What is a dialect? / 方言とはなにもの?

By James [Bilingual version; 日英対照]

My curiosity towards dialects grows after one professor of mine, also a native Cantonese speaker, explained to his other students in Japanese, “I have just talked to him in a Cantonese dialect.” My thoughts have then never ceased as to what on earth a dialect is and what differences lay between a dialect and a language.

Linguistic scholars Halvor and Rolf understand language variations through the geological and sociological contexts. Both deny evidentially that Korean is a dialect because it is “a language by distance” (p. 7; Chapter 7), which means that Korean language bears only little affinity from its Asian counterparts.

Indeed, the distance between any two languages is determined by words and expressions employed in various regions. For instance, in Japan, even though one talks to a Kansaijin – a person born and raised in Kansai region – in a Kumamoto dialect, they can probably communicate well with one another since the two dialects are said to be in a system of “dialect continuum” which is defined as a variety of dialects articulated across some geographical area that only varies slightly from one and other between neighbouring areas. However, when people from the two opposite ends of the dialectical spectrum come together, neither dialects will become communicative as differences accumulate beyond the level of mutual understanding.

Ways of expressions in a dialect also differ with time due to migration and interaction with other peoples. For instance, despite Shōdoshima’s being an island within Kagawa prefecture, its geographical vicinity to Okayama and Hyōgo ones leads to close similarity of its dialect with a Kansai one.

Upon closer examination into Chinese language, it is found to be problematic to define the term of language, and it is equally challenging to do so in the language of Hindu and Arabic, as Halyor and Rolf also pointed out. In spite of being equivalently defined as Chinese, Shanghainese, Cantonese and Pekingese are fundamentally orally incompatible with one another because of their immense differences in terms of intonation and pronunciation. Therefore, from my personal perspective, it may be more precise to consider Chinese as a macro-language and to sub-categorize Cantonese and others as languages.

So far, I have come across a few who only honour the so-called ‘standard language’, despise their mother tongue or dialects spoken, and even feel inferior and ashamed when they are discovered not to be a speaker of the pure official language. Yet, a ‘standard language’ is merely created for the sake of convenience so that citizens from across the nation can communicate with one another with ease. It is thus unnecessary to be embarrassed just because your native language is not standard enough. Why don’t you pride yourself, instead, on being able to speak both dialect(s) and official language(s)?

Reference:

Elfring, Halvor and Theil, Rolf “Chapter 7: Language and variation” in Linguistics for Students of Asian and African Languages

[This article is originally written in Japanese, and is rewritten into English on 1st February, 2016]

[Featured image taken by James Au on 6th April, 2015 at Osaka Castle, Japan]

[方言とはなにもの?]

「僕は彼と方言の広東語を喋っただけです」と先生の話を聞いたら、何故か私は「方言」の全てについて気になることになった。果たして方言とは何者であろう?言語との異なりは何であろう?

言語学者ハルボー・エルフリングとロルフ・サイルによると、言葉の変異は地学、社会学、及び文脈の分析で理解する。二人は皆が韓国語を方言ではなく、言語として考えているのを指し、何故なら韓国語は「他の言葉から距離を置く」のだと明らかのである。(注1)

ではその距離がどのように判定されるのであろう?地域によって言葉使い方が異なるか、ただし地域の異なる二人をお互いに話せば、意思表示できるということである。例えば、熊本弁を使って関西人の方に話してかけると相手も分かるはずである。要するに、熊本弁も関西弁は「方言連続体」(dialect continuum) の体系にはいている。

方言連続体とは、複数の近似した言語体系があり、それらの間に明確な境界線がなく、徐々に一つの体系から他の体系に移り変わっていく場合、その連続した言語体系群全体を指していう言葉である。(注2)

更に、方言における単語や諺などは時間とともに変わっていく。他の地域から来る人、あるいは移民と接触しながら、地元の方言も変化することである。例えば、小豆島は香川県内の一島だが、岡山県と兵庫県にも近いため、島の人たちもそこから影響を受けているはずである。

では中国語はどうであろうか?エルフリングとサイルは、同じく「中国語」や「ヒンディー語」や「アラビア語」という用語を使う際、その言葉自身が問題を起こさせる(注3)。同じ中国語とはいえ、上海語でも、広東語でも、北京語が母語である人と話しときに、通じないということだ。従って、中国におけても、アフリカーにおけても、日本や韓国と異なって、マクロ言語(或いは諸言語)が使われていると考える方が妥当ではないかと私見である。

世界中の人にとって、「標準語」を使うほうが正しい代わりに、方言、又は別の言語を使うと恥かしいと思うかもしれない。ただし、標準語はただ便利上で全国にわたって統一使われた言語にすぎない。だから、別に恥かしいことは必要がないと思う。逆に標準語も方言も話せて誇りを持つべきではないであろうか。

平成28年1月6日(木)

注1: Elfring, Halvor and Theil, Rolf “Chapter 7: Language and variation”in Linguistics for Students of Asian and African Languagesに参照。

注2: http://ejje.weblio.jp/content/dialect+continuum

注3:同上書。

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