Saturday, December 4, 2010

Call it what you will…

I started taking myself a little too seriously here. In the last four posts, I wrote at length about the reasons behind the many different names for the language I refer to here as Taishanese. I wrote about anachronism and synecdoche (and tried it again shorter). I wrote about transcriptions and standard and non-standard variants. These posts tried to give structure to what otherwise felt like an overwhelming sea of names for this one little language.

If there were any moral undercurrent that I hoped to convey in the last four posts, it’s that there’s no “right” way to refer to Taishanese. There are many different reasons for using many different terms. And it’s important to understand why someone might write “Sze Yup” (the Cantonese pronunciation of a former administrative unit with a non-standard English transcription) versus “Taishan” (the standard Mandarin transcription of a modern administrative unit).

I use the term Taishanese because it’s the term that seems to have the most currency. Even though I railed against Mandarin in my teens, I must acknowledge that it’s the world’s most spoken language and the official language of China. When Taishanese families immigrate to the United States these days, they no longer attempt to approximate their names with ad hoc transcriptions like Hom and Chinn—they transcribe their surnames with Mandarin pinyin (Tan and Chen). Hence, I prefer “Taishan” to “Hoisan.” At least in formal writing.

More importantly, “Taishanese” is becoming the establishment term, embraced by institutions such as the New York Times, not to mention scholarly writing. There are a number of terms I use on my own in day-to-day speech, but by writing about “Taishanese”, I hope to let my readers know that I’m referring to the same dialect that occasionally pops on the pages of the Times.

That’s just about all I have to say about nomenclature (and probably much more than I should). Now onto some lighter topics.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Choose your transcription well

As discussed in the last two posts, the variation in names for Taishanese (or, alternatively, the Siyi dialects) can be grouped into the geographical terms on which the names are based. Most forms are variants of either Taishan 台山 or of Siyi 四邑. But far more numerous are the ways these terms are transcribed into English.

The Chinese word 台山 has been transcribed as Hoi Saan, Hoi San, Hoisaan, Hoisan, Hoy Saan, Hoy San, Hoy Shan, Hoysun, T’ai-Shan, Tai Shan, Tai-shan, Taishan, Toi Saan, Toi San, Toi Shan, Toisaan, Toisan, Toishan and Toy Shan. I stumbled across a few more variants after writing up this list. (!) But this is not an endless string of random permutations.

These variants fall into three distinct categories based on the form of Chinese used to transcribe the characters—Mandarin, Cantonese or Taishanese. (Note that these three dialects are basically the only ones used; I would wager that you won’t run across any published English-language article referring to the Taisuan or Đài Sơn dialect, as would be transcribed for Chaozhou and Vietnamese, for example.) Below I’ve broken the variants into the three new groups.

  • Mandarin: T’ai-Shan, Tai Shan, Tai-shan, Taishan
  • Cantonese: Toi Saan, Toi San, Toi Shan, Toisaan, Toisan, Toishan, Toy Shan
  • Taishanese: Hoi Saan, Hoi San, Hoisaan, Hoisan, Hoy Saan, Hoy San, Hoy Shan, Hoysun

Some of the differences listed above are small, involving only spaces or hyphens, so I’ve reanalyzed the list by ignoring punctuation and making all the forms single spaceless words.

  • Mandarin: T’aishan, Taishan
  • Cantonese: Toisaan, Toisan, Toishan, Toyshan
  • Taishanese: Hoisaan, Hoisan, Hoysaan, Hoysan, Hoyshan, Hoysun

The differences are a little more distinct. And note that the number of transcription variants differs depending on which form of Chinese you look at: Mandarin–2, Cantonese–4, Taishanese–6.

The two Mandarin forms reflect two romanziation standards: Wade-Giles (T’ai-shan) and Hanyu Pinyin (Taishan). Since the 1960s, the Hanyu Pinyin standard has been the dominant form of Mandarin transcription, written as Taishan.

The Cantonese transcriptions include both standard and non-standard variants. Toisaan follows the LSHK Jyutping (and Sidney Lau) scheme. The Yale romanization is not included; this would be: Toihsaan. But the Jyutping form is not always the preferred form—so for 四邑, you will see Seiyap (Yale/Lau), but rarely if ever Seijap (Jyutping).

