When were languages standardized?

One of the most interesting things about my time in Europe and having friends from places where people have lived for thousands of years is learning that in many, many parts of the world, local languages are still spoken. Before I left the US, I thought that, for instance, all French people spoke French. I didn’t know about Normand, Basque, etc. This seems to be the norm for everyone not coming from North America (even there, I’m sure there are exceptions), but all of my friends speak their country’s official language (or majority language) as well as one (or several) local langauges.

What I’m wondering is, when did standardization of generally take place, and how was it decided upon that for instance “Spanish” would be the language of Spain (which is to say, not Catalan or Basque). How were the languages chosen, etc.

I presume it could be as simple as, “The king comes from here, he speaks this local language, therefore this is the language of his entire kingdom,” but I don’t know if it’s more complex than that.

Standardization for a language is really recognition by government or society in general as one particular dialect being the prestige dialect. For some languages the prestige dialect was declared by the government of the area concerned and for others, the society decided (used in formal situations, in reporting the news, etc.) which dialect would be the prestige one.

That really is basically how it happened in most places. Whatever the language of government was, it tended to become the prestige variety (whether it was a dialect of a language spoken by most of the populace or the particular local language.) It’s not a coincidence that the national language of Spain is that of Castile; when the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon were first united, bringing most of the peninsula under one government, Castile was rather politically powerful and its language was chosen as the language of the newly-united Spain. It then spread into the largely Catalan-speaking Kingdom of Aragon. Same goes for France; when France was united under Parisian rule, the local language, Francien, gradually became the national language, replacing the other, closely-related langues d’oïl spoken in France’s north and the less-closely related langues d’oc spoken in the south.

Same thing, more or less, in China. Mandarin was long-established as the language of the national government - it’s the native language of Beijing and Nanjing, two of China’s historical capitals, and it’s been used as centuries as the language of China’s system of local administration. But it wasn’t until this century that fluency in Mandarin became common in the south of the country, and the Standard Mandarin (putonghua) promulgated by the government is heavily based on the dialect of Beijing.

Sometimes national languages are established for other reasons, though. Many nations in Subsaharan Africa don’t share a single indigenous language amongst the entire population, and so colonial European languages have remained official, oftentimes beside particularly widespread local languages. A colonial language may sometimes be free of association with one particular ethnic group, which makes it useful to avoid magnifying interethnic tensions by establishing one ethnicity’s language as the national language. My understanding is that this is the case in India, where there are hundreds of native languages (and, according to Wikipedia, 22 national languages!). While Hindi is the country’s national language, English is heavily used in government, and many speakers of Dravidian languages (in the south of the nation) tend to prefer English for use with those who don’t speak the local language, since it’s a more politically neutral choice than using Hindi.

Factually, Nanjing dialect is incomprehensible to Mandarin speakers. It’s a Jiangsu/Anhui type dialect.

Beijing also speaks a local dialect t at is related to Mandarin but pretty difficult for on-Beijingers to get immediately. It’s certainly not broadcast Mandarin.

Mandarin did not get widespread through the major Chinese cities until after 1949. I can tell the improvement in Mandarin in the countryside compared with 25 years ago.

For China, the drivers have been radio, TV, and a unified country.

Written Chinese has been more or less unified and used for national government for about 2,000 years. Spoken Mandarin has not been universal until the past few decades.

Heck, today you still see signs in Shanghai government offices that say “speak Mandarin.” And the default language of 99% of the government spoken business in Shanghai is Shanghaiese.

Shanghai kindergarten’s and schools use Mandarin. But 25 years ago lectures at leading National universities in Shanghai like Fudan and Jiaotong were conducted primarily in Shanghaiese.

The trouble with this statement is that “dialects” as Chinese people refer to them don’t generally match with actual languages/dialect groups very well. Anhuihua, for instance, describes dialects from several different groups, including Mandarin, Wu, and Gan. That general area is one of the most linguistically fertile parts of China; note that it’s around the border between northern, Mandarin-speaking areas and the far more linguistically diverse (at least as pertains to Sinitic languages) southerly provinces.

Mandarin is certainly spoken in Nanjing, and that’s not limited to recent years, either. this site specifically describes Nanjing dialect as a variety of Mandarin - undoubtedly not identical to Putonghua, but still pertaining to the same basic group. I have no doubt that, given its location, other dialects are likely spoken in the area, but it’s certainly not an area where Mandarin only recently arrived.

