#27 Guest Episode: Gina Anne Tam, Part 1 (English/粵語)

 This episode features the first half of our discussion with Dr. Gina Anne Tam, Associate Professor of History at Trinity University, and author of Dialect and Nationalism in China, 1860-1960 from Cambridge University Press. In this episode we talk about the distinction between “dialect” and “language” and what it means for Cantonese. Check back next week for the conclusion of our discussion.

今集有我哋同三一大學歷史副教授,劍橋大學出版社發行《中國方言與民族主義 1860-1960》作者譚吉娜博士討論嘅第一部份。呢一集我哋討論方言同語言嘅區別同埋對粵語嘅意義。大家記得下個禮拜返嚟聽埋後半部份討論。


1. 交流 gaau1 lau4 (N/V) exchange; to exchange
2. 欣賞 jan1 soeng2 (ADJ/V) appreciative; appreciate
3. 研究 jin4 gau3 (N/V) research; to research
4. 教學 gaau3 hok6 (N) teaching
5. 文學 man4 hok6 (N) literature
6. 範疇 faan6 cau4 (N) category
7. 角度 gok3 dou6 (N) angle, perspective
8. 手段 sau2 dyun6 (N) means, measure
9. 分析 fan1 sik1 (V/N) to analyze; analysis
10. 觀察 gun1 caak3 (V/N) to observe; observation
11. 現象 jin6 zoeng6 (N) phenomenon
12. 看待 hon1 doi6 (V) to treat, to look at
13. 重疊 cung4 dip6 (N/V) overlap; to overlap
14. 政策 zing3 caak3 (N) policy
15. 定義 ding6 ji6 (N) definition
16. 官方 gun1 fong1 (ADJ) official
17. 處理 cyu5 lei5 (V/N) to handle, to treat; treatment
18. 回應 wui4 jing3 (N/V) response; to respond
19. 強調 koeng4 diu6 (ADJ/V) emphatic; to emphasize
20. 訓練 fan3 lin6 (N/V) training; to train
21. 回歸 wui4 gwai1 (N/V) return, handover of sovereignty to China; to return; in case of Hong Kong, also translated as "retrocession"
22. 無端端 mou4 dyun1 dyun1 (ADV) for no reason, out of nowhere, suddenly
23. 集中 zaap6 zung1 (ADJ/V) focused; to focus
24. 推行 teoi1 hang4 (V) to implement
25. 行業 hong4 jip6 (N) industry, profession
26. 軍隊 gwan1 deoi2 (N) military
27. 管理 gun2 lei5 (V/N) to manage; management
28. 因素 jan1 sou3 (N) factor
29. 現代 jin6 doi6 (ADJ) contemporary, modern
30. 演變 jin2 bin3 (N/V) development, evolution; to evolve
31. 公開 gung1 hoi1 (ADV/ADJ) publicly; public
32. 發表 faat3 biu2 (V) to publish, to issue
33. 學術 hok6 seot6 (ADJ) academic
34. 平台 ping4 toi4 (N) platform
35. 活躍 wut6 joek3 (ADJ) active
36. 見證 gin3 zing3 (V/N) to witness; witness
37. 好奇 hou3 kei4 (ADJ) curious
38. 趨勢 ceoi1 sai3 (N) trend
39. 堅持 gin1 ci4 (V/N) to persist; persistence
40. 取捨 ceoi2 se2 (V/N) to make a choice (lit. accept or reject); choice

ADJ - Adjective

ADV - Adverb

N - Noun

V - Verb

Cameron: So this week, we are incredibly excited to have Dr. Gina Anne Tam joining us on the podcast. This is a huge deal because both Raymond and I have followed her work. We're huge fans of her scholarship and we can't wait to hear more about her relationship with Cantonese as well as more about her research, what she's written about, and maybe a little bit about what's to come. So welcome to Chatty Cantonese!

Dr. Tam: Thank you so much, I'm so honoured and delighted to be here. 

Cameron: Awesome, well, so the first question that we always ask is, what's your relationship with Cantonese? 

Raymond: 首先我哋經常問嘅第一個問題就係你同粵語嘅關係點樣嘅呢?

