Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Language Myths

The LA Times has an article about something I've noticed recently--Mandarin is becoming more prevalent among Chinese in the USA. It contains some unfortunate myths and downright errors. The first is that Cantonese is "a sharp, cackling dialect full of slang and exaggerated expressions" which "can make words of love sound like a fight."

To me, these sorts of statements are just cultural stereotypes--languages don't have sound, people do. A French truck driver cursing out somebody who just cut him off is not going to sound more melodious than a Cantonese speaker reading poetry. But that's just me. Some Cantonese speakers buy into this Cantonese=cacophony idea, too:

"You might be saying, 'I love you' to your girlfriend in Cantonese, but it will still sound like you're fighting," said Howard Lee, a talk show host on Cantonese language KMRB-AM (1430). "It's just our tone. We always sound like we're in a shouting match. Mandarin is so mellow. Cantonese is strong and edgy."

I have heard this from speakers of Cantonese and Taiwanese. Perhaps what it is is that Chinese bilinguals ("bidialecticals"?) often use Mandarin for school and "official" business but their own dialect for more earthy matters. I can say from experience that most Taiwanese will switch from Mandarin to Taiwanese when they want to curse you out, and most of the few Taiwanese phrases I know are "edgy" expressions for that very reason.

The article also strangely conflates written Chinese and spoken Mandarin:
To stress a point or to twist a sentence into a question, Cantonese speakers need only add a dramatic ahhhhhhh or laaaaaaa at the end.

Something simple like, "Let's go" becomes "C'mon, lets get a move on!" when it's capped with laaaaa.

By comparison, with Mandarin from China, what you see is what you get. The written form has been simplified by the Chinese government so that characters require fewer strokes. It is considered calmer and more melodic.
Writing with fewer strokes makes the language more melodic?

I would like to know why Mandarin is becoming more prevalent in the States. The article only says this:
But over the last three decades, waves of Mandarin-speaking mainland Chinese and Taiwanese immigrants have diluted the influence of both the Cantonese language and the pioneering Cantonese families who ran Chinatowns for years.

The surging Chinese economy today has challenged Cantonese further. Because Mandarin is China's official language, entrepreneurs [...] have been forced to adapt, often learning the hard way that business can't be done with Cantonese alone.
The author says waves have been coming for three decades, but I think there's been a noticeable increase in Mandarin just over the last few years.


Matt said...

"Cackling" is way over the top, and I'm with you. (Hearing a girl recite love poetry in German was a formative experience for me.)

It seems to me that a lot of the standard tough/mellow contrasts between Cantonese and Mandarin are referring in some roundabout way to the fact that Cantonese syllables can end in "hard" sounds like /p/ and /k/, and Mandarin ones can't. (Uh, AFAIK)

Duncan said...

I'm a native Cantonese speaker from Hong Kong, but I was taught in Mandarin in school.

A few points:

Matt's right about the difference in syllable structure between Cantonese and Mandarin.

Being completely fluent in both dialects, I have noticed that my command for the Cantonese 'colloquialisms' has been slipping steadily ever since I moved to the US.I attribute that to two factors:

a) I read Chinese more often than I speak it. Written Chinese is most usually written in the style of Mandarin Chinese.

b) I often use Mandarin as the 'default' language to begin a conversation. It's way easier to find Cantonese speakers who understand Mandarin than the other way around.

I was just back in Hong Kong during the holidays. I noticed that some words unique to Cantonese are slowly being replaced by the equivalent in Mandarin. An example would be the increasing use of 'kong tiao' (mandarin) instead of 'lang hay' (cantonese) when referring to air conditioners.

amida said...

Duncan: Is "lang hay" 冷氣? If so, both that and 空調 are used in Mandarin. I think the latter is used to refer to a centralized air conditioning system, while the former could be the type stuck into a window, but I am not sure. I always used 冷氣 (the machine and the term) in Taiwan, so it could be a mainland/Taiwan thing like bicycle=zixingche/jiaotache.

Back before 1997, when I visited Hong Kong, people would say "English, please" when I'd naively try to speak Chinese to them. Post-1997, I'm not so sure, have only spent a few days in HK since then.

