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Stanford University

Publication Date

Fall 2010

Program Name

China: Chinese Culture and Ethnic Minorities


The focus of this study is laypeople's mental models of the varieties of Chinese language. Chinese contains many varieties, primarily dividable into Putonghua (Standard Mandarin; hereafter PTH) and Fangyan (“topolect” 1). The Fangyan are traditionally considered “dialects of Chinese” by both Chinese and Western sources. Many Western linguists note that the dialects span a linguistic range that compares with the range of the Romance languages, but concede the label “dialects” because they share a written standard and because China is considered to be a single country, and especially because the Chinese themselves consider all the Fangyan to be varieties of a single language. 2 I began to wonder whether this claim about what “the Chinese” think about their own language is generally true, or whether it is limited to vocal elites like scholars and politicians. This study also investigates how contemporary Chinese speakers feel about the respective legitimacy of the varieties of Fangyan and PTH. In many ways PTH is what is often called an “H variety” (“H” for “high”) while Fangyan are “L varieties” (“L” for “low”). By this I mean that PTH tends to be used in more public, formal situations and Fangyan tends to be used for more private, intimate occasions. In many countries L varieties are less respected than their H counterparts, sometimes not being considered “real languages” 3. Yunnan is a Mandarin-speaking area, which means that the linguistic distance between the local Fangyan and PTH is similar to the distance between different dialects of English. This contrasts with the case of Cantonese speaking areas, where the most sociolinguistic research on Chinese has been done. Similarly, PTH is officially the standard variety of Chinese, and in the West, at least, standard dialects are often valued above nonstandard varieties 4. So it seems possible that China, or at least Yunnan, follows this pattern. However, there is also evidence that the Fangyan are well-respected. With this study I hope to probe what kind of a thing Yunnanese think the Fangyan and PTH each are, and in particular, whether they think they are “real languages.”


Anthropological Linguistics and Sociolinguistics | Linguistics


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