Dr. Tam: So my relationship with Cantonese is that I am still a beginner learner, like I'm still an introductory learner, conversational learner, “我只學咗廣東話一年左右” [I’ve only studied Cantonese for about a year]. So I am just a little bit… and so I actually learned… began learning Cantonese almost nine years ago, which I did for a year when I was a graduate student at Stanford, and then I have taken sort of, off and on private lessons for the last year because I've realized that it's something that's really important to me and, something that I'd like to get better at. And I think that Covid has both created all of these new groups in society, and one of them is opening up the possibility of Zoom. So I'm still really conversational, which I think will happen when you're taking lessons often on Zoom, but trying to get better. The last thing I'll say about my relationship with Cantonese is that while I began learning this language rather late in sort of my broader career as a China historian, the very first place that I ever went in Asia was Hong Kong. I went there in 2006–giving away my age here–as an undergraduate exchange student. I didn't learn very much Cantonese, but I lived in a space where Cantonese is widely spoken is the lingua franca and is indigenous, and part of what my work I think really emphasizes is the relationship between language and culture and identity, and so I think that experience of living in Hong Kong before I ever went anywhere else really outside of the United States, where I grew up, had a real impact on how I see Chinese languages in the world.

Raymond: 好,噉我都喺度同,再次同阿譚博士打聲招呼啦。 Gina 你好,好開心你今日同我哋去傾偈啦。我諗我今日係第二次啦,同你真正嘅交流1。噉正如阿 Cameron 啱啱都講啦,我哋都好開心、好欣賞2即係你做嘅研究3。或者你可唔可以講少少關於你嘅研究係啲乜嘢方面,即係同嗰個粵語嘅關係,你嘅研究係邊一方面㗎?

Cameron: Yeah, so can you talk a little bit about how your relationship talks about… Sorry, how your research talks about the relationship between, sort of “方言”, or sort of, I guess “dialect”. This is going to be difficult, actually in this discussion, because there is a translation question of how we translate “方言” as “dialect”. So can you talk about this relationship between 方言 and dialect and language?

Dr. Tam: So yes, this is a really complicated question about sort of this nexus of “language” and “語言” and “dialect” and “方言”, so I'll try to unpack it a little bit here because this is sort of at the core of my research. So the first thing is, let's just, we can stick with the English terms of “dialect” and “language” right, so what is the difference between a dialect and a language? This is, this is a question that I think is really complicated, so most linguists and sociolinguists will argue that there are sort of core empirical differences that distinguish languages from dialects. The most common one I think of here is mutual intelligibility, right? It’s that languages are mutually unintelligible with one another, whereas dialects are mutually intelligible, with both the language they are a dialect of, and also each other, right? The other big part of the definition of dialect is that there's sort of an implication of lineage. Like a dialect doesn't make sense of it, it's not a dialect of something, but quite frankly these definitions, and the reason this is so complicated, is because these definitions often don't graft onto common usage in English or in the many ways that we translate these terms into the multitude of languages that exist in the world. There are a lot of essentially languages that are… I don't even know what terms to use here, being honest, right? Like, “tongues”, I guess we can say, that are mutually unintelligible, and we often call them dialects and there are other tongues that are mutually intelligible with one another, and we often think of them as language. And so quite frankly, the way that we often use these terms is much more about politics, power, and identity. And because the definition of a dialect sort of hinges on being connected to a defined language. 

Languages are often designated to represent human communities that are distinct and bounded. The most common is a nation state, right? We often think of a language as being bound to a nation state, though not always, others are sort of ethnicity or state. We tend to think of these kinds of communities as having languages, and anything spoken by a community that does not lay claim to this often doesn't qualify as a language. But then how do we determine these things, right? How do we determine what a nation is, and what that language is? And that's where we get into sort of history and politics, and why really what makes something a language is someone or something powerful and influential that can designate that language as representative of a particular community. 

And so again, the most common sort of structure here is the nation state that is able to like sort of create those structures and defend the thinking of this particular tongue as a language. We often, you'll often hear this verbiage or adage, right? That a dialect is a language with… uh, sorry, a language is a dialect with an army and a navy. I think that's somewhat simplistic. I think there are some languages that don't graft neatly into the question of nation state with the army, but generally speaking, it gets at the question of power. Languages often have a power and a structure behind them, and dialects often do not, right? 