The other forms reflect different orthographic tweaks which at least today would be considered non-standard. The double-“a” denotes a vowel-length contrast that exists in Cantonese—ignore this contrast, and you get Toisan. And in earlier versions of standard Cantonese, there are in fact two s-like sounds, which were often distinguished as sz and sh—this spelling is evident in the forms Toishan and Toyshan.

When it comes to Taishanese, there is no accepted standard. No surprise then that the highest number of variants turn up when you look at the transcription of Chinese characters into Taishanese. These schemes generally mirror the Cantonese transcription, but adapting Taishanese pronunciation. Note that Taishanese pronunciations differ, and that’s reflected in some of the different transcriptions. While some write Hoysaan (a as in father), others write Hoysun (u as in sun).

In the previous post, I noted that variation on names differs based on geographical terms. In this post, I show that you can further subdivide variation based on the language used for transcription (Mandarin, Cantonese or Taishanese). I won’t go into the arguments for using one scheme over another—although you can already see that I am leaning towards usage of Mandarin transcription when I write Taishanese. The upcoming post is a discussion of who uses which transcription and why.

Friday, October 15, 2010

A tale of two geographically rooted names

Monday’s post noted that there are seemingly endless variations on names that people have used to refer to the dialect I call Taishanese. Tuesday’s post was an excessively long screed. In this post, I’m going to try to more succinctly rewrite what I tried to say three days ago.

The various names for Taishanese are all rooted in Chinese geography. In Chinese, this is straightforward. Select the geographic entity of your choice, add 話* to the end and—voilà!—you have the “language spoken in _____.” The problem is in which geographic entity to choose.

The two most frequent choices are Siyi 四邑 and Taishan 台山. Neither is perfect, but they have very different drawbacks.

The benefit of using Siyi is that it points to the area that most closely approximates where Taishanese is spoken—the counties of Taishan, Kaiping, Enping and the former county of Xinhui. The chief drawback is that this term is anachronistic; these counties were reorganized in 1983 into the Jiangmen prefecture. Speakers in China and Hong Kong are increasingly unfamiliar with this term, although you may likely hear it still used in older overseas communities.

Taishan, on the other hand, still exists. Not only that, Taishanese comprise the majority of overseas Chinese with Siyi roots—at least in the United States and Canada. But Taishan is only a fraction of the area where this dialect is spoken. At best, using this term to refer to the common dialect group is synecdochical—using reference to a part to refer to the whole (e.g. hand for worker). I’m personally a proponent of this synecdochic usage, but many people are not. For those individuals, who are many, you can only say you speak the Taishan dialect if you are from Taishan (or by descent). That’s the main drawback here.

Of these two most popular terms, Siyi is more geographically and culturally accurate, but is outdated. Taishan is accurate, but in many contexts, you’ll find that people will resist using it to refer to the dialect group. At root is the issue that the linguistic map of this dialect group fails to line up with the boundaries you find on a political map—yet the political map forms the basis for how we name the dialect.

If there were no other issues to consider, and these were the only two terms to choose from, then I would lean toward using Siyi. As an anachronism, this term is loosened from political constraints—it points to an entity whose roots are more firmly embedded in history and culture. But it’s not the only issue to consider, and this leads into the next post

* Pronounced hua in Mandarin, wa in Cantonese and either wa or va in Taishanese. On the other hand, some people will prefer the term方言 “regional dialect” to emphasize the localized nature of the speech.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Anachronism and Synecdoche

This piece follows on yesterday’s post on why multiple geographic terms are used for the same dialect. The writing here certainly isn’t any example of greatness, so comments and questions are much appreciated. Tomorrow I tackle the issue of why so many different transcriptions are used in English.

I have always had a lot of difficulty responding to people who ask me what language my family speaks. Growing up, my family used the term Siyi* 四邑, and so this term is my general response of choice. I speak the Siyi dialect 四邑話.

Historically, the four counties of Taishan, Kaiping, Enping and Xinhui comprised a geographic grouping in Guangdong province called Siyi 四邑—literally, the Four Counties. Most of the dialects spoken in the Four Counties are more similar to each other than they are to other Chinese dialects. By saying that I speak Siyi, I am asserting that I speak one of the (mostly) mutually intelligible dialects in those four counties.

