the many non-Sinitic languages spoken within the nation’s borders. A history of the Chinese language and its study is also given a large chapter, as well as recent history regarding the rise of 普通话 as a national standard.
The NYT article gives several anecdotes regarding the extent of linguistic diversity, with people from neighboring villages unable to understand each other, and in particular focusing on the southern province of Fujian, which is one of the most linguistically diverse areas in China:
[G]eographic isolation has kept the Min dialects somewhat out of the Chinese linguistic mainstream. [...] The Min dialects are the most heterogeneous in China. [...] According to one Chinese linguist there are at least nine mutually intelligible groups of these dialects in Fujian. To this number must be added the groups of Min dialects spoken in northeastern Guangdong. (p. 108)
On the other hand, Mandarin dialects are generally mutually intelligible, and in a fashion similar to the American west, rapid spread of Mandarin speakers has led to a wide swath of Chinese territory being populated by speakers of very similar dialects.
In the south, the original stronghold of Chinese civilization, the linguistic story is much more complicated. But you all know that – you’ve got Cantonese dialects, Shanghainese dialects, Fujian “dialects,” and so on. But here’s an interesting point:
If there is a well-defined subgroup of the Han Chinese today, it is the Yue. They may not be as numerous as speakers of Wu [Shanghainese dialects], but they have a far better developed sense of group identity. The person from Shanghai knows that his speech is somehow very similar to that of Soochow or Hangchow, but he has usually never heard of a Wu dialect area and certainly does not think of a Wu culture distinct against the greater background of China. The Yue speaker, by contrast, will always identify himself as “Cantonese.” He looks to Canton as the center of his local culture. He recognizes Canton dialect as standard. (p. 98)
Finally, regarding the “myth” of a single Chinese language, Ramsey writes:
The Chinese believe that they speak dialects of a single language not because they are unaware of the objective linguistic facts, but because of certain cultural considerations. Unlike the peoples who speak Romance, the Chinese are not divided into a number of national units corresponding roughly to the several groups of closely allied dialects. rather, the Chinese language is spoken by a single group of people with a common cultural heritage. China [... ] is the oldest social institution, and the Chinese people belong to and follow cultural and national traditions that have continued since the days of the Han Empire and before. They feel themselves to be part of the same language community in ways that the Romance peoples, with their separate histories, cultures, and language norms, could never do. (p. 16-17)
Ramsey goes on to claim that not only inter-village communication but also communication with a central government, schools, and other social institutions constitute “language use,” the fact that there is a national standard in China leads the population towards some degree of unification, whereas the various European nations, which each have their own standards and social institutions, tend to lead bilingual populations apart from each other. In other words, on the level of formal and inter-community communication, there is some sort of common language that does not exist in Europe. In fact, Ramsey brings up a similar point when he discusses the search for a national common language after the Qing dynasty fell. But that’s for another time…
[edit: Some unfortunate sentences have been corrected for grammar and factuality. The author regrets these errors. But only slightly.]