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.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting.....In Malaysia they call Sze-yap "Sin-ning" 新寧 based on the old name of the area. They also have lost the famous lh- initial sound, and pronounce it as an s- instead.