Freitag, 4. Oktober 2013

Pullum on the world roles of English and Chinese

Over at Language Log, Geoffrey Pullum observes how English is currrently the world's lingua franca (obviously correct) and on how Chinese will not become the world's lingua franca "Not in fifty years, and perhaps not ever." His reasons?
First, there is no such thing as the Chinese language: Chinese is a language family, and there are far fewer people who are fluent in the politically dominant member, Mandarin, than the Chinese authorities would like you to think. Second, the Chinese languages share a writing system that is simply not fit for purpose: taking years to learn, and incredibly hard to adapt to many purposes, it is holding China's progress back by many decades. And third, nowhere in the world is there a country outside China where Chinese is used by non-Chinese to communicate with other non-Chinese.

Yeah, right. The existence of language varieties that are not mutually understandable (Scots, anyone?) and a crazy orthography sure have prevented the rise of English. Yes, it won't happen in the next fifty years, but Pullum's stance (although, of course, not his reasoning) looks a bit like that of an 18th century Frenchman regarding the possibility that the language of that rising merchant power from the neighbouring island would ever be able to challenge the dominance of French as the lingua franca of the civilised world. I doubt that orthography, writing systems, or the existence of non-standard varieties play any role in determining whether a language attains the status of lingua franca - it's all about the political, commcercial, and cultural influence of its speakers. It's fairly well possible that China will never reach the degree of political, commercial, and cultural influence that today's English-speaking nations (first and foremost the U.S.) have, but that (and not the writing system or whether Putonghua can crowd out the other Sinitic languages) will determine the status of Chinese in the future.


John Cowan hat gesagt…

Pullum's first point is basically correct. Comparing the Sinitic languages to Scots is no comparison at all: it's like treating German as a non-standard variety of English, or Romanian as a non-standard variety of French. But I don't know whether Pullum is right about fewer Chinese people knowing Mandarin than is generally supposed: I wonder what his evidence is. His third point merely says that Chinese isn't a lingua franca (what Ethnologue calls a "language of wider communication") yet.

On the orthography, however, see David Moser's essay "Why Is Chinese So Damn Hard?", almost all of which is about the orthography:

I have seen highly literate Chinese people forget how to write certain characters in common words like "tin can", "knee", "screwdriver", "snap" (as in "to snap one's fingers"), "elbow", "ginger", "cushion", "firecracker", and so on. And when I say "forget", I mean that they often cannot even put the first stroke down on the paper. Can you imagine a well-educated native English speaker totally forgetting how to write a word like "knee" or "tin can"? Or even a rarely-seen word like "scabbard" or "ragamuffin"?

I was once at a luncheon with three Ph.D. students in the Chinese Department at Peking University, all native Chinese (one from Hong Kong). I happened to have a cold that day, and was trying to write a brief note to a friend canceling an appointment that day. I found that I couldn't remember how to write the character 嚔, as in da penti 打喷嚔 "to sneeze". I asked my three friends how to write the character, and to my surprise, all three of them simply shrugged in sheepish embarrassment. Not one of them could correctly produce the character.

Now, Peking University is usually considered the "Harvard of China". Can you imagine three Ph.D. students in English at Harvard forgetting how to write the English word "sneeze"?? Yet this state of affairs is by no means uncommon in China. English is simply orders of magnitude easier to write and remember. No matter how low-frequency the word is, or how unorthodox the spelling, the English speaker can always come up with something, simply because there has to be some correspondence between sound and spelling. One might forget whether "abracadabra" is hyphenated or not, or get the last few letters wrong on "rhinoceros", but even the poorest of spellers can make a reasonable stab at almost anything. By contrast, often even the most well-educated Chinese have no recourse but to throw up their hands and ask someone else in the room how to write some particularly elusive character.

Hans hat gesagt…

My quibble with Pullum is not in his description of the Chinese language situation. I don't argue with the points he makes, and for which you adduce additional examples, about the difficulties of the Chinese writing system, or of the differences between the Sinitic languages. I've seen these points made by others as well, e.g. by Victor Mair. Yes, the difference between them and Mandarin are much bigger than between English and Scots. No analogy is perfect, and perhaps I'd better used the examples of Welsh, Gaelic, and Irish, which were still widely spoken in their respective regions when my hvpothetical 18th century Frenchman would have judged the prospects of the English language.
I share your doubts concerning Pullums reservations on the internal use of Mandarin as an internal lingua franca inside China - I mean, for the use of Mandarin as lingua franca it is irrelevant if Shanghaians or Cantonese use Shanghainese or Cantonese among themselves; the question is what language will they use when they go on business to other parts of China? E.g., from my reading of articles about Tibet and Xinjiang, I've won the impression that the language Tibetans and Uyghurs speak to Western journalists normally is Mandarin, as said journalists normally don't know Uyghur or Tibetan, and the local interview partners normally don't speak English. Now, even if that is so, that doesn't make China a regional or international lingua franca yet. But I maintain my point that what decides on whether China one day becomes a lingua franca is not the ease of reading and writing Chinese, but purely political and economic influence, and the cultural influence China may be able to build on that. Chinese lost its role as the lingua franca of the cultural elite in East Asia not because English was easier to learn or to write, but because of the centuries-long decline of Imperial China, the chaos of Republican China, and the isolationism of Maoist China; and because of the political and economic dominance of first Britain in the 19th and then America in the 20th century. I have no doubt that if Japan had not lost WWII, Japanese would be today the regional lingua franca in East Asia, although the Japanese writing system is not especially easier than the Chinese one.
So whether Chinese will become a regional or international lingua franca will depend on whether China will overtake America and the Anglosphere in political and eceonomic importance, whether it will steer its partners to using Chinses instead of English in negotiations and contracts, whether people from other countries will start flocking to Chinese universities instead to those of the Anglosphere. That may never happen, but that's what will decide it, not linguistic or orthographic factors.

Iulia Flame hat gesagt…

"First, there is no such thing as the Chinese language."

Thank you! I lived in California with many immigrants, and if you had 10 "Chinese" in a room from different families, it was likely that you had at least 5-8 different dialects.