So then we can get into the question of Chinese languages and this question of 方言, right? So 方言 is a term that has been around for a very very long time. There's a book called “方言”, that is from a couple of millennia ago, and generally speaking, it's a term that designated its… I mean, if we sort of break 方 and 言 apart, right, then we have a language of a place, right? There are some sources I even sought from the nineteenth century that even called languages like Spanish and Portuguese 方言, right? Because they are a language of a place, right? 

But there's this hierarchy that's implicit in dialect and language, I don't think was really as present in pre-modern or pre-twentieth century Chinese speaking spaces as there is now. And so what my sort of book does is argues that there is, there is a point in the early twentieth century where there's sort of this crisis of national legitimacy, where a lot of Chinese intellectuals are very sort of looking at western imperialism and very much fearing that their country is about to be in danger, right? And then in order to be not be in danger, they needed just to jump into the modern world, and in order to do that, they needed to have these markers of a modern nation state, and part of that is having a Chinese language. And in the midst of that, you have Chinese intellectuals that are spending time reading western critiques of China, that are studying language and philosophy and mathematics, and all these other disciplines in the United States and Europe. And they sort of argue that not only does China have to have a language, a Chinese language, but then what that means is that this multitude of languages that are spoken within China need to be designated as something else, right? And that is where you start to have this, this twinning of the word “dialect” and word “方言” together. That’s a long answer, but I hope they get to some of your questions.

Cameron: That was amazingly comprehensive, but a very necessary answer, because I think these are questions that come up a lot, um, especially for people who are studying Cantonese and trying to understand how it fits into a larger, not only sort of a Sinophone picture, but also a global picture. And the way you were just talking, I wonder if you could also just talk a little bit more, since you are a historian, Raymond is a linguist, I am more of a literary analysis sort of person, we all think about languages very differently, and I am curious if you could talk a little bit more about what does a historian do in terms of problematizing or thinking through languages. What are the sort of methodologies that you're bringing to the table or what methodologies are you also interacting with from other disciplines, when you're doing research, such as your most recent book and also your future research?

Raymond: 噉個問題就係,阿 Gina 啦,噉你係歷史學家啦,你研究歷史啦。噉我 Raymond 啦,噉我就係語言學嗰方面啦,噉而家同埋教學4啦。噉阿 Cameron 呢,就做呢個文學5方面嘅研究嘅。噉所以我哋三個範疇6都比較唔一樣。所以我哋都想聽吓譚博士,即係你係點樣從呢一個歷史學嘅角度7呢去看待呢一個語言啦,同埋方言之間嘅關係啦,佢哋發嘅發展啦。同埋呢,你係用啲咩嘅方法去研究、你個手段8係點樣?同埋點樣分析9,即係你所觀察10到嘅現象11

Dr. Tam: I love this question so much. So I do think that there's a lot of overlap, and I learned an enormous amount from linguists and literature scholars, because there's so much knowledge there, right? I would argue that sort of, there's two things I think that historians bring to the table that I think are really sort of interesting. So historians sort of at our core, we're primarily interested in how or why things happened, and answering the why, of course, is the interest of most scholars. But I think what sets us apart is that we are really interested, first of all, in change over time, that's a big… we're narrators of stories, right? And throughout we tell arguments through stories, that’s something that I think is really sort of very clear in how we write history, and that we care about that narrative arc in explaining how or why things happened, and the other thing is that we are really interested in historical contingency–and that's just a really big word for saying that we think that things happen in a particular time in a particular place. We’re much less interested in, I think, in particular–social scientists really, really like to create sort of models and theories and terms that encapsulate sort of something that is, that is broadly sort of comparable in different times in different spaces. And I think historians, we learned a lot from that, but at the end of the day, right? The stories that we want to tell are very grounded in a particular time in a particular space. 

