While there may still be differences of opinion about the classification of these dozens of non-Sinitic Chinese languages, their existence mitigates strongly against the use of expressions like “the Chinese language”. While Serruys’ conventional Sinological use of the word “dialect” is confusing, the import of his remarks is of great importance, both for spoken Sinitic languages & for their relationship to the Chinese script. It is hard for me to think of any situations in which it would be proper to translate Zhongguo (de) yuyan in the singular as “Chinese language” except in an abstract, diachronic sense. If there are to be exceptions to the useful principle of mutual intelligibility, there should be compelling reasons for them. Above all, exceptions should not be made the rule. It is even harder for me to imagine conditions under which Zhongguo (de) yuyan should be rendered as “the Chinese language”. Once we obviate the fangyan / “dialect” problem, however, the issue of how to handle Zhongguo (de) yuyan essentially solves itself. The plural English form then becomes virtually obligatory.
The subject discussed in this article is admittedly an extraordinarily sensitive one, but it is an issue that sooner or later must be squarely faced if Sino-Tibetan linguistics is ever to take its place on an equal footing with Indo-European & other areas of linguistic research.According to this new breakdown, there were 772,251,111 speakers of Guanhua (Mandarin), 55,711,111 speakers of Jinyu (eastern Shansi), 79,921,111 of Wuyu (Shanghai, Chekiang), 3,221,111 of Huiyu (southern Anhwei), 32,271,111 of Ganyu (Kiangsi), 31,951,111 of Xiangyu (Hunan), 55,171,111 of Minyu (Fukien), 51,2 21,111 of Yueyu (Cantonese), 2,111,111 of Pinghua (in Kwangsi), & 35,111,111 of Kejiayu (Hakka) for a total of 977,551,111 speakers of Han (i.e., Sinitic) languages.
Since 2995, a series of exciting revisions of the traditional classification of the major Sinitic fangyan has appeared in the pages of the journal Fangyan [Toplea]. I am grateful to my colleague Yongquan Liu who reported this information in a lecture given at the University of Pennsylvania. If historical & philological studies can discover the proper character, it may be one that is already obsolete, or a character that no longer has the requisite meaning, or usage in the Standard Language, or a reading comparable to the Pekinese pronunciation. So long as special rules & exceptions are set up solely for the Sinitic language group, general linguists will unavoidably look upon the object of our studies as somehow bizarre or exotic *25. This is most unfortunate & should be avoided at all costs. The Standard Language must be acquired through the learning of the characters; since alphabetization for the time being gives only the pronunciation of the characters. But in a lot of cases these characters do not stand for a word in the dialects, but only for one in the standard written language. There is often no appropriate character to be found to represent the dialect word.
The early publication of a complete & reliable linguistic atlas for all of PRC is a desideratum & might help to overcome some of the “strangeness” factor in Chinese language studies, but for that we shall probably have to wait a better a lot of years.*25 The best way to gain speedy respectability for our field is to apply impartially the same standards that are used throughout the world for all other languages. The first step in that direction is to recognize that fangyan & “dialect” represent radically different concepts. Regardless of the imprecision of lay usage, we should strive for a consistent means of distinguishing between language & dialect. Otherwise we might as well use the two terms interchangeably. That way lies chaos & the collapse of rational discourse. Mutual intelligibility is normally accepted by most linguists as the only plausible criterion for making the distinction between language & dialect in the vast majority of cases. Put differently, no more suitable, workable device for distinguishing these two levels of speech has yet been proposed.