Unfortunately, the term Siyi is a bit of an anachronism these days.

In 1983, Xinhui was incorporated into the city of Jiangmen—which in turn was elevated to jurisdiction over Taishan, Kaiping, Enping and the additional county of Heshan. Dialects closer to Standard Cantonese dominate in both Jiangmen and Heshan. As the new entity was now comprised of five municipalities (including Jiangmen), the term Wuyi 五邑 has since eclipsed Siyi. Mention “Siyi” to anyone in their thirties or younger, and the odds are they’ll give you a blank stare (or correct you with “Wuyi”).

So another common option is to say that I speak the Taishan dialect 台山話.

As I’ve mentioned before, my family roots are in Kaiping 開平, not Taishan. I frequently use the term “Taishan dialect” (or “Taishanese”) to mean the same as what I mean by “Siyi dialect” (or “Four Counties dialect”). This usage works for some people, but for others it is very, very wrong.

When I substitute Taishan for Siyi, I don’t mean to equate these two terms. These are completely different geographic entities, as noted in the graphs above. I am employing a technique known as synecdoche, where I refer to a part in order to refer to the whole. A common example is the term “hand” substituted for “worker” (“I have twelve hands [workers] working the farm today”) or when a city is substituted for a country (“Washington [USA] seeks to strengthen ties with Beijing [China]”).

Convention is what makes synecdoche work. Most people can accept me using “Washington” to refer to the United States as a political entity, but almost no one would accept “Dubuque” to be used in the same way (not even people in Dubuque). As the seat of government, people allow “Washington” to be a valid alternate name. (You could probably argue that “Washington” is actually the other form of synecdoche, when a whole is used to refer to its parts. In this case, “Washington” is equated with the functions of government that reside in the District of Columbia.)

In expatriate communities like the United States, the synecdochical usage of Taishan for Siyi has greater acceptance than it does in China. I imagine that there are two reasons for this. First, Taishanese comprise the majority of expatriate Siyi dialect speakers (although it often depends on which community you’re talking about). Their numerical superiority gives them the social leverage to have the name of their dialect understood as the default for all Siyi dialects. Secondly, when we are specific enough to say that we speak the Taishan dialect, we are usually indicating a broader contrast between what we speak and Cantonese or Mandarin. Most people have heard of Taishan, while fewer people would recognize Kaiping, Enping or Xinhui. We stick to what’s easier and more convenient.

In China, people often got quite annoyed when I would say that I spoke the Taishan dialect. (“But you’re from Kaiping!”) For them, the synecdochical link of Taishan to Siyi is simply invalid. It took me a couple of days to understand this cultural divide. Thousands of miles away in Chinese America, these municipal distinctions seem almost trivial compared to when you are actually there in China traveling across them.

So here in North America, I will say that I speak the Siyi dialect if I believe this term will be recognized. Overseas memories of the Siyi have been passed along from generation to generation, even as this term fades away in China, so the odds are more likely here that this term will be accepted. Otherwise, I’m inclined to say that I speak the Taishan dialect—most people won’t ask me if I’m really from Taishan. If I happen to be in China, I’ll say that I speak the Kaiping dialect. In general, I prefer the term that I believe best conveys my linguistic identity, depending on the context and without getting sidetracked by an exhaustive conversation about why I use this term of that.

*For this post, I’m transcribing all characters in Hanyu Pinyin, omitting accents and spaces.

Monday, October 11, 2010

What’s in a name?

There are well over a dozen different names that people use to refer to the dialect that I refer to here either as Taishanese or the Four Counties dialect. Alternative names pop up in previous posts (like here or here). In my notes alone, I found some forty-two English variants. They are listed below alphabetically.

Four Counties · Hoi Saan · Hoi San · Hoisaan · Hoisan · Hoisanese · Hoy Saan · Hoy San · Hoy Shan · Hoysun · Llin-nen · Schlei Yip · See Yap · See Yip · See Yup · Seeyup · Sei Yap · Sei Yup · Seiyap · Seiyup · Siyi · Sze Yap · Sze Yup · Szeyap · Szeyup · T’ai-Shan · Tai Shan · Tai-shan · Taishan · Taishanese · Thlee Yip · Thli Yip · Toi Saan · Toi San · Toi Shan · Toisaan · Toisan · Toisanese · Toishan · Toishanese · Toy Shan · Xinning

There are certainly more names out there. If this blog happened to be in Chinese, the list of terms above would be trimmed down to just three place names: 四邑, 台山, 新寧. In English, there is quite a bit more disagreement over what the “right” name should be.

