Louisville, KY vs. Spoken Chinese

Picture: Kentucky Derby Museum

Louisville, KY vs. Spoken Chinese

We were coming to the end of the conference. It had been both enjoyable and potentially profitable, as I’d made good contacts for both vendors and potential clients. At the closing dinner every year, representatives from the location of next year’s conference find an interesting, amusing way to introduce their city. This year, our future hosts from Louisville, KY, gave us a lesson in pronunciation. They had the audience in stitches as, one by one, they stood and, with straight faces, said, “Looeyville, Looavul, Looaville, Loooville, and L’ville.”

And, believe it or not, Chinese has the folks from Kentucky beat hands down!

Chinese is a centuries-old language. Its history reaches back to 2500 BC, when the Yellow Emperor charged his historian, Cangjie, with the task of creating a new writing system. At that time, knotted rope was used for record-keeping. The historian developed characters from images in nature such as animals, birds, and reeds. Over the centuries, both the script and where the characters were written developed and changed. Bone, bronze, and clay were used until the invention of paper in about 100 BC, but no single way to pronounce these characters prevailed.

Chinese is a logographic language. That is, each character represents a concept. The characters are not composed of letters based on an alphabet that can be learned using phonics. China is very large geographically, and as different speaker groups looked at the characters, many different pronunciations developed.

Today, more than a dozen different regional varieties of spoken Chinese exist. At least the largest varieties can be unintelligible to speakers of another variety. The most well-known are Mandarin and Cantonese. Each variety has many dialects, some of which are spoken only in China.

Years ago, I attended an American Chinese Businesswomen’s Conference. I wore a black dress with a beautiful print scarf chosen for the occasion. The scarf slipped off my shoulder, and a Chinese woman reached to straighten it. Suddenly, I was the center of a circle of women trying to help with my scarf. I’m only a bit over five feet, but I felt tall surrounded by these diminutive women, all highly educated professionals. One of them kindly reached in her bag to produce a safety pin that somehow invisibly pinned the slippery scarf in place.

I turned to each woman with an individual thank you and then asked them to teach me how to say thank you in Chinese. There was a flurry of giggles as they suggested several different versions. When I asked for an explanation, they said some were giving me the Mandarin pronunciation, some the Cantonese pronunciation, and one woman, from Shanghai, the Wú pronunciation. I resolved right then to learn more about Chinese!

The Beijing variant of Mandarin was declared the common speech in the 1930s and is used today by the government of the People’s Republic of China. It is also spoken in Singapore, Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia, and wherever immigrant groups settle. Because immigrant groups come from many different locations in China today, it’s wise to ask which variety is needed when ordering interpreting services.

The pronunciation of the written characters that make up Simplified Chinese was based on the Mandarin variant used by the central government–people in power call the shots! This left speakers of other dialects at a disadvantage. To read and write, they must first learn Mandarin. Mandarin has four tones and is spoken by roughly 25 million people around the world.

Cantonese is common in Macau, Hong Kong, and other parts of southeast China. It is taught in schools where the characters are read with Cantonese pronunciation. Cantonese has nine tones and is spoken by approximately 70 million people.

Other varieties of Chinese include Hakka, Yuè, Xiāng, Jìnyǔ and Gàn.

The study of the Chinese language is both complex and fascinating! You may be interested in a map of where the different varieties of Chinese are spoken, overlaid with some biomedical manufacturing districts. Request it below.

Patricia May