The common language spoken in China is called 普通话 Putonghua – known in English as Mandarin. Putonghua simply means “the common language” and is based on Beijing dialect. Mandarin became the official language of China in 1949 ( although scholars had agreed on the Beijing dialect as the choice of common language as early as 1932)
Other countries have a number of dialects which adopted a national language – the Tuscan dialect became standard Italian after the Unification of Italy in 1861.
There are many regional ‘dialects’ in China, some comprehensible to other dialects, others not. Dialects similar to Mandarin are found in the north. In the southern province of Guangdong, Cantonese is spoken, thus Hong Kong is a largely Cantonese speaking area.
However even with these broad provincial characteristics, there are also regional differences within townships and villages. Travelling in rural Guangdong some time back I noticed differences from town to town simply in the pronunciation of ‘hello’. In Suzhou, the ‘dialect’ is Wu speech, and many people from rural areas around Suzhou have come to live here. Once I asked two friends who had come from villages north or Suzhou – the villages were about 100 kilometre apart – if their local dialects were similar. They laughed for some time and finally replied – “no, we can’t understand each other”! They use Mandarin to talk with each other.
Cantonese is probably the most diverse language or dialect from Mandarin – its tonal structure and even grammar at times is different, and phrases are used with are dissimilar to phrases which would be used for the same meaning in Mandarin.
Linguists argue if it is a ‘dialect’ or separate language.
To determine that, it’s important to understand exactly what a ‘dialect’ is.
The word dialect came into the English language via the Greek term dialektos which meant the language spoken by people in different (Greek) cities ( and often had specialized functions).
The word ‘dialect’ is usually used today meaning different, localized forms of the same language.
In Chinese, the written script is the great unifier, and if the written script were taken as the definer, various Chinese ‘languages’ would be taken as being ‘dialects’.
However spoken language is a different matter – the ‘rule of thumb’ to classify languages as dialects or otherwise is are those languages mutally comprehensible. For Mandarin Chinese and Cantonese Chinese, the answer is simply “no”.
There are two more important factors in the “language or dialect” debate. One is paramount – language is more than a communication system, it is also a social and political construct. Those in power determine which ‘dialect’ or pronunciation system is ‘correct’ and people whose pronunciation systems are slightly different are said to be speaking ‘ in dialect’.
Thus political determinations influence when dialects are determined languages – for example many Scandanavian languages are mutually comprehensible but Danish, Swedish etc are determined “languages” and not “dialects’ because politically they are different countries.
The second problem in determining the difference is the term ‘dialect’ in Chinese.
This term is 方言fangyan in Chinese – literally ‘place language’ meaning a regional form of speech. Victor Muir, who has published on the world wide web a number of interesting papers in the field of Sinology, suggested a new term be used, called “topology” which reflects the meaning of the Chinese term ‘fangyan’. Scholars have also noted that the Chinese languages systems form one of a kind in the world.
Julie Groves has done one of the first comprehensive surveys of how Cantonese and Mandarin speakers perceive the differences. Her findings show that the respondents of her survey consider the differences in language are due to regional and political differences, not “mutual comprehensibility”.
Mandarin speaking Mainland Chinese are more likely to view Cantonese as a dialect, while the majority of Cantonese speakers themselves also see it as a dialect, although there are regional differences between Mainland Chinese Cantonese speakers and Hong Kong Cantonese speakers. Linguistic autonomy is one reason given for the respondents choice of classification.
Interestingly, within the Cantonese speaking population, Hong Kong respondents believed their version of Cantonese as being the “standard” whilst those living on the mainland believed theirs to be “standard”. Once again, social and political constructs influence what determines ‘standard’ language.
Groves’ study also showed that Cantonese speakers in southern China – the province of Guangdong – were more likely to consider Cantonese as a thriving, separate ‘language’ that that of Hong Kong Chinese.
Groves’ conclusion was that ‘topology’ would be a better term to represent the differences in language as it is spoken in Greater China than ‘dialect’.
In short, the answer to whether Mandarin and Cantonese are dialects or separate langauges is best summed up by another Chinese phrase –
复杂fùzá – it’s complicated!
Notes: Groves has also pointed out that many European languages are based on Latin yet they are classified as separate languages. She suggests this may be similar to the diverse Chinese ‘topological’ languages. A Spanish speaker may easily learn Italian due to similarities in pronunciation however learning a Scandanavian language might be more difficult. (Spanish and Italian, though similar and both having Latin as a base, are deemed different ‘languages’ because of social and political reasons, not linguistic.)Differences within English speaking countries such as Australia, Canada, USA and Great Britain are quite minor in comparison and there is obviously “mutual comprehension” between national and regional accents within the English language.
For further reading,
Victor Mair’s original 1991 paper suggesting “topology” as a better term for the differences in Chinese regional speech can be found here
Julie Groves comparative study between Cantonese and Mandarin based on local perceptions can be found here
and for an analysis on the grammatical and linguistic differences between Mandarin and Cantonese see Xiaoheng Zheng’s study here