I couldn’t tackle this subject in a single post. It’s one of those kind of issues. Tomorrow, I’ll discuss why people may seem to refer to the same dialect using different place names (i.e. Siyi 四邑 vs Taishan 台山). The word of the day will be: synecdoche. Wednesday, I’ll talk about variations in pronunciation, transcription and the not-quite-immutable standards we often rely on. Thursday gets to the points of real controversy: who uses which form—and why should you use one form over another?

Some time ago I tried to tackle this question on Wikipedia (a page I have mixed feelings about). The section I drafted has remained largely unchanged, and it’s worth a gander if you want to get a sense of what I’ll be writing about over the next few days.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

A Guide to the Tai-shan Dialect

I did some more snooping around ERIC, and I found a manuscript titled A Guide to the Tai-shan Dialect by the prolific academic Anne Yue-Hashimoto. Clearly my literature review wasn’t as thorough as I thought it was! Abstract below.
This document provides a description of the Tai-shan dialect of Chinese. Maps illustrate the area where the dialect is spoken, and introductory remarks concern previous study of the dialect, sources of current information, and relationship to other dialects. The phonological description provides information on syllable structure, initials, finals, tones, syllables in sequence, combinations of initials, finals, and tones, tone change, and colloquial versus literary forms. In the lexicon section, morphemes are arranged in the matrix of Ancient Chinese sound categories in order to afford easy comparison with similar items among other dialects. The tables are arranged according to rime group distinction, division distinction, and tonal distinction, in that order. A sample colloquial text is provided and the grammar notes that follow include remarks on pronouns, deictics, interrogatives, aspects, negatives, copula and locative, sentence particles, common classifiers, affixes for nouns, possessives, and modifying clauses. An annotated bibliography lists books and articles relevant to the Tai-shan dialect and a character index is provided.
This is one really big file—366 pages compressed into 39.87 MB. I haven’t read it yet, and considering my professional reading list, it will be a while before I get around to this tome. Yue-Hashimoto also recently published a monograph on the Dancun dialect (台山淡村方言研究), available from HKU.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

NYT on the decline of Taishanese (again)

At the end of his article on China’s new broadcast limitations on Cantonese, New York Times journalist Edward Wong briefly refers to Taishanese.
The Cantonese-versus-Mandarin debate is fierce even in Chinatowns in the United States, where many residents traditionally spoke Cantonese or a related dialect, Taishanese, because their families came from Guangdong Province. But in recent years, the number of immigrants from other parts of China has grown, and Mandarin is now becoming the dominant language.
The decline of Taishanese is discussed more directly in a previous post. The NYT article itself dates back to July 2010.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen

Another not-quite-recent story (from November of last year). Public Radio International introduces Marilyn Chin, who shares Taishanese slang in her writing.
Marilyn Chin learned insults, puns and tongue twisters, many of which later found their way into her poetry. Chin has published three volumes of poems. Many of her poems are linguistic investigations of her own Chinese-Americanism. Now she’s published her first novel, Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen. It’s the story of two Chinese-American twins, Moonie and Mei Ling Wong, and their search for double happiness. Or maybe single happiness. Double Happiness is just the name of their family restaurant (wordplay and irony abounds). Between episodes of Chinese food delivery gone hilariously wrong — thanks to Mei Ling’s souped-up American need for sex and drugs — the twins enter a mythological world of Chinese fable. From profane to sacred, and back to profane again. In the pod, I interview Marilyn Chin, who like the twins in her novel, had an overly protective Old World grandmother raising her. Chin can still recite her grandmother’s curses and sayings, delivered in the Toisan sub-dialect of Cantonese. She also recites a super-punning poem from her 2002 collection, Rhapsody in Plain Yellow.
For the record, I do not own this book, nor do I know the author. The link just appeared high on my Google search.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Hoisanese Sanctuary

Few Taishanese-English dictionaries exist, none of which exist online. The closest thing you’ll find to an online dictionary is Hoisan Sanctuary. This website hosts a short word list of some 40 words covering primarily family terms and function words (e.g. pronouns, question words, etc.). The site also provides a brief English-oriented sketch of the sound system with a partial orthography and discussion of tones.