Of course not. Putonghua is an essentially artificial dialect; it’s modeled to a large degree on the Mandarin spoken in that general area (probably moreso on Tianjinhua than Beijinghua) and you can particularly see that when you compare it to, say, southwestern Mandarin dialects, many of which have a radically different phonology. But of course Beijing has its own peculiar features; Beijinghua in particular is noted for its extensive use of the “r” final, which Putonghua uses far less. Of course, some more southerly varieties of Mandarin don’t possess the “r” final at all. Mandarin is probably as varied as any of the other major dialect groups; even if in many places fluency in Mandarin only arrived recently, from a historical perspective Mandarin was still spoken over an immense area. So there are certainly varieties of Chinese generally classed as Mandarin that are not actually very mutually comprehensible with Putonghua.

It depends on which city. China is freaking enormous, you know. Chongqing and Chengdu, for instance, are very squarely within the area in which Mandarin is historically spoken, although Sichuan Mandarin certainly has its own regional peculiarities. If you’re talking Shanghai or Guangzhou, then it’s certainly the case that those areas didn’t have a huge number of Mandarin speakers until relatively recently - though under the old system of government by the Mandarins, it’s pretty likely that the bureaucrats in charge of those places did. (There’s a reason that word was taken as a name for the language!)

I can tell the improvement in Mandarin in the countryside compared with 25 years ago.

excaliber - either linguists define dialects differently than normal people, or you’ve never spent time in these parts of China. I’m a simple guy, if a native mandarin speaker can’t understand the local language after a week, then the local language is a dialect.

There is no freakin way Sichuanese can be ubderstood by Mandarin speakers.

In all seriousness, maybe you are mistaking a Sichuanese person speaking Sichan accented Mandarin (and not Sichuanese). But I spent over a year in Sichuan in the 1980’s and i can assure you if locals speak Sichuanese the Mandarin speakers won’t understand.

regardless of what it’s language or dialect linguistic classification. The fact remains that if people in Nanjing (or Chongqing, chengdu) speak their local language, it is mutually incomprehensible to a native Mandarin speaker.

If a linguist wants to call that Mandarin, then IMHO the linguists should change their definition.

IANALinguist, but I’ve lived and travelled for 20 years in China where the local language was incomprehensible to Mandarin speakers (3 years sichuan, yunnan, guizhou & Guangxi; 3 years Taiwan, 6 years HK, 8 years Shanghai).

The consolidation of modern nation states probably has something to do with it. As communities become more closely connected with each other in a nation state a common language is neccesary. Papau New Guinea has 850 languages, 10% of the world’s total. The geography of Papau New Guinea meant that villiages 2 miles from each other spoke mutually unintelligable languages. A similar condition existed in China and Europe for a long time

Excalibre, I would agree with China Guy, as I often do, and his classification of the various Chinese dialects as distinct languages in a language family with a similar grammar. FWIW this is the view held by my linguistics professor. The fact that a common written form of Chinese had been adopted for a very long time sort of complicates it. It’s a social science, not a real science. :slight_smile:

China Guy: I’m no expert. I speak a little Mandarin, and none of the other Chinese languages. I’ve never been there, and I certainly wouldn’t imagine contradicting your experience. I am merely relating the common linguistic description of the country, based on extensive reading. In linguistic literature, Sichuanese is treated as a variety of Mandarin; note that while a standard form of Mandarin exists, and a fairly standard form of Cantonese exists, both exist in a multitude of varieties aside from the standard, and those varieties are sometimes mutually incomprehensible. China is very large and very old, and speakers of Chinese languages spread out long before modern communications. The normal situation in China - as in much of the world, actually - is dialect continuum, in which people speak a local variety of the language which is easily mutually comprehensible with varieties spoken nearby, a bit harder to understand if you travel a few villages away, and impossible to understand if you travel much farther than that. Amongst single Chinese “languages” like Mandarin or Wu or Xiang or Cantonese, there tend not to be sharp dividing lines but rather gradual change over distance. Note that Sichuan is quite far from most of the area treated as “Mandarin-speaking”; the variety of Mandarin spoken there would be expected to have diverged greatly from what’s spoken in the north.

