Mandarin is not my mother tongue (part two)

Posted on 01 February 2011

Lim Teng Leong compares Hokkien with Mandarin and gives his verdict: Hokkien kicks butt (part one here).

LET us look closely at the Beijing dialect and compare it in every linguistic detail with the Southern dialects. For simplicity, I will pick Hokkien, the most melodious and expressive Chinese dialect.

One of the most beautiful aspects of Hokkien, especially when you set it next to Mandarin, is the versatility of expression. You can express just about any emotion in Hokkien: When you are seized by a sudden surge of anger, you need a loaded expletive to express yourself immediately.

Mandarin is sorely lacking in this.

The closest one can come up with in Mandarin is “ta ma de” which literally, means “his mother’s”. But that hardly conveys the point, no, not by a long shot. You can’t even make it more directly pertinent by changing it to “ni ma de” or “your mother’s”.

The Communist rigidity of the Mandarin dialect just does not permit this. Hokkien, on the other hand, has an expletive for every occasion. Again, this is beyond dispute and I don’t have to give illustrations of Hokkien’s superiority here.

Next, let us look at the comparative beauty of the two dialects. Admittedly, the beauty of a particular language is very much subjective. But linguists have other more objective ways of measuring and accurately calibrating a language.

One of the easiest methods is to look at the consonants available in a language or dialect and to see how these consonants can be attached to the various parts of a word.

All languages have a fixed number of consonants which differs from language to language. Roughly, the number of consonants in the different languages do not differ significantly.

What is different is where these consonants appear. I’ll pick a simple example. Let’s look at the letters “S” and “I”. We have the consonant “S” in front and we fix a vowel immediately following it, in this case, it’s an “I”.

We’ll then see how many legitimate syllables can be made by adding a consonant at the end of the two letters. We will have SICK (it’s the sound that matters and not the actual letters), SIT, SIN, SIM (which is necessary to construct words such as “simple”), and the list goes on. That makes English highly versatile.

Because of the poor quality of air in Beijing, it is hardly surprising that the Beijing dialect closely resembles what you will expect of a population that is usually gasping for air.

Hokkien is the same. You can have consonants of all kinds that end a syllable. Mandarin, however, is different. Apart from the consonants “n” and “ng”, there is ABSOLUTELY NO consonant that can appear at the end of a syllable.

For those of you who are familiar with Mandarin, go ahead and think about it and see if I’m right. And if you know Hokkien or one of the other Southern dialects, you can try this test on them and you’ll see that they do admit a great number of consonants to end a syllable.

For example, in Mandarin, you can have a word such as “wan” or “fang” because they end in “n” and “ng”. You can’t have words or syllables that end in “k” such as “pak” (found in Hokkien) or in “p” (as in the Hokkien word “sip”) and other consonants.

That makes Mandarin a highly limited dialect. There are only so few sounds you can make with it. Because of this shocking limitation, Mandarin has to go tonal in order to have enough sounds for words.

For example, “tang” can be sugar or soup, depending on how you voice it. True, Southern dialects too are tonal but because we have an adequate supply of consonants that can begin and end a syllable, our tones add more to the melody of our speech. The tone is more like a flavour enhancer in Hokkien.

Why, you may legitimately ask, is Mandarin so crippled in its linguistic capabilities? This is totally serious and true so listen up:

We all know that the Gobi desert sits just next to Beijing and for most months in a year, it spews relentlessly desert dust and sand into Beijing. Just check with any hospital in Beijing and you are sure to hear stories of people choked by the dust during a sand storm.

Because of the poor quality of air in Beijing, it is hardly surprising that the Beijing dialect closely resembles what you will expect of a population that is usually gasping for air. Consonants at the end of a syllable will have to be dispensed with because they demand a large intake of air.

Why then do we find “n” and “ng” the only two endings using consonents in the Beijing dialect? The answer is quite simple. These are consonants that are nasal in nature and they act more as a means by which the speaker can clear his nasal passage. They don’t add to the speaker’s burden as far as air intake goes.

The Beijing dialect or Mandarin is highly suitable for those who speak it in Beijing, given the harsh conditions there. But to export it to the rest of China or worse, the rest of the world, is madness.

I have nothing against the Beijing dialect. I find it quite beautiful. But given the historical and environmental background in which the dialect comes about, it is inappropriate to insist that this dialect should be viewed as the mother tongue of everyone of Chinese descent.

It is as alien to me as Urdu is. I’m sure Urdu is a beautiful language but it’s quite another thing to insist that I should speak it.

Let me conclude with an ancient Hokkien poem:

My eyes, hooded with grief, stared into space,
As I sat by the river where the willows weep,
I cast my mind to my good old days,
In Hui’an county with the gorges deep.

Where ang ku cakes were sold with Hokkien mee,
And pandas