Prolonged Closed Contact between Putonghua And Dialects in China

Prolonged Closed Contact between Putonghua And Dialects in China

By Luyao Yuan

Changde(常德) City, where I was born and have lived for more than twenty years, is a small city in Hunan Province with a history of about 2,200 years, located in south-central China. The common dialect in this city, named after the place, is Changde dialect (Changdehua), belonging to the Southwest Mandarin. As with other dialects in China, Changdehua has been faced with long-term and imbalanced contact with Standard Mandarin (Putonghua) due to the nationwide strong promotion of Putonghua.

The first time I had the awareness that younger generations’ language use might have changed was one night three years ago. I was walking down the street downtown when I accidentally overheard conversations between two girls in junior high school uniforms. For the ten minutes I walked alongside them, they kept talking in Putonghua.

I was very puzzled. This was considered strange for me. Being born in 1997, my usage of Putonghua within Changde City was almost exclusively in class and some other formal settings. So, I started to pay attention to local citizens’ use of Changdehua and Putonghua.

I have noticed that younger age groups (under about 18 years old) commonly use Putonghua for daily communication in informal settings, while other age groups are still dominated by Changdehua in daily communication. I have further observed that parents and grandparents, who normally use mostly Changde dialect, would deliberately switch to Putonghua when speaking to their children, even if it is poorly pronounced. But when parents and grandparents talk to each other, they would quickly switch to Changdehua again.

I have also come to realize that Changdehua among my generation has begun to be “Mandarinized”: speaking Changdehua with a mix of Putonghua; using the tones of Changdehua to pronounce the Pinyin of Mandarin words; characteristic of Changde dialectal pronunciation shifting towards Mandarin norms. And of course, such “Mandarinization” is accompanied by a significant shrinkage of vocabulary.

Take the pilot study Intergenerational variations of the use of vocabulary in Changde dialect as an example, which I conducted with another colleague Xiyao Wang a year ago in a USYD linguistics unit of study “Multilingualism” (LNGS7101). Two elderly people (aged 75 and 65 at that time) and two young people (aged 25 and 18 at that time) were invited as participants. 442 words in Changdehua with meanings relating to kinship terms, body parts, and food were selected for examination. It was found that the two young people lost almost more than a quarter of their vocabulary in comparison:

Figure 1. The general lexical loss and retention of 4 participants

Furthermore, varying degrees of phonological modification among participants were found:

Table 1. Comparison of phonological modification

I chose to continue research on the variation of Changdehua as the topic of my master’s thesis under the supervision of Dr. Lila San Roque. This ongoing investigation aims to explore the shift from Changdehua to Putonghua by employing a mixed method of a questionnaire survey, semi-structured interviews, and observations.

During the period of data collection in Changde City, it was very fortunate to have many local people involved in this research project. I successfully contacted and worked with a local bookstore called Zhijian (止间). Through the bookstore as a platform, not only did more natives know and participate in the survey but also a salon with the theme of Changdehua and local culture was held in the bookstore, aiming to attract and connect people who are interested in Changde and create a space where they can talk freely.

Changdehua was used throughout the salon, a relatively formal setting. My small speech, in which I introduced the phenomenon of diglossia, the division of “language” and “dialect”, and the types of speakers of endangered languages, was followed by games that use Changdehua to recite poetry and drama lines and to name body parts. The primary discussion was centered around interesting points we found in Changdehua, personal experiences about Changdehua, possible ways to preserve Changdehua, etc. for about one hour and a half. It is worth mentioning that Yi Yaxin, the author of A Study on The Grammar of Changde Dialect and now an associate professor, was invited to this salon and expressed deep concern about the possible endangerment of Changdehua. Everyone came to this event with a strong passion for our hometown dialect.

The local media Changde Daily reported on this salon, which further expanded the possibility of this research being seen by the citizens of Changde. Moreover, the reporter told me that, inspired by this event, she is going to do a series of in-depth reports on Changdehua. Similarly, one mother also took action after taking part in the study. After taking the survey, she became aware that she had been speaking only Mandarin to her children. After reflection, she started speaking Changdehua to her children.

It is thrilling for me, as a researcher, to realize my research has already truly influenced some people, even at the data collection stage. I sincerely hope this ongoing research project could reveal the current status of Changdehua that has been exposed to Putonghua’s contact and further contribute to preserving my mother tongue.

If you are interested in finding out more about Changdehua, here is the link to the website built by me and Xiyao, which archives and displays some resources both for the dialect and its culture: (Please note that this link can only be opened on a desktop computer.)

Luyao Yuan is a Masters student in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Sydney.
No Comments

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.