So in the case of language, I think I bring sort of two… historians bring sort of two ideas to the table. So the first is that we are interested in language, I think, for particular reasons. We aren't really interested in why language itself changes rather than we're interested in how the way we treat, legislate, and attach meaning to language changes over time. So I can't nearly as well as scholars of language or literature talk about how slang or accent change over time. I get asked about that a lot. This is just really not something I can attest to, right? There are great books on that, but that's just not something that I can really, I mean, be expert on. But I'm really interested in how discourse changes. And I think that the second thing that I bring to the table right, is…, and this is something I kind of get pushback about when I give talks, is the supposed sort of universality of terms. So let's say the term “Cantonese”, right? Scholars of language I talk to and read, in particular in China, are really interested in creating and defining and defending a bounded definition of what “Cantonese” is, right? This is Cantonese, this is not Cantonese, this is standard Cantonese, right? To me as a historian, I'm far more interested in, A, how the way that we create those boundaries change over time, and then also when did we even start using the term “Cantonese”, right? When did we start using the term “廣東話”, when did we start using the term–I’m not gonna be able to say this in Cantonese–but like “粵語” [yuè yǔ, in Mandarin]. When did we start using those terms, “白話” [bái huà, Mandarin pronunciation of “vernacular”] is another thing that I often hear in the early… or read in the early twentieth century, right? Sort of denoting this question of Cantonese. But when do we start using these terms, and why, right? And what do they mean when we start using them? What does it tell us about the society in which people are living that they're using this term? How again does that change over time? So looking back again at the question of “方言” [dialect], right, how does the question… how does the definition of “方言” change over time? How does this boundary change over time? And so I’ll often sort of get people who would be like “no”, but like “‘青島話’ [Qīngdǎo huà, term for Qingdao dialect] really is a dialect, it's not a language.” I’ll be like, I'm really just much more fascinated in why people are really invested in this. And why people are invested differently fifty years ago than they are now.

Raymond: 好,噉嗱 Gina 你啱啱都講咗好多歷史學嘅角度去睇、看待12語言、方言啦,粵語嘅呢個例子啦。噉呢我留意到我哋三個人嘅研究呢,其中一個重疊13,即係有相關嘅地方呢,就係我而家做緊嘅研究係語言教育嗰方面嘅。噉呀,其中一樣好影響語言教學嘅呢,就係一個地方或者國家嘅語言政策14。噉因爲你頭先都講到,如果嗰個地方佢決定呢個係語言定係方言呢,即係所謂呢啲噉嘅定義15呢,都影響佢有冇呢啲嘅語言政策,或者邊一個係個官方16語言,或者呢佢喺教育嗰方面呢,佢會要求大家,要求啲學校去點樣,去處理17呢啲嘅語言嘅。噉我嘅問題就係,係喇,你有冇觀察到,即係呢個國家語言政策點樣影響住大家嘅教育呢?又或者可能你都睇到有其他語言嘅例子噉樣。

Cameron: So you just shared a lot of examples of how a historian looks at this question of dialect or 方言, but one way that actually all three of our sort of… all three of us in our research actually overlap is sort of the topic of language, because it actually touches on this issue of regulation and standardization. For instance, you know, a government can pass, sort of, regulations that say that this, or some dialects, is the national language, and might mandate it in education. So you… have you looked at any sort of specific examples of this, of how language regulations specifically influence education policies?

Dr. Tam: So it's so interesting in nineteen… fifty-seven–I'm gonna get the date wrong–In the 1950s, we’ll stick with that. In the 1950s, there was a push from the central government of the People's Republic of China to really emphasize the promulgation of “普通話” [pou2 tung1 waa2 in Cantonese], or “普通話” [pǔtōnghuà in Mandarin], right, as the national language of China. And when they did this, there was one document that called schools the ground zero, right, or like, the central focal point of where language change begins in the society. And so, when we think about sort of how we go from this higher-level ideal of, “We have a nation, we believe that a nation should have a national language.” I'll say as an aside, I don't think that's necessarily inevitable, right? But there were a lot of people who did believe that, right? And they still do. Still a lot of people who believe that. So we have people who are saying “We are a nation, we have one national language,” but moving from that to now, “How do we actually make that a part of everyday life?” That is sort of a different kind of question, right? It’s taking this ideal and moving it into the practical enforcement of making the on the ground reality match the ideal, the linguistic-like sort of ideal that is being purported by the nation state. 

