The Corner

More Dialectology

A curious reader asks: “Mr. Derbyshire—Is it just that people in

different parts of China pronounce words differently? Or are there

differences of grammar too?”

Yes, there are differences of grammar. Stepping aside to let someone

precede him through a door, for instance, a Beijinger would say: “Ni xian

qu” — literally: “You first go.” A Cantonese person, however, would say:

“Lei heui sin” — literally: “You go first.” Same words, different order

(and of course different pronunciation).

Actual words are often different, too. Cantonese has words that just don’t

exist in Mandarin, even if you “map” the pronunciation. (In these cases,

when writing, a Cantonese person will generally use some Mandarin synonym,

though there are a few written characters peculiar to Cantonese that you see

in newspaper cartoons and so on.) In other cases, a dialect will use a word

that fell out of favor in Mandarin 1,000 years or more ago. The common

Cantonese verb for “to like,” for example, is “jung-yi.” Nobody says this

in Mandarin, not even in a Mandarin pronunciation, though it shows up in the

Confucian classics. The Mandarin verb is “xi-huan.” You can say that with

a Cantonese pronunciation (“hei-fun”) and will be understood… but the

Cantonese prefer “jung-yi.” Generally speaking, the southern dialects are

more conservative than the northern ones. North China suffered much more

historical “churning” –barbarian invasions and so on — so the language

changed more up there. Ancient poems still rhyme in Cantonese, but much

less often in Mandarin.

One of the best general-interest books on the Chinese language is SOUND AND

SYMBOL IN CHINESE by the great Swedish Sinologist Bernhard Karlgren. Now

deeply out of print, unfortunately.

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