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Taking pride in our accents
Raymond ZhouChina Daily  Updated: 2005-11-19 06:51

There is a tug of war for the stature of dialects in China.

On one hand, some government agencies are issuing edicts as God throws thunderbolts, banning the use of dialects on various occasions: No children's programmes on television should include dialects; foreign films must not be dubbed into local patois; and television hosts with even the slightest hint of an accent may have to walk.

On the other hand, a groundswell of grassroots activities have set out to defend the rights of using dialects: Blockbuster films like "A World Without Thieves" regularly resort to dialects to ramp up local flavour; radio stations in Sichuan rake in most of their advertising revenues from vernacular shows; and intellectuals join a chorus that preaches the virtues of dialects as the Chinese language's unique strength in its battle against erosion from English.

I believe both approaches are misguided.

Take the purists first. There is nothing wrong with advocating putonghua, or Mandarin as it's known in the West, as China's standard speaking lingua franca. But that doesn't mean we should get rid of our local variants.

To enforce a strict "no accent" policy for such public personages as television hosts is not only unnecessary, but also Pyrrhic. For example, it has been reported that some of CCTV's most popular hosts did not pass their putonghua tests, a prerequisite for their jobs. So what? Peter Jennings, one of the top three anchormen in the United States in the past two decades, had a faint Canadian accent, though imperceptible to us non-native speakers.

Purists seem to be unaware of the benefits and resiliency of China's spoken language in its endless mutations. None of the first-generation leaders of New China spoke good putonghua, but that added to their charisma and personalities. That's why film-makers stick to dialects when portraying them on screen.

Producers at CCTV, at the forefront of the linguistic battle, employ Northeastern colloquialisms in their entertainment shows so frequently that the audience in southern parts of the country often feel alienated. Besides, most celebrities are based in Beijing and routinely treat Beijing dialect as if it were putonghua. It may be too strong to call them "hypocritical," but it proves that you cannot eliminate local speeches even if you want to.

A dialect can add sparkle to a piece of literature or art work, and it gives an identity and togetherness to those who share it. However, it keeps away those who don't speak it, or worse, even can't understand it. Unlike the English-speaking world, China has an infinite number of dialects. Where I grew up, as you ride the bike for half an hour passing different villages, pronouns like "we," "you" and "they" start to change. Almost every cluster of villages has a different set for most common words.

The frustration a northerner faces in Guangdong or Shanghai is very real. Language is made for communication, and dialects effectively keep it within a defined circle. For instance, those who are born (or grow up) in a specified geographical location. Anyone who doesn't belong to it instantly turns into an outsider.

Dialects did not spring up by design. It is the result of an inadequacy in transportation (highways), telecommunication (telephones), and mass communication (television). Now that these root causes are collapsing, it is unlikely that young people will make an effort to maintain their linguistic identities based on location alone.

When children from different villages and towns attend the same school, they would not bring their home variations of "we" and "they" with them, but use the ones most dominant in the area, usually the biggest town. When people from across China moved to Shenzhen, it was putonghua that they adopted when talking with each another.

Human movements tend to increase with the economy, and most of the small dialects will wither, vanish or be consolidated into regional dialects. But major branches such as Sichuanese, Shanghainese or Cantonese would face no danger at all for the simple reason that the number of speakers for each is so great that no decrees can wipe them out.

Dialects are like living organisms. They go by the law of the survival of the fittest. You can launch wars to suppress them or defend them, but it's the natural laws that are at work here. As long as people communicate, they want to be understood. They will pick up words and descriptions from each other and enrich their own expressions. A term deemed too dialectal today may be accepted usage for all people tomorrow. All we need is to keep an open mind.


(China Daily 11/19/2005 page4)

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