So arguably today in the People's Republic of China, and since I know we talked a lot about Hong Kong on this podcast, we can say sort of Mainland, right, that today I'd say like seventy to eighty percent of people speak Mandarin, speak 普通話 [in Mandarin], right, or 普通話 [in Cantonese], but most people are bilingual. That is relatively recent though, when there was this big push for Mandarin promulgation in 1950s, in particular, and like even sort of that Beijing-based national language has an earlier history than that, but we can sort of stick with the People’s Republic of China here for a second. In the 1950s, not a lot of people spoke 普通話 [Mandarin]. And so because, sort of, the central government was really cognizant of that, they were like “I think we just need to sort of give up on older generations”, right? They speak their languages, with some exceptions, right? The military was a big exception, and people in media were big exceptions, and then also service industries. So those were sort of the three areas where there's a lot of emphasis, and the idea was that those were people, those were public facing people who are probably talking to people out who weren’t from their communities, right? And like to think about if we were in the military, right? Not being able to talk to your members of your battalion, that's like a really big deal, right? But other than that, the emphasis was teachers in schools, right? And the idea of being like, “We can train young people in this language.” That had uneven efficacy, but there was a cognizance at least that if this was ever going to happen, if the linguistic language, like language is ever going to change, it was going to start with schools. 

Now today, actually I just finished reading a wonderful book that we can suggest to your readers, I know this isn't about Cantonese, but I do think it's relevant. It’s Fang Xu’s Silencing Shanghai, which is about language loss in Shanghai, and the loss of a Shanghai 方言 [dialect], right, in Shanghai. And she actually calls sort of the enforcement of the national language today, she calls it a panopticon because of the level of sort of the ubiquity and surveillance. And one of the things she emphasizes is how not only is there an enormous amount of enforcement and surveillance of how children are being taught all subjects, but also that in order to even be a teacher in the People’s Republic of China today, that you need to pass a very high level of Mandarin proficiency, right? And that is how you ensure that that is a, sort of like, that newer generations are going to be primarily proficient in Mandarin. 

Raymond: 係呀,我想做兩點好快嘅回應18啦。第一就係,我聽到 Gina 分享嘅時候呢,就係首先諗到香港嘅粵語啦。喺因為我以前我嘅碩士嘅論文呢,我嘅 master’s thesis 呢,噉我係香港嗰度教育語言,語言教育嘅政策嘅。噉喺九十年代啦,噉喺八九十年代好強調19我哋所謂嘅“兩文三語”,即係中文、英文嘅書寫啦,噉同埋粵語、普通話、同埋英文嘅嗰個口語啦嘅訓練20嘅。噉但係呢到回歸21之後呢,就係特別係 2000 年之後呢,而家呢你係聽唔到政府再講呢一個嘅語言政策嘅。即係唔會無端端22唔見咗,而家就好集中23係講要去學好國家嘅語言呀,普通話而家係政府大力推行24嘅。噉所以呢個係一點。噉所以呢個都係好睇嗰個政府個決定,人為呢影響成個地區嗰個語言嘅發展啦。

(Yes, I want to quickly respond with two points. The first is that when I hear Gina share, the first thing that I think of is Hong Kong Cantonese, because when I was doing my master’s thesis, I was looking at Hong Kong language education policy. In the 90s, or the 80s and 90s, they stressed the “two scripts, three [spoken] language” policy, meaning training in written Chinese and English, as well as spoken Cantonese, Mandarin, and English. After Hong Kong retrocession, particularly after 2000, you don’t hear the government bringing up this education policy. It’s not that it disappeared for no reason, now they are more focused on saying you need to go to school to study the nation’s language, and the government puts a lot of effort into promulgating Mandarin. So this is my first point. Based on looking at the government’s decision, it has an artificial impact on the language development of the entire territory.)

噉呀第二呢,我想講嘅就係,頭先阿 Gina 都講咗好好嘅例子,有陣時政府佢推行呢個嘅政策嘅目的,佢可能喺某啲方面係去方便佢去推行其他方面嘅政策,譬如頭先講服務行業25呀,呢個軍隊26呀。呢啲政策如果你有同一個語言呢,噉就好管理27啦。噉其實睇,你睇返呢個唔係一個啱定錯嘅問題,即係你睇唔同嘅國家呢其實嗰個語言政策可以差好遠嘅。就你就係比較美國同加拿大呢,即係我諗好多人都唔知,其實美國係冇一個官方語言嘅。大家會以爲英文係官方語言,噉係睇嗰個州嘅。噉呀但係你睇返加拿大,噉我哋都知呀,加拿大係有官方語言嘅,係英文同法文。噉所以有同冇都好睇嗰個政府嗰個決定同埋佢個歷史嘅因素28囉。我諗 Gina 應該都更加了解。

