The Linguist

The Linguist 59,3 - June/July 2020

The Linguist is a languages magazine for professional linguists, translators, interpreters, language professionals, language teachers, trainers, students and academics with articles on translation, interpreting, business, government, technology

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Page 23 of 35

Changing the script Traditional Characters have been the mainstay of written Chinese over the last millennia. They were used to render many of the Chinese languages and dialects across the Chinese Empire, and to record official documents and communications, until the 20th century. To facilitate these communications, a standardised format of writing – in terms of grammar and vocabulary – was encouraged throughout Chinese officialdom. Starting more than 2,000 years ago in the time of the Qin Dynasty, this standard version changed over the years and tended to be based on the type of Chinese that was used in the seat of the government, wherever it was located at the time. Known as 'Speech of Officials'(官話), it covered both spoken and written varieties. In the final years of Imperial Chinese rule, which ended with the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1911, serious practical consideration was given to encouraging the understanding of a single language among all Chinese people. To this end, a National Language(國語), based on the dialect of Beijing (北京話)and the Speech of Officials, was proclaimed in 1906. In 1912, the new republican government set up a commission on the unification of pronunciation (讀音統一會), and in 1932 the 'Vocabulary of National Pronunciation for Everyday Use' (國音常用字彚)was published, solidifying what we recognise today as Mandarin. Writings in the vernacular (白話) by popular authors such as Lu Xun (魯迅) helped cement the written form of this language into what we now call 'Standard Written Chinese'. But you don't necessarily (an informal term generally recognised to encompass China, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan, but sometimes also Singapore and other 'overseas Chinese communities') can be quite confusing. Navigating Chinese tongues and scripts can be daunting to the uninitiated, and for linguists engaged in the facilitation of communication, such as interpreting, translation and liaising with business counterparts, things can get complicated. When approached by a client regarding Chinese, we tend to be dealing with one of the major Chinese languages: Mandarin or Cantonese, and to a lesser extent Hokkien, if dealing with Taiwan. These languages can all be rendered in traditional or simplified scripts, but which one you should use very much depends on your audience. A NATIONAL LANGUAGE Mao Zedong declares the establishment of the People's Republic of China. The Communist Party promoted Simplified Characters 24 The Linguist Vol/59 No/3 2020 FEATURES How do you know which language and script a client needs when they refer to 'Chinese', asks James Halstead "Can you translate this into Chinese please?" "Sure. What type of Chinese?" "What?!" This is a conversation I have seen play out many a time. An equivalent might be "Can you translate this into Indian?" Like 'Indian', 'Chinese' isn't a language, despite its colloquial use to refer to either Mandarin or Cantonese. If we are referring to the languages spoken in China, then we aren't even speaking about a single linguistic tree. In China, there are Sino-Tibetan languages, Turkic, Mongolic and Austroasiatic languages, and even Indo-European languages, to name but a few. There are hundreds of spoken languages in China, but for political reasons these tend to be referred to as dialects by the ruling Chinese Communist Party. Officially in the People's Republic of China there is a single official National Language: Mandarin. A single way of writing it: Standard Written Chinese. And a single set of characters in which to write it: Simplified Characters. Hop across the water to the entity formally known as the Republic of China (better known as Taiwan) and we find six official national languages: Mandarin, Hakka, Matsu, Formosan Languages, Taiwanese Sign Language (TSL) and Taiwanese Hokkien. With the exception of TSL, they are written in Traditional Characters. Hong Kong has two official languages: Chinese and English. 'Chinese' is ambiguous here – it doesn't specify what type of Chinese or what character set – but the vast majority of the population speaks Cantonese, and reads and writes Traditional Characters, making them the de facto standard. As you can see, even at a glance, the linguistic situation in the Greater China Area Which Chinese?

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