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Old 13th September 2013, 02:03 PM
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Re: Beijing says 400 million Chinese cannot speak Mandarin

Originally Posted by welkin View Post
The interesting (and good) thing about the language divisions is that although the different dialects are incompatible vocally, they use the same written characters.

Give that man a cigar!
I think that is one of the reasons why a pinyin domain based internet wouldn't work so well in China.

Characters are often put forward as a bridge between dialects -- in fact, they are often credited with single-handedly maintaining the unity of the Chinese language.
The ability of characters to act as a 'bridge' between dialects rests on the fact that the modern dialects are genetically related, all being descended from Old Chinese (Classical Chinese). Although the modernday Chinese dialects started drifting apart more than a thousand years ago, their vocabularies preserve large chunks of the older language, disguised by differences in pronunciation. Take the following examples from several different dialects:

Character Mandarin Shanghainese Hokkienese Cantonese
白 'white' bái bak23 beh24 baak6
八 'eight' bā bak5 bueh1 baat8
日 'sun, day' rì niek23 lit24 yat6
五 'five' wǔ n13 ggoo22 ng5
十 'ten' shí sak23 zap24 sap6

The Chinese are very aware of cognates between dialects. By noting connections between corresponding sounds, speakers can very quickly pick up important common chunks of other dialects. To see what is meant, check out the following sites showing sound changes that have taken place between Classical Chinese and the modern dialects (with reference also to Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese) and how regular correspondences can be drawn: Chinese Dialects and Chinese Numerals - A Comparison of Readings from China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam.

The characters formalise the etymological connections among dialects by representing cognate terms with the same character. For instance, rì (Mandarin), niek23 (Shanghainese), lit24 (Hokkienese), and yat6 (Cantonese) are all descended from the original Old Chinese word for 'day' and are all written with the character 日. In a sense, the characters act as a kind of shorthand, helping make clear which word (or form) is referred to and encapsulating its identity across the many dialects of China.
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