Beyond the linguistic description, you will also find the Hoisan Sanctuary Forums, which foster language-oriented discussions on Taishanese. Most of the enthusiasts who frequent the forums are individuals of Taishanese heritage who are seeking to explore and renew the bond with their home language. Their enthusiasm is remarkable. Most also lack a background in linguistics, and few appear to speak Taishanese as a dominant or primary language.

The forum discussions shed light on common attitudes and experiences shared by many overseas Taishanese. For example, contributors often share words that have been seared into their memory since childhood. (These are often rather colorful expressions.) But some also report back on individual research and resources they’ve identified. For example, it was through the Hoisan Sanctuary Forums that I learned about the DLI coursebook’s audio file supplements at Ben’s Cantonese Practice Journal.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Cantonese (Toishan) Basic Course

Scanning across the internet, I’ve been really impressed by individuals who have posted Taishanese learning materials online. I remember very vividly how there were no such resources available even back in 2000. (It’s easy to forget that even Chinese language compatibility was quite limited back then!)

One resource that I did run across—thanks to a long-ago post in an online forum—was the Chinese-Cantonese (Toishan) Basic Course, published by the Defense Language Institute. I ordered this course sometime around 2000, when it cost something on the order of $2.35 to package and ship.

The drawback was that it all came in microfiche. After $80 spent trying to print it out at the UCLA library, I gave up and left the mini course sheets sitting around in a box.

By 2005, ERIC was no longer shipping these out. A Taishanese enthusiast at the Boston Globe contacted me via my website and offered me a deal. He could scan the course page-by-page and send me a copy on CD. I shipped him the files, and we kept in touch by email. It felt like a win-win arrangement. But by 2006 we lost all contact with each other.

It turns out that during the time that ERIC wasn’t shipping out microfiche all over the United States, they were quietly scanning thousands of texts into an online archive. The Chinese-Cantonese (Toishan) Basic Course included. You can visit the course’s ERIC page, and download the course itself as a PDF. You can even download the audio files from Ben’s Cantonese Practice Journal.

The dialect in the DLI course is very different from the one that I speak. Not only do the vowels and consonants slightly differ, they use some different words as well. No matter. I am a strong believer that you learn a language not by learning some arbitrary standard, but by delving into the many different ways that a language is used and spoken. It’s really only then that one has true mastery.

I haven’t had the chance to go through this text in any detail. I’m interested in hearing reviews from anyone who does.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Why Kaiping?

A few years ago, I made a trip to China, where I made some recordings. I visited the hometown, cut and edited the sounds, wrote a manuscript and posted it all online. But this manuscript wasn’t about Taishanese, and a few people weren’t too happy about this.

As it happens, my family is not from Taishan. We hail from Kaiping. I made my recordings and manuscript based on the Kaiping dialect mostly because Kaiping is where my family is from. The major point of my research is for me to learn about my family’s language. For a more practical reason, some of the best research on the dialects of Taishan and Kaiping were done by a linguist named Deng Jun 鄧鈞, who is also from Kaiping, and who did much more thorough research on the Kaiping dialect. (I even got to meet the main speaker he recorded.) Lastly, it’s important to keep in mind that the difference between the speech of Kaiping and Taishan isn’t so great.

The Four Counties dialects include an abundance of dialectal variety across Taishan, Kaiping, Enping and much of Xinhui. There is no single “Taishan accent,” just as there is no single “Kaiping accent.” There is rather a continuum of dialectal variation across the Four Counties region—often to my great confusion. Sometimes the same syllable means two completely different words in different areas. Sometimes the exact same accent is spoken in areas that span the border between Taishan and Kaiping.