(The second point that I would like to bring up is earlier, Gina brought up many examples, and at one point the government’s goal for this policy may have been to make it more convenient to promulgate other policies, as in the case of the service industry or the military. With this policy, if there is one language, then it is much easier to manage. Now this is isn’t a question of right or wrong, it’s more when you look at policies in different countries, there can be a lot of difference. For instance, if you compare America and Canada, I think many people don’t know that America doesn’t have an official language. Everyone will assume that it is English, based on looking at the states. But if you look at Canada, it does have official languages, English and French. So whether or not there is a difference, it’s good look at government decisions and their historical factors. I think Gina might understand this better.)

Dr. Tam: So I think that this is the sort of question of, “How important is a standard language?” It’s really a fascinating one, I think, because on the one hand, right, the contrast of America and Canada is really fascinating. Because as you said, the United States doesn't have a–technically–national language. But our society is structured in such in that English has so much hegemony that in sort of, in the sort of practical sense of, where are sort of the language reproduction structures, what kinds of languages are they reproducing, how possible is it to sort of be a full citizen of the country if you're not an English speaker, right? Then it really mimics in a lot of ways countries with national languages, right? Because of that power differential. 

And so the question of like, do we need a national language, do we not? That's an important one, I think. But at the crux of it, right, is do we want to be a monolingual society or a society in which one language has an enormous amount of hegemony, right? Or do we want to be a truly multilingual society. That, to me, is a much more, it's a question that really gets at this question of power, and how that functions in language and identity. 

It's also a much more difficult one to imagine, right, it's very difficult to imagine a society where one language doesn't have an enormous amount of like, material power and structure to it. Whether it's political power or economic power or cultural power. It’s really difficult to imagine a society where that’s not the case. Even if we look at a place like Singapore, right, where it is sort of purported to be a really multilingual society, it's very clear that some languages have more power than others, in particular contexts, right? And so the sort of last thing I'll leave with though, is that when I talk to people about this, not everybody, but some people, I’ll often get pushback where they say, “Isn't that natural? Isn't that going to happen anyway? Isn’t that inevitable?” And there I have to say that as a historian who cares a lot about historical contingency, I want to push back against the idea of anything being inevitable. The idea that whether we have an official language or don't have an official language, right, that one language has that much power to sort of snuff out other languages, or diminish them, or degrade them, or sort of like put them into a subordinate status, that that is inevitable, I think, flies in the face of the fact that humans often do things that are unpredictable and amazing, right? Sometimes we do things that are unpredictable and terrible. 

But ultimately I think we should try to imagine a society where that might be possible, and just because we haven't yet necessarily even created it, doesn't mean that it's not possible. And actually sort of the last thing I'll say here is if we look to history, there were people in early-twentieth-century China who did imagine that kind of society, right? There were thinkers who heard the terms, so “國語”, right, which we would translate to “language of nation”, that Chinese languages are really phenomenal in this way, and oftentimes singular and plural are ambiguous here, and there were people who imagined “國語” not as a singular term, right, but as a, as a plural term, right? There could be, we could live in this multilingual society. And so there were people who imagined it long ago and so I think we can imagine that today too.

Cameron: And sort of jumping off that idea of sort of the today and the contemporary, I know that your research has really focused on sort of this historical evolution in China, but I also know that you're, you know, you're often speaking publicly, you've participated in a lot of panels, and you’re also sort of active on academic Twitter, so I know that you've also seen a lot of sort of discourse around 方言 [dialect] outside of China, whether it be in North America or in other parts of Asia, and I'm curious if there's any sort of just trends or interesting things you've noticed about how people are thinking about or talking about this distinction. 

Raymond: 我哋講返現代29嘅社會,我哋都知道你嘅研究係集中喺中國嘅歷史演變30。但係我哋都知道你經常有公開31發表32、參與好多討論同埋喺推特學術33平台34上面十分活躍35。你亦都見證36中國以外各地,無論係北美或者亞洲其他地方有關方言嘅討論。我都好好奇37想知道你有冇留意到大家就呢方面嘅討論一啲嘅趨勢38同有趣現象呢? 

Dr. Tam: Yeah, so one of the things that I find really invigorating is that, one of the things that I emphasized in my book is that this question of like, “What is a dialect? What is a language that is deeply political?” Right? And this is something that interestingly, I think, really does cross borders, right? Even if we look at places like Eastern Europe and such, like this construct of there are languages and there are dialects, this sort of symbol is really in part because western imperialism, right, has really sort caught on in a lot of other spaces. But I increasingly see people understanding the inherent power dynamics in that and using that to push back against language loss in a way that I find really inspiring. 

One of the spaces we see this a lot is in Hong Kong. You mentioned academic Twitter, some of the people that are sort of most vocal about this distinction being very political are people from Hong Kong because they understand very viscerally how having their mother tongue be categorized as a dialect is ultimately something that affects sort of the cultural power of the language that they speak, and ultimately, our language of who we are in many ways. Interestingly, I also saw this discourse come in when it came to Ukraine. Actually, Duolingual jumped into this, and that when Russia, right, when Russia had invaded Ukraine a few months ago, Duolingual put out this little sort of blurb about, “Is Ukrainian a dialect or language?” And it basically said like this is deeply political, right? And that this, and people call it a dialect to diminish their claims to sort of like national sovereignty and self-identification, which was a really sort of sophisticated analysis from Duolingual right? But I think that this is, this is not like… when it sort of like, I want to give credit to companies but also recognize that this is building on the work of activists who are, who understand how that what we call something, ultimately tethers it to a whole host of meanings that have a huge, like a material effect on people's lives. 

Raymond: 你都令我諗起一個都幾好笑嘅例子呢,即係我喺我教我嘅廣東話班嗰啲學生呢,我哋都會討論呢個問題嘅。即係粵語,或者廣東話,係語言定係方言呢?噉讀我哋嗰班嗰啲學生呢,有好多佢哋會好堅持39話:“當然係語言啦。”噉但係呢,我都感覺到有啲同學呢,即係佢哋好似驚會好似冒犯、得罪我呀, offend 我呢,噉佢就話:“啊係呀係呀語言呀”噉樣。噉但係好多讀完之後,噉其實佢哋明白到,呢個其實唔係一個即係你一定要取捨40,唔係一個 dichotomy 嚟嘅。噉所以我覺得呢個都幾有趣嘅觀察。

Cameron: I think that's a great observation from Raymond that when he sort of is teaching his students, he’ll ask, “Oh so is Cantonese a language or a dialect?” And a lot of people will just, you know, right off the bat say, “Oh, it's a language”. But then there's some people who say “Oh it's a language”, but they seem to be afraid of sort of offending Raymond, but the more that they study it, the more they sort of understand how difficult, and almost grey this differentiation can be.

Dr. Tam: Well, and I’ll add sort of something that I actually grapple with myself. So there are some scholars who have tried to create a unique translation for “方言”. The one that I hear most often mentioned is “topolect” as it is, and so, and I'm of two minds about using the term “topolect” as a translation for “方言”. Because on the one hand I do think that the dialect-language distinction is deeply Eurocentric, and I think it's arrogant of us to presume that the linguistic landscape of one small continent, right, is… can create frameworks that capture the huge diversity of human languages, and how they relate to one another, and how they relate to societies, and how they relate to scripts, right? That is deeply arrogant and Eurocentric, right? And so I'm all for actually, instead of asking, “Is Cantonese a dialect?” asking “is Portuguese a 方言?” Right? I think that's a question we should be asking! And sort of using the experience of Asia as method, because there is something really unique about Chinese languages having sort of evolved and developed, often under a pretty powerful central state, and tethered to a phonetically flexible script, right? 

I don't want to… it's not like I feel very strongly about the fact that like a Chinese script isn’t in fact phonetic, but it is more flexible than a lot of alphabetic scripts, right? And so there is something really unique here, but I think that is not captured by the language-dialect dichotomy. The other mind of this I have, though, is that I feel like we're using… sometimes we use “topolect” as a way to pretend that we are above the questions of politics and power, and we're not, right? I like the idea quite of flipping the script and pushing back against Eurocentric, centrism, in how we sort of like use terms and imagine frameworks for understanding languages. But I also think that if we're doing so as a way to erase the question of how power fits into this, right, I think that we're missing something really important.