language or dialect?

‘Did you know China is very big and has many dialects‘, My Chinese teacher told me pointing to a map of China. ‘It’s hard to understand people here and here, and as for over here…’ she said, pointing at Tibet, ‘their Chinese is impossible to understand.’

Hmmm, I thought, that might be because it’s a completely different language. Now while it’s true that Tibetan and the other Chinese languages all belong to the same language family, it’s also true that English and Iranian belong to their same family and we wouldn’t consider the one to be a regional variation of the other, so what’s going on with Chinese?
 
One of the sources of the confusion is the written system which is shared, in the same way that the roman alphabet is shared among many European languages. As the characters represent words and not letters there is very little connection with the symbol and the sound, thus the phrase ‘I love you’ in four Chinese dialects look like this:

‘Dialect’  
Written
Mandarin
爱你
Cantonese
愛你
Taiwanese
我愛
Shanghaiese  
我爱


Ah! Pretty similar you might say.  And you’d be right but here’s how you say them:

‘Dialect’  
Spoken
Mandarin
Wo ai ni
Cantonese
ngóh oi néih
Taiwanese
Gua ai li
Shanghaiese  
nguh eh non

Well, you may say, no doubt they are mutually intelligible, after all, they look kind of similar, right?  well what about these four, they look roughly as similar as the above example:

‘Dialect’ ?
Spoken
Italian
Ti amo
Romanian
Te lubesc
Spanish
Te amo
French
Je t’aime

Would you be happy to call these dialects? Well, you might but you’d be on your own. So why are the Chinese languages called ‘dialects?’

 
Before delving into dialects that are really languages it’s interesting to look at some languages which are really dialects. You may know that Urdu is the national language of Pakistan and Hindi is the majority language of India. However these two languages are virtually identical. Until 1947 India and Pakistan were one country and hence one language. In the same way American English and British English speakers have few communication problems, Urdu and Hindi speakers, except for some vocab, have no problems understanding each other. Another example of dialects becoming languages are Norwegian and Danish which are basically the same language with different flags and football teams. So political reasons, rather than a clear difference can be enough to grant a dialect language status.
 
Chinese languages are interesting because they follow the opposite kind of logic. China as a political entity is, shall we say, more interested in highlighting similarities than differences. The Chinese government is working hard to shape a national sense of unity, and so it follows that if the Chinese are all one people, under heaven, then it makes sense for them to speak one language. The Chinese word Fangyan  方言, meaning ‘regional language’ is close to the English word dialect, but not exactly the same. In the same way no longer being able to reproduce together is usually the boundary of a new species, mutual unintelligibility is arguably the boundary of a different language. But as we have seen with other languages, the differences might not be so clear cut.