This is not to say that the terms are interchangeable. Taishan does not mean Kaiping. Part of the confusion arises, I believe, in the way that many overseas Chinese refer to the Four Counties dialect (or Seiyap 四邑話). Here in the United States, Taishanese is often used to mean roughly the same thing as the Four Counties dialect. Even though I’m of Kaiping descent, I frequently say that I speak Taishanese. I do this mostly out of convenience; it’s more important for people to understand that I don’t speak Cantonese or Mandarin. If you are from Taishan, you probably speak differently than I do—but the odds are that we can still hold a conversation with each of us speaking only our local dialect.

The point here is to understand the close similarity between the speech of Taishan and Kaiping. For one, the terms Taishan dialect and Kaiping dialect really refer to a large family of dialects. If you peel into research on the Kaiping dialect—or speech from Enping or Xinhui for that matter—there will be quite a bit of overlap with the varieties spoken in Taishan. These dialects are closer to each other than to any other you will find in China. They are Four Counties dialects, after all.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Online resources abound

I did some Google searches on Taishanese (15,300 results) and 台山話 (405,000 results). There are plenty of pages and videos—even some introductory lessons on the Taishanese language. Holy cow!

Back when I started learning about Taishanese, there were hardly any resources available online. How the times have changed! Now I feel completely overwhelmed. This is probably a good thing. It looks like I’ll never have a lack of topics to post about.

I’m slowly filling up lists of links and blogs. If you have suggestions you think I should check out, please don’t hesitate to drop a comment and let me know.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

They once spoke Taishanese

Last year, an article in the New York Times discussed the rise of Mandarin in New York’s Chinatown. I was very impressed that the author, Kirk Semple, did his research and went out of his way to mention the previous prominence of Taishanese:
For much of the last century, most Chinese living in the United States and Canada traced their ancestry to a region in the Pearl River Delta that included the district of Taishan. They spoke the Taishanese dialect, which is derived from and somewhat similar to Cantonese. […] Immigration reform in 1965 opened the door to a huge influx of Cantonese speakers from Hong Kong, and Cantonese became the dominant tongue. But since the 1990s, the vast majority of new Chinese immigrants have come from mainland China, especially Fujian Province, and tend to speak Mandarin along with their regional dialects.
In contrast, there was no reference to Taishanese in a similar article published in the Los Angeles Times back in 2006. I remember this only because a friend active in the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California had encouraged me to complain about this omission to the LAT. I wish I had.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Attempt #2

When I was younger, my father taught me that we spoke Cantonese, but that our family’s dialect was Seiyap 四邑, while other people in Chinatown spoke Saamyap 三邑. In high school in the suburban Midwest, Cantonese speaking students flatly informed me that I didn’t speak Cantonese. I remember going home to my father and telling him that he had lied to me! But the truth, I found out later, wasn’t quite so simple.

We speak a dialect that I will refer to—at least in this post—as Taishanese 台山話. This variety of Chinese is related to Cantonese as spoken in Hong Kong, and is properly classified under the Cantonese or Yue 粵 grouping of Chinese dialects. Taishanese was the dominant language of the first wave of Chinese immigrants, from the 1860s through the 1960s. Subsequent waves of immigration displaced Taishanese with Cantonese as the dominant language, and now Mandarin.

I spent five years studying linguistics at UCLA and Northwestern University. College proved to be the perfect opportunity to explore the dialect my family spoke, where I dug up every single resource that I could find. For example, it turned out that there are many, many different names for this dialect, and that even the “boundaries” of what constitutes my family’s dialect may vary from person to person. I also learned of plenty of Chinese Americans in the United States who were eager to learn about their history. At the time I graduated, my goal was to write a dictionary, pulling together all my experience and resources.

But then life happened.

Enchanted by the world beyond academia and theoretical linguistics, I quit my doctoral program to become a computational lexicographer, eventually winding up as a business analyst. (FYI, a linguistics education is a fabulous way to develop top-notch analytical skills.) My already poor Chinese skills deteriorated even further. Links with academia faded away. A wonderful career in business consulting also began consuming all of my spare time.

Only recently did I decide to take another stab at Taishanese. This blog is aimed to supplement that work. When I have an article I’d like to share or bookmark, I’ll post it here. This blog is also potentially an archive of bits of information that I’d like to remember, but don’t know what to do with otherwise. I also encourage comments—I’d love to hear from other Taishanese linguists and enthusiasts.