Linguistic superiority is bunk

by hexacoto

Someone once said to me, “哎呀,你的中文那么不标准!”

That basically meant: Aiya, your Chinese is really substandard!

And that was in response to me telling them my Chinese name. That someone was from Beijing, China, and I am from Singapore. We both speak Chinese, but upon hearing my pronunciation of certain words different from the way they do it, they denounced it as being substandard, for not being the “Beijing standard.”

Thus, they claim linguistic superiority of Chinese over any other regional differences.

It’s not even the way Cockney differs from RP in England, or African American Vernacular differs from General American English — in Wikipedia, the Chinese spoken in Singapore and China are both called “Standard Chinese,” but inevitably there are bound to be phonological differences, that even Wikipedia cannot capture.

A very basic example is the way my name is pronounced.

A character in my name, 俊, is transcribed in pinyin as “jùn”. As many of my friends from China would pronounce it, and the way Wikipedia transcribes it, they say:

/t͡ɕyn/

with a /voiceless alveolo-palatal affricate + high front rounded vowel + alveolar nasal/. There is a very audible “tch” sound at the onset of the word.

In Singapore, that character in my name would be pronounced:

/d͡ʒyn/

with a /voiced palato-alveolar affricate + high front rounded vowel + alveolar nasal/. That means that the initial “j” sound in Singaporean Chinese is similar to the way “judge,” “gee,” and “job” is pronounced in English. There is no “ch” sound audible at the onset of the word.

Another difference would be the character 需, xū, as in “to need.” In China, it would be pronounced:

/ɕy/

with a /voiceless alveolo-palatal sibilant + high front rounded vowel/. There is a very audible, thin “sss” sound at the onset of the word.

In Singapore, that character would be pronounced:

/ʃy/

with a /voiceless palato-alveolar sibilant + high front rounded vowel/. It is almost indistinguishable from the way “she” is pronounced in English.

Here is an example of how Standard Chinese sounds are generally pronounced by people from Mainland China:

Note the “j” “q” “x” sounds at the 41 second mark.

Compare with this Singaporean Chinese news clip:

Note at the 23 second mark, the news broadcaster even says a name that has my 俊 “jun” character in it, and the initial “j” is a lot softer than the Chinese from Mainland China. Also, the Chinese spoken by the interviewee immediately is closer to how most Singaporeans speak Chinese — with consonants closer to Taiwanese Chinese than Mainland China Chinese.

Another video clip of Singaporean Chinese, as spoken by kids, with a lot of usage of the “xue” word. Note that they all say /ʃyœ/ (sh-ü-eh).

A very simple reason why there is that difference is in the way we learn Chinese. Those in China learn Chinese via the “bopomofo” method (see video embedded above), where there is an emphasis on preserving the initial sounds (“ji-yu=ju” “xi-yu=xu”). In Singapore, Chinese is taught via the hanyu pinyin system, where its English letters are used as a springboard to understanding the sounds of Chinese. That makes sense in Singapore, given that its bilingual education system begins even in kindergarten, whereas English is only introduced in the Chinese education at a much later age in elementary school.

As such, there are some overlap between the consonants of English and Chinese in Singapore, where “xu” is pronounced “she” and “you” is pronounced “you/yew” (as in English), rather than “yo-uu” (as Mainland Chinese people would).

Furthermore, given that the influence of Chinese dialects such as Hokkien (Southern Min/Min-nan), Teochew, Cantonese, and Hakka, all of which are southern Chinese dialects, you get pronunciations of certain consonants that mimic Taiwanese or Hong Kong Chinese, such as interchanging “chi” “shi” “zhi” with “ci” “si” zi” in casual speech sometimes (that is, people who are not broadcasters or taking exams). An example would be the first video of Singapore Chinese I embedded (about the iPhone 4), where the guy said “zè” instead of “zhè” (这).

Does this make any of the Chinese spoken in Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan, and other parts of the world less “standard” than the Beijing standard?

Were that so, then wouldn’t all variants of English but British English, not even American, be the gold standard of English in the world? Languages change and adapt to the locale, and to insist that only one type of the language is proper and the rest substandard is arrogance in its linguistic superiority.

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