Matt: You're a Wong Kar-wai fan, right? When people (including Cantonese speakers) say Cantonese is "harder-sounding," I always think of Tony Cheung and Maggie Cheung's dialogue on the In the Mood for Love soundtrack--not hard at all.

Huichieh said...

冷气(机) is also the usual term in Singapore mandarin; in most ordinary settings, 空调 will sound positively pedantic. I think that the educated crowd would say (rightly or wrongly) that the latter is the more correct term--after all, it translates "Air Conditioning". The former always have the feel that it's what the natives or common folk would have come up with to called a box that spews out cold air.

Sometimes, I wonder if the putative contrasts is not really between the languages/dialects, but between the manners of the speakers who employ them, and the corresponding sorts of conversations. There is a big difference between the stuff you get when scolded by a HK shopkeeper for taking too long to browse her wares, and listening to Tang poetry--even when both are in Cantonese.

In this regard, it is interesting that the Hokkien (Fujianhua) spoken in Singapore-Malaysia tends to sound a lot more uncultivated (more 'cackling', shall we say) when compared to equivalents on the mainland or Taiwan (Taiyu is a close relation)--but that's most likely a legacy of the fact that most early Hokkien speakers in the area were coolies and such like who came to the South Seas to seek their fortune; not mandarins or literati.

I once heard a Christian preacher from the mainland give a message in most eloquent mandarin, which was interpreted on the go into Hokkien (for the sake of the older audience). At one point, he told an anecdote about a scientist's friend who, upon seeing the scientist's beautifully constructed model of the solar system, asked, "who made that?" The scientist replied, "no one; it evolved from the dust in my office over a very long time." The friend was flummoxed: "how can that be?" --这怎么可能呢?

But only the (South Seas) Hokkien expressed his shear irritation: ma na wu koleng eh daichi?!

I almost burst out laughing there and then.

Old China Hand said...

I think it's mostly a cultural thing. My wife is Taiwanese and when she speaks Mandarin, she sounds more polite than when she speaks Minnanyu. When she talks to her Taiwanese friends here in the U.S., my children often ask why she's so angry. She replies that she isn't. It just sounds that way.

Once in Taiwan, my wife's cousin asked me if I knew any Taiwanese. I told her, "I only know the bad words because that's all I hear my wife and her mahjong buddies use." So she asked me to give her an example and I said, "Sampat jin." She turned red and told me, "Mr Callaghan, NEVER say those words in Taiwan again."

So I guess it all boils down to the kind of language you are used to using rather than the language itself.

John Emerson said...

Is "sanpat" = Mandarin "sanba" (3+8)? In Taiwan one of my students used this phrase, and I never knew what it meant specifically, except that he was trying to embarrass the girls in the class.

TarteAuCitron said...

I am a native Cantonese speaker from Hong Kong, who has spent the last decade mostly in North America.

The article from the LA Times was amusing, interesting but a bit depressing to me at different levels. I know my experience and the opinions of the people I came across are biased but I'd like to share them.

I have always been trying to keep track of the identity of Cantonese in the current world, what it means to the world and to the Chinese-speaking population. Yes, that is the ego-centric side of me that wants to know that it is still important and significant. It was sad to know Cantonese is indeed dying out, together with its associated written character set (Traditional Chinese). It is dying out just like other ancient languages or aspects thereof, such as old French grammar and Gaellic.

I agree with pretty much everything in the article, some points even amusing because they were so obvious to me I didn't realise them. Most people I came across (non-Chinese-speaking American, French etc.) did comment that Cantonese does sound quite harsh, with a quality likened to spitting. I agree whole-heartedly, that many native speakers speak with the style that makes it sound like arguing, regardless of context. My friends commented that Mandarin songs sound more gentle and soothing to the ear, compared to Cantonese songs. (But then, how about Vietnamese and Thai? To me, not only they sound harsh -- each line that I heard spoken or sung was a candidate phrase for an argument or a curse).

On the other hand, my impression of Taiwanese is even more soft and sensual than Mandarin, my experience with it mostly from pop music.

And then there is always the other side. I have friends describe my Cantonese sounding "seductive", a la Wong Kar Wai film dialogue style. But of course I can tell you, when you start speaking fast as most do in their daily lives, it is hard to avoid the "spitting" and harshness in this dialect.

I personally find news announcement style Mandarin quite irritating, and outside of the bias due to personal, historical events, I think the reason is, Mandarin has (only) four intonations, and if you are conducting business or making a news announcment and have to speak clearly and accurately, the speech can resemble someone trying to play a tune with a loud, contant-volume, almost-constant-rhythm electronic keyboard. With only four tones! If you don't get my picture, it is bit.. annoying. At least Cantonese has nine intonations, to break the harshness between the various-toned syllables.

Of course it is just my opinion.

Lastly, I'm sad to hear Duncan's report, for example, that the intricacies of the Cantonese language are slowly being assimilated by Mandarin, even in Hong Kong. Even if it is a less popular, harder-to-learn dialect, there is such a rich history and beauty behind it that would be a waste if it is dying out.

amida said...

I agree with Huichieh--it's much more dependent on the situation and the type of conversation than the actual dialect/language spoken. That same shopkeeper who cackled at you for taking too long in her store might read poetry beautifully.

I have noticed that sort of "frame shift" between spoken languages, too, similar to the case of the preacher. I remember hearing a friend tell a joke about the Taiwanese sending a gorilla into orbit. I listened to the whole story of him going up, looking around, and finally coming back down. Then the scientists asked him a question, and he blurted out--something in Taiwanese which was apparently hilarious, but damned if I knew what it was! Though I didn't get the joke, I am sure it wouldn't have been as funny if the gorilla spoke Mandarin.

OCH:Ihave heard people do the same thing, relaxing with friends and speaking consciously rude Taiwanese because they could. On the other hand, I have heard younger people use extremely polite-sounding Taiwanese when dealing with very old people who may not speak much Mandarin.

John: "Sanba" is a mystery to many an English teacher in Taiwan, I think. I could never get it down exactly, but it seems to mean something like extremely silly and overly girlish.

T:Ishare your dislike of (mainland) TV news pronunciation, but I suspect it is largely to do with my own prejudices.

One thing that Cantonese does have going for it, AFAIK, is a fairly standardized way of being written down. People mess around trying to "write" Taiwanese, but I don't think it is formalized in any way. I remember seeing "Cantonese" characters all over in Hong Kong.

Huichieh said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Huichieh said...

At least in Singapore, "sanba" usually takes the sense of a (perj.) meddler or gossip, used especially on females--but guys are not precluded. That's the one who is not only concerned to find out (or make up) details of other people's lives (often of the who is sleeping with who, who breaking up with who sort), but even makes it a point to do a 'public service' by telling you, whether you want to know or not. Often times, the information is presented in the spirit of "you really ought to know this / I can't believe you don't know about this" and prefaced with "I really don't know how to put this to you..."

Not sure why "san ba" ("3,8") though, but I'm sure some persistent research will turn that up.

Mark said...

I think the "harshness" is because of the tones. Any language with enough tones to have BOTH lower and upper sets of tones tend to sound harsh to those who aren't used to similar tonal systems.

As for Cantonese "dying out" in the US, there is some truth. When I was little, there was almost no Mandarin in the Chinatown. Now, it's like 50/50. Heck, I've met older shopkeepers in California who, after learning a fair bit of Cantonese over a decade or two, are learning to their chagrin that now there's another language we all call "Chinese".

PS. What langauages do you translate?

amida said...

Mark: Have you studied Cantonese as a non-native speaker?

I have had friends who've taken (or taught) Taiwanese, but most courses don't actually teach the tones and sandhi system. They just repeated phrases.

CookieBandit said...

I think 3 8 (san ba) is from Taiwanese (Hokkien). In Hokkien, sambat (with the t at the end being really short and barely there) means silly or stupid. Or it also be used to describe a girl who is a bit of a floozy (flirtatious, loose, etc). So then because the word sounds like the numbers 3 and 8 in Taiwanese, they just changed it to Mandarin.

amida said...

Cookiebandit: Great, thanks! Do you happen to know what characters are used to write this Taiwanese word (if there are any)?