There is no language called “Chinese”

China is like Switzerland.

One country is 9,600,000 km² large, and contains almost one fifth of the world population. The other one is a mere 41,000 km², and has slightly more than eight million inhabitants. One country tops The Economist’s Where-to-be-born Index, while the other ranks #49.

But apart from these differences, they’re identical.

Identical in the sense that they are linguistically heterogeneous.

Did you know that Switzerland has four official languages (not three, as many people think)? Sorted by number of speakers, those are: German, French, Italian and Romansh. German is the main language for 64% of the Swiss population. But almost one quarter of the Swiss grew up in French and use it in their daily lives.

There is no language called “Swiss” (and doesn’t need to be). The Swiss speak different languages. One can talk of “Swiss Italian”, for example, but that would be a dialect, or a variant, of the language we all know as “Italian”. Which means that an Italian from Naples and a Swiss from Ticino can talk to each other more or less as easily as Chileans can speak to Spaniards: naturally, and with very few impediments.

The territory we refer to as “China” is home to dozens of different native languages. One particular source estimates 298 living languages. Even if those estimations were off by one order of magnitude, and acknowledging that the distinction between “language” and “dialect” is sometimes blurred (often for political reasons), that’s still a lot of native languages for a single country. (I suspect this astonishing figure has much to do with the slippery idea of the People’s Republic of China as a single country — but let’s not delve into that now.)

Mandarin is written using the simplified alphabet. It’s a tonal family of languages, with four different tones.

Cantonese (another popular category, spoken in the form of different actual languages for example in Hong Kong and in Taiwan, and in many provinces of Southern mainland China) is still written in traditional characters, which are even more complex. It distinguishes twice as many tones as Mandarin.

Here is what Jerry Norman has to say:

“If one takes mutual intelligibility as the criterion for defining the difference between dialect and language, then one would have to recognize not eight but hundreds of ‘languages’ in China. […] Chinese is a vast dialectal complex containing hundreds of mutually unintelligible local varieties, each of which can be viewed as a distinct object for comparison.”

“Wang Qinsong’s ‘follow me’”, CC michael davis-burchat

…but I don’t care, and neither should you. Let me explain why.

Imagine that the Swiss government, in an effort to homogenise the country, politically and linguistically, decided to officially call “Swiss” what we know now as “Swiss German”. It would be one of those Orwellian attempts at changing reality by changing the words we use to describe it. But solemnly promulgating that the Swiss people now speak “Swiss” would not change the fact that the Swiss from Geneva speak (mainly) French, for example. (Not to mention the growing number of other languages being spoken in Switzerland due to the influx of migration; but let’s focus on languages traditionally spoken in the territory only.)

Well, that is what the Chinese government is doing since the 1950’s at least: they act as if the Chinese (more than one billion of them, let me remind you) all spoke a language called “standard Chinese”, or simply “Chinese”. Or “Putonghua”. That sought-after lingua franca being close to a Beijing “flavour” of the modern, simplified version of Mandarin — one that is commonly used on national TV stations and by state-level politicians. (“The national standard, Pǔtōnghuà, is based on the dialect of Beijing but is by no means identical with it.” [Norman])

(I think that invoking Nineteen Eighty-Four is the more apt in this case: did you spot the delicious self-reference in using Newspeak — itself a language — to alter the words we use to refer to languages?)

And so we are in this situation where some people pretend that is the reality: that the inhabitants of the People’s Republic of China all speak that language. Some people want the Chinese to think so; and they want you to think so, too. They are interested in bending the meaning of certain words.

How fair is that, and how logical?

If Swiss German, spoken by 64% of the Swiss population, is not predominant enough to speak of it as “the” language of Switzerland, why does Mandarin, which is spoken by 70% of the Chinese (and only in a general sense, as a category of languages) qualify as “the” language of China? Where is the threshold?

Also, the numbers for “Chinese” aren’t great: a survey conducted twelve years ago by the same political bodies that have an interest in promoting this new reality found that barely more than half the population “can communicate with the language known as putonghua”. Which isn’t all that suprising: languages don’t need a fanbase. Words don’t have feelings. Languages are naturally spoken, or not. Languages thrive or die, mostly regardless of political agendas.

“Chinese Calligraphy Excercise Book”, CC Jonathan

The Chinese government may have benign motives to push that agenda (standardising and unifying may be laudable enterprises in themselves; they help reducing frictions in trade and business, and minimise misunderstandings between fellow citizens), and less pious intentions (nationalistic uniformity, international promotion of a falsely unified China, stamping cultural and political dissent). Whatever the rationale, let me remind you that your mother tongue does not fall under the jurisdiction of the Chinese government. In other words, you can keep on calling Cantonese “Cantonese”; and Wu, “Wu”. Because, why not?

When you translate a new idea into your own language, you are free to call it whatever you like. Similarly, when the word used in other language to refer to an idea changes for some reason, translations don’t need to be affected.

In Spanish, it is okay to call Mumbai and Beijing by their traditional names: “Bombay” and “Pekín”. Never mind changes in other languages after the official renamings. In Spanish we call Aachen “Aquisgrán”, and the Germans “alemanes”. In italian (another Romance language), the Germans are “tedeschi”. There you have it: two Latin languages, closely related, even mutually intelligible to some degree, and the words used to name the same people are completely different (and, in turn, completely different from the word those people use natively to refer to themselves: “Deutschen”).

Different words for the same thing don’t need to share a common root across languages. An official decree changing a toponym in one language does not need to trigger revision in all other languages of the world, especially if that change is based solely on political interests.

The same logic applies to names of other things, like languages.

“beijing 1 031”, CC gill_penney

Judging by the Western media alone, the Chinese government has had tremendous success promoting this meme abroad. Not a whole week passes without us reading about “the dominance of Chinese as the most spoken language in the world”, or hearing on the radio about “the convenience of teaching Chinese to our children for their future benefit”, or a friend expressing their interest in “learning Chinese” — if also their reservations at tackling “such a difficult language”.

Which language?

It’s way too easy to lead the ranking of languages spoken by most people when you conflate hundreds of them into one. Those eager students of “Chinese” will find that every other person they meet when they first set foot in the country does not speak a word of “Chinese”. The vastness and diversity of China becomes a much more manageable and tranquil entity in our minds (and in our international fora) if we can think of it as speaking a single language.

When I ask about this, Chinese friends and other people who are knowledgeable about the subject tell me that, most of the time, when people say “Chinese”, they are referring (consciously or not) to Beijing-simplified-modern-Mandarin. Or standard Chinese. Or Putonghua. So, pretty much in sync with the official definition (and interests) of the Chinese government. The “Chinese” that Westerners learn outside of China is usually that Chinese. But I’m still puzzled that so many of those students don’t seem to care about these nuances at all.

I guess the battle is lost. We have already decided (or have others decide for us) that people in China speak “Chinese”.

I’ve been told the Swiss franc is bound to rise. If I were you, I would start learning to speak Swiss right now.

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