One man's bid to protect his mother tongue

By Zhang Kun (China Daily)
Updated: 2007-07-06 06:49

SHANGHAI: Every Shanghai native can tell you that "luosu" means eggplant in the local dialect, but they do not know how to write the two characters "luo" and "su".

A new dictionary, to be published next month by the Shanghai Lexicography Press, will help solve some of these problems.

The chief editor of the tome, Professor Qian Nairong of Shanghai University, has studied the Shanghai dialect for decades.

"We've been promoting standard Chinese (Putonghua) for many years, but dialects should also be protected because they are an important part of the local cultural heritage," Qian told China Daily.

Standard Chinese is the common written language, but spoken dialects are more vivid and expressive, Qian said.

Suzanne Xu speaks Putonghua in public most of the time, but when a thief tried to snatch her purse, she cried out in the Shanghai dialect.

"It was instinctive, you don't have the time to think," she said.

Qian said: "We call a language your 'mother-tongue' because it's passed down from generation to generation, but now you are seeing an emergence of the Shanghai dialect, even in the virtual world."

On many Shanghai bulletin boards, there are many messages written in the dialect.

One of the aims of the new dictionary, Qian said, is not to dispense with spoken native dialects, but to regulate the written language to conform to standard Chinese.

"Young children no longer speak their dialects," Qi Jing, a mother complained about her kindergarten daughter.

"She is confused when her grandparents talk to her in their dialect."

In the recent years, experts and the public have called for the protection of native dialects.

"We've had children without a mother tongue," Qian said, "and sometimes they have problems expressing themselves when they can't find the right expression in Putonghua. I don't think this is beneficial to their development."

Cultural administrators suggest that in regions where Putonghua is widely spoken, more attention should be paid to native dialects.

"Now, when children talk in the Shanghai dialect in kindergartens, teachers no longer stop them. Sometimes ballads in the Shanghai dialect are taught as well," Qian said.

He has worked on the compilation of the dictionary for more than 10 years, but only recently did a publisher find it of marketable value.

"People are now more aware of their local culture, and realize their dialects are closely related to their lives. I believe anyone interested in the Shanghai dialect would want to read the dictionary," Qian said.

(China Daily 07/06/2007 page5)

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