The Bactra Review: Occasional and eclectic book reviews by Cosma Shalizi   83

The Languages of China

by S. Robert Ramsey

Princeton University Press, 1987
The European subcontinent was home, in 1900, to more than forty living languages (belonging to five different families), plus four fossils used for liturgical or scholastic purposes, recorded in five different scripts. (Despite drastic efforts at simplification, most of these languages were still alive at the century's end.) The present borders of the People's Republic of China encompass at least as many languages, in a slightly smaller area. At first it looks like the effective diversity is much less, since, of one and a quarter billion people ruled from Beijing, less than 100 million are not Han, i.e. what we normally mean by ``Chinese.'' This appearance is deceptive; the regional vernaculars (officially dialects) of the Han are no more mutually intelligible than the regional vernaculars of the Romance, Germanic or Slavic languages. Anywhere else in the world, the seven large, recognized divisions of Han speech would count as languages of their own. One of these is ``Mandarian,'' the language of Beijing, of most of the northeastern heartland of Chinese culture, and of the recently colonized regions in the south (Sichuan, Yunnan) and the extreme west (Chinese Turkestan, a.k.a. Sinkiang, a.k.a. Xinjiang). Despite have long served as a lingua franca, it had no official standing, or even much respectable literature, until this century. Both of those functions were instead taken by ``classical'' or ``literary'' Chinese, whose relationship to the modern vernaculars is a somewhat less extreme version of that between Ciceronian Latin and present-day Romance languages.

Imagine, by way of comparison, a Europe where the Carolingian empire persisted and succeeded in uniting the old Roman territories. The official language of administration and learning is Latin, preserved as nearly as possible in the form used by Cicero and Vergil. The capital is Paris, and the dominant vernacular, some form of which is used across most of northern Europe, is French, which even has some literature, though not the sort of thing educated people take seriously. So does Italian, which foreigners call Venetian after the principal city of the region; its speakers look down on Francophones, and point proudly to the features their speech shares with Latin that have vanished from French. Celtic and Germanic survive along the northern periphery, Arabic in Andalusia, Greek in Sicily and Calabria. As the ``Romans'' moved east towards the Urals, they absorbed most of the natives, but some pockets, particularly in the Carpathians and along the Baltic coast, still speak Slavic or Finno-Ugaric. Imagine, further, that not long after 1900 the empire collapsed after a particularly long and humiliating series of defeats at the hands of foreign powers, and a conference of scholars and politicians met in Paris to decide on a national language for the newly-declared European Republic.

Ramsey opens with just that conference, which in real life began on 15 February 1913 in Beijing. It was not a success: the participants lacked linguistic knowledge and worked largely on the basis of political jockeying, the Mandarin-speaking North against the more linguistically diverse, and socially and economically advanced, South. ``As tempters flared, Wang Rongbao, one of the leaders of the Southern faction, happened to use the colloquial Shanghai expression for `rickshaw,' wangbo ts'o. Wang Zhao [a Northern leader] misheard it for the Mandarin curse wángba dàn `son of a bitch' (literally, turtle's egg),' and flew into a rage. He bared his arms and attacked Wang Rongbao, chasing him out of the assembly hall.'' By such means Mandarin was declared the national standard for pronunciation. Essentially nothing was done to implement this until the Communist victory in 1949, at which point they quietly reversed their previous official line about treating all dialects the same, while promoting some vague sort of common speech, and simply required that official standardized Mandarin be taught in the schools. (This is sufficiently different from the previous literary language in vocabulary and grammar that the classics have had to be translated into Mandarin.) This is followed by chapters describing the contrast between north and south China, the puzzle of why the north is so homogeneous linguistically, and the spread of the Han language and culture from their territory of origin over the last three thousand years.

Chapters four and five describe, respectively, the pronunciation and the grammar of the national standard. Ramsey takes the time to explode some traditional misconceptions (Chinese is lacking in syntax; all Chinese words are monosyllabic), and at least one newer one, that in Chinese it is difficult or impossible to express counterfactual conditional statements (``if the Trojan Horse had foaled, today's horses would be much cheaper to feed''). Next is a chapter on the major dialectal divisions. Chapter seven, on the history of the language, focuses on the evolution of the sounds of Chinese, giving pride of place to Bernhard Karlgren's reconstruction of the pronunciation of ``Middle Chinese,'' roughly the speech of the Tang dynasty. This chapter also begins the discussion of the Chinese writing system, which continues into chapter eight.

The remainder of the book is concerned with the non-Han populations. Fifty-five are recognized by the government of the PRC; one of them, the Hui, are not a linguistic group at all, but simply Hans who have adopted Islam. (``The fact that they are the only religious group recognized as a national minority by Peking is certainly not unrelated to the trouble that all Chinese governments in the past have had controlling them: Hui holy wars against the Han were still being reported in the 1950s.'' [p. 168]) After giving a brief history (ch. 9) of relations between the Han and non-Han peoples in China, and the modern policies regarding minority languages, he proceeds to the languages of the minorities in north China (ch. 10) and south China (ch. 11). His procedure is hierarchical: he goes from language families to their branches to individual languages, giving the highlights of their syntax and phonology, as well as describing the locales in which they are spoken, the culture of the speakers, and the writing system, if any, they use to record their speech. (When he gets down to individual languages, he often transcribes, transliterates and translates a short poem or story.)

Almost all the northern languages belong to the Altaic family, in its Turkic, Mongolian and Tungus branches. (Two Indo-European languages survive in the region --- Russian and Tajik Persian --- but they're passed over in favor of the less familiar Altaic languages.) The southern languages are much more diverse, belonging to at least four families and covering a wide cultural spectrum. At one end are the Tai-speaking Zhuang, so assimilated to the Han that in the 1950s the Communist government had to compel them to admit they weren't; at the other are groups like the Yi (a.k.a. Lolo), who speak a Tibeto-Burman language and have maintained a multi-caste society, the lowest tier consisting of Han slaves, in the face of two thousand years of efforts at pacification. Some southern languages are so little-known that that nobody is clear on which other languages (if any) they are related to.

No training in linguistics is needed to read this book, though I imagine some slight knowledge would be helpful. (It was for me.) In any event, Ramsey is very good about explaining the jargon the reader absolutely must know, and about printing especially detailed and technical matter, which can be skimmed or skipped without loss of continuity, in smaller type. Nor does one need to know much, if anything, about Chinese history. The result is a pleasantly-written book accessible to almost anyone interested in languages or China, and (I imagine) useful to specialists as well.

xiv + 340 pp., 6 full-page maps, nine black-and-white illustrations of Chinese texts (various languages and scripts), 24 tables, end-notes, bibliography, index of names and subjects
Central Asia / China / Languages and Linguistics
Currently in print as a paperback, US$22.95, ISBN 0-691-01468-X, LoC PL1071 R34
30 April 1999