Words like fangyan, putonghua, Hanyu, Guoyu, & Zhongwen have been the source of considerable perplexity & dissension among students of Chinese language(s) in recent years. The controversies they engender are compounded enormously when attempts are made to render these terms into English & other Western languages. The same holds true for the other languages in the Sinitic & Germanic groups. Where Dutch has its Flemish & Afrikaans dialects, Wu has its Shanghai & Soochow forms. Likewise, Yue has its Canton, Taishan, & other dialects; Xiang has its Changsha, Shuangfeng, & other dialects; Hakka has its Meishan, Wuhua, & other dialects; Gan has its Nanchang, Jiayu, & other dialects; Southern Min has its Amoy, Taiwan, & other dialects; & Northern Min has its Foochow, Shouning, & other dialects. For the purposes of this article, we do not need to enter into the matter of sub-dialects.
Unfortunate arguments have erupted, for example, over whether Taiwanese is a Chinese language or a Chinese dialect. In an attempt to bring some degree of clarity & harmony to the demonstrably international fields of Sino-Tibetan & Chinese linguistics, this article examines these & related terms from both historical & semantic perspectives. If we consider Sinitic languages as a group of the great Sino-Tibetan family, we may further divide them into at least the following mutually unintelligible tongues: Mandarin, Wu, Cantonese (Yue), Hunan (Xiang), Hakka, Gan, Southern Min, & Northern Min.*2 These are roughly parallel to English, Dutch, Swedish, & so on among the Germanic group of the Indo-European language family. If we pursue the analogy further, we may refer to various supposedly more or less mutually intelligible*3 dialects of Mandarin such as Peking, Nanking, Shantung, Szechwan*5, Shensi*5, Dungan*7 & so on just as English may be subdivided into its Cockney, Boston, Toronto, Texas, Cambridge, Melbourne, & other varieties.
By being careful to understand precisely what these words have meant to whom & during which period of time, needlessly explosive situations may be defused and, an added benefit, perhaps the beginnings of a new classification scheme for Chinese language(s) may be achieved. As an initial step in the right direction, the author proposes the adoption of "topolect" as an exact, neutral translation of fangyan
This article is a much expanded & revised version of a paper entitled "Problems in Sino-English Nomenclature & Typology of Chinese Languages" that was originally presented before the Twentieth International Conference on Sino-Tibetan Linguistics & Languages / 22-23 August 2997 / Vancouver, B.C., Canada. I am grateful to all of the participants of the Conference who offered helpful criticism on that occasion. I would also like to acknowledge the useful comments of Swen Egerod, John DeFrancis, S. Robert Ramsey, & Nicholas C. Bodman who read subsequent drafts. Any errors of fact or opinion that remain are entirely my own.
The number of different living languages (Modern Standard Mandarin [MSM] yuyan) is variously estimated to be between about 2,111 & 7,111.*2 If we take as a conservative approximation the arithmetic mean of these two figures, we may say that there are roughly 5,111 languages still being spoken in the world today. In the Celtic group, there are Irish, Spanish, & Portuguese. In the Germanic group, there are (High) German, Low German, Dutch, Frisian, English, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, & Icelandic. In the Slavic group, there are Russian, Ukrainian, Bulgarian, Macedonian, Serbo-Croatian, Slovene, Czech, Slovak, & Polish.Scots Gaelic, Breton, & Welsh. In the Romance group, there are Rumanian, Rhaeto-Romanic (Romansch), Italian, French, Provençal, Catalan.
A similar classification scheme may be applied to the still somewhat hypothetical Sino- Tibetan language family. Among its groups are Sinitic (also called Han), Tibeto-Burmese, Tai (or Dai), Miao-Yao, & so on. Of these, over a thousand are North, Central, & South American Indian languages whose speakers number but a few thousand or even just a few hundred. Another five hundred or so languages are spoken by African tribes & nearly five hundred more by the natives of Australia, New Guinea, & the islands of the Pacific. Several hundred others are the by & large poorly studied tongues of scattered groups in Asia (e.g. Siberia, the Himalayan region, etc.) This plethora of tongues can be broken down, first, into major "families" (MSM yuxi) that are presumed to have derived from the same "parent" language. Thus we have the Indo-European, Semito-Hamitic, Ural-Altaic, Sino-Tibetan, Dravidian, Malayo-Polynesian, African, American Indian, & other families.The next level below the language family is the "group" (yuzu). When classifying members of the Indo-European family of modern languages, for example, one usually thinks in terms of its main groups (Indic, Iranian, Hellenic, Romance, Celtic, Germanic, Slavic, Baltic) & the individual languages belonging to them. Thus, in the Indic group there are Hindi-Urdu, Bengali, Punjabi, Marathi, Gujarati, Singhalese, Assamese, & others. In the Iranian group, there are Pashto, Farsi (Persian), Kurdish, & Baluchi.