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Of these two most popular terms, Siyi is more geographically and culturally accurate, but is outdated.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.

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