The trouble with trying to classify each variety of any of the Chinese languages as a language in its own right is that quickly the number of “Chinese languages” would be so large as to be impractical, and (again) those crisp lines that people imagine exist between languages simply don’t. There’s no way to somehow divide up “Chinese” into varieties that are both mutually comprehensible across the variety, and not mutually comprehensible with other varieties - such groups simply don’t exist. The linguistic approach in this case is essentially historical. Even though Sichuanese is radically different from Standard Mandarin, they are historical relatives and diverged from each other long after the major dialect groups - Min, Mandarin, Cantonese, etc. diverged. Even Sichuanese and Standard Mandarin are not terribly different; most of the difference is limited to phonology - certain historical changes in the pronunciation of certain sounds that occurred in Standard Mandarin didn’t occur in Sichuan (and probably the other way around as well). But they don’t have the grammatical and lexical differences that exist between the main “Chinese languages” or dialect groupings.

Of course that’s the case. I used the term “dialect” simply because it’s the term customarily used in reference to the different Chinese languages. I assume you are aware of that.

Actually, the written forms of different Chinese languages are not identical either. In fact, in the case of Cantonese, there exists (once again) a fairly standardized form used in Hong Kong, though it’s largely limited to informal usage. But it’s important to remember that the different Chinese languages don’t differ only in sound but also in vocabulary - in many instances, a sentence spoken in Mandarin will use completely different words - and thus different characters - if written down in another dialect. (Assuming, that is, that there are characters corresponding to the vocabulary of that dialect; that’s not always the case.) The “Standardized Written Language” basically amounted, prior to this century, to people doing their writing in Classical Chinese; nowadays it generally boils down to writing in baihua - which is a vernacular standard based exclusively on Mandarin.

The notion that a piece of writing translates seemlessly between dialects is not baseless, but it’s a tad exaggerated.

While there is some nationalistic/political controversy, most Western linguists use “language” as a matter of custom. Or at least, they do so now, according to my text books. In any case, it is a matter of semantics. The English term “dialect” has a test of mutual intellegibility which the Chinese dialects do not have. In any case I don’t think there is any need to quibble over it too much.

That’s what I mean. Written Chinese was standardized throughout the Chinese empire prior to the 20th Century, in the form of classical Chinese/WenYanWen. However it wasn’t used in everyday speech anywhere, not even Beijing. It certainly isn’t Mandarin. For much of Chinese history the written language remained consistent while the spoken language diverged even further. The widespread use of written regional vernaculars is a relatively recent development. Thus the Chinese dialects really are mutually unintellegible, even in written form.

Indeed. I should have used the term “language”, and I normally do. It has certainly become the standard in linguistics. However, it’s an overstatement to believe that the terms “language” and “dialect” can honestly be rigorously defined, in part because of what I mentioned above. China is not the only place with dialect continua. The standard forms of Flemish, Dutch, and German are quite distinct; the former two are moderately mutually comprehensible, while the latter two really aren’t at all. But the local dialects spoken form a continuum, from Belgium on one side to Germany, and once again there are no sharp cut-offs where one can describe the dialects on one side of a line as “dialects of German” and those on the other side as “dialects of Dutch”. Both terms are abstractions describing groups of native speakers, none of whom speak identically - the drawing of lines is inherently an arbitrary matter. By the same token, varieties that are often treated as “dialects of German” are in some cases mutually incomprehensible. The linguist’s response is generally to identify a number of separate languages - but such divisions have to be partially arbitrary.

Definitely true.

I would agree with this wholeheartedly. The written language of China was unifying, but only in the sense that it was incredibly different from everyone’s spoken language. (And the earliest forms of written “Japanese” - prior to the development of the syllabic kana - were in fact close to identical with Classical Chinese. And this despite the fact that - Japanese borrowing from Chinese notwithstanding - it’s hard to imagine how much more dissimilar two languages could be.)

Excaliber, I think it is one of liguists/workable classifications/ivory towers versus the reality. I hope you get a chance to visit China - it is freaking huge. And you’ll find first hand that basically only around Beijing, Tianjin and parts of the Northeast will you be able to understand the local language as a Mandarin speaker.

I think there is some political linguistics going on to “prove” China is historically and linguistically united. Heck, In the past 20 years, linguists have started to claim Tibetan and Chinese have the same roots. IANALinguist, but methinks this is highly likely to be politics rather an unbiased linguists speaking.

Ke’aitentaclebeast (I always feel this need to correct the spelling from japanese to chinese) - this seems like a pretty good practical description “classification of the various Chinese dialects as distinct languages in a language family with a similar grammar.” I haven’t heard it expressed this way before.

The fact is that Mandarin is spoken as a mutually recognizeable native language in at best 10% of of China’s geography.

When you think about it, this could be true of most places.

For example, depending which part of the US you live in, you could speak English, Spanish, and Ebonics.

I’ve heard people speaking ebonics on TV and quite frankly, it’s almost a completely different language, IMO.

Similarly, I could probably communicate (briefly) in Cockney Rhyming Slang, which would make no sense to many people at all, and it’s not hard to turn on the Australasian Slang and suddenly have people from the rest of the world wondering what the hell an Esky is or why you’d want to wear Jandals…

I’m not sure why you think that. China is one of the world’s more diverse places from a linguistic or cultural perspective; the Chinese government recognizes dozens of non-Han nationalities, and most of them speak languages conventionally regarded as either very distant relations to Chinese or completely unrelated. Additionally, while the Chinese government has tended at times to pretend that the different Chinese “dialects” are the same language, such is not the case in the linguistic literature. But for the reasons I’ve outlined, it’s not that easy to subdivide the Chinese language in a rational way - and thus, for instance, sometimes the Jin dialects are treated as particularly distinctive varieties of Mandarin and sometimes they are regarded separately.

The Sino-Tibetan language family is not an absolute certainty, but it’s certainly one of the better-proven language families in existence. I struggle to imagine why you find it so difficult to believe - it doesn’t strike me as particularly less likely than imagining that English and Hindi are related. I’m not sure how you can imagine that that’s a political matter at all, particularly since I imagine that you’re no more familiar with the intricacies of historical linguistics in that language family than I am. Incidentally, the grouping was proposed quite some time ago; it’s not a particularly new idea.

That’s the case only if you regard “Mandarin” as varieties mutually comprehensible with Standard Mandarin; I think I’ve explained why that’s probably not a defensible or useful approach.

In France, french became the official language at the beginning of the 16th century, under the reign of Francis I . He passed an edict making its use mandatory for all public uses (official documents, courts, etc…).

Compared to most other european national languages, french use was widespread quite early. Most townfolks were fluent in french, without it being their mother tongue. However, everyday language, espacially in rural areas was still the local language. This came to an end very roughly between 1850-1950. The french republican government, having a tradition of centralism and unity, wanted to get rid of the “patois” and this was realized mainly by primary school teachers who, besides teaching french, famously hunted down any attempt to talk in “patois”. They were perceived as backward, and even their speakers became ashamed of using them. Only during the second part of the 20th century people began to change their mind but by this time, it was too late in most regions.

Most french languages are essentially dead (Oil languages, Franco-Provencal), dying (Oc languages) or kept on life support (Breton, Flemish). Only Catalan and Basque manage to survive and Corsican and Alsatian are quite commonly used.

By the way, Italy is an exception to the “national language is the language of the capital” rule. Italian was neither the language of the capital, nor of the ruling house when Italy was united. It was picked because it was the most prestigious Italian language (in particular used by Dante).

Is it really true that the French (and French-Canadians) look down on tourists and others whose French is less than perfect? If so, is there a connection between this and your account?

Excalibre, we are just going to have to disagree on the language/dialect classifications. I do want to get your opinion after you visit China and try to understand the language. :smiley:

China has IIRC 55 officially recognized non-Han Chinese minority groups. With varying degrees of assimilation. Some speak only the local Chinese language/dialect. Others speak almost exclusively the minority language. And plenty in between.

20 years ago when I was doing my heavy Chinese research and publishing, the standard language classification was Tibeto-Burman and not Sino-Tibetan. Maybe there have been missing links found. However, there is nothing on the subject of historic, religious, cultural or linguistic connections between China and Tibet that is not tainted with politics. To a lesser extent, this is also true for the area that today compromises geographic China.

China Guy: I don’t think **Excalibre **is saying anything that much different than you are. The one exception is Sino-Tibetan, which I agree with him on. It’s a fairly well established language family and not some ginned-up psuedo-linguistic idea promoted by the Chinese politboro to defend its poltical interests in Tibet. They may use it toward that end, but that’s a different story.