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.

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