Language(s) 语言

Last week I wrote a short post on the special economic zones (Special Economic Zones 經濟特區), and this week I am back to the cultural side.

I think that, except those living in UK who might consider studying what they can practice more often with members of the local Chinese community (mainly from Hong Kong), most non-Chinese are studying what we in the West call “Mandarin”.

Whenever I study a language, eventually I have a look at its past, as soon as I start studying beyond the B1 level.

No, it doesn’t imply that I am able to command the language at that level: simply, that I got through the structures, and I am piling up vocabulary- if I am where the language is spoken, then it is different, as I can do as I did with English long ago, i.e. start using it!

With Chinese, I did have a look in the past to classical books, but not in Chinese (except for the occasional glancing at the original version).

I wrote few weeks back about my recent experiment in having a look at contemporary Chinese literature (“Reflective” literature 反思文学), but after I completed my scheduled work for the week on Friday morning, I decided to spend this extended week-end by having a look at the cultural side of Chinese.

Obviously, I did plan ahead, and picked up a couple of book on classical Chinese in local libraries, and this week-end I read them.

Unfortunately, both are in Italian, so it is doubtful that they will be of much use to most of my English-speaking readers, but while one is just a collection of essays on various “technicalities” of classical Chinese (frankly, boring), the other is quite interesting, as it contains first an extensive grammar section with a comparison of current and historical syntactic structures, followed by almost one hundred pages of text extracted from period writings, and completed by the usual complement of tables etc.

The book is “Avviamento allo studio del cinese classico”, authored by Maurizio Scarpari and published by Cafoscarina in… 1995.

Main weakness? As usual, books written for the classroom- so, lacking on the “support side”.

The author actually published in other languages, and therefore it might well be that you will find something in English or other languages that is not designed to be used within a university course.

But, for the time being, my aim was just to read something about the evolution of the language, as most certainly I do not have the breadth and depth of vocabulary that would enable me to read those texts (and I am mainly on “simplified” characters, recognizing only few of the traditional ones).

Moreover, my current focus is to be able to read a book on… reading Chinese newspapers in Chinese- therefore, both on the grammar and vocabulary side it is nice to know about the past, as it can give you hints on how the language might evolve, but it is more relevant to focus on achieving reading fluency first.

Therefore, to complete this post on languages, I would like to expand a little bit on that “Mandarin-focus” that I wrote about in the first paragraph.

Another book of my “culture studies week-end” is an Italian edition of the “Atlas des langues du monde”, by Roland Breton

Interesting: over 50 nationalities (民族minzu- actually, 56, i.e. 55 plus Han) in China, and while minorities have less than 10% of the population, they are in more than half the land, mainly in remote areas (

The most interesting element: not just the number of languages, but also the number of “families” they belong to.

If you are curious, look at the list on Ethnologue

In Europe, we have mostly Indoeuropean languages, while in China languages show really that China is, if not the “middle kingdom”, certainly the “kingdom in the middle”: the language families represented range from Indoeuropean to Austronesian.

It will be interesting to see how much Internet will be able to do to keep alive some of those cultures and languages.

Maybe we would need an institution covering each “family of languages”, as it does exist for few languages (usually sponsored by governments), also without necessarily going as far as creating “embassies” around the world.

The Internet allows to be nimble, flexible, and keep… a low cost profile- so, maybe just providing the “organizational infrastructure” (maybe the UNESCO could cover administration, website, “back-office services” etc.) could be enough to let the few scholars still working in the field to be able to become catalysts for the survival of fading languages, instead of just feeling as “the last of the Mohicans”.

Meanwhile… have a nice week!

PS Please read the introduction to understand how to use this website

PPS from this week, wodeshudian will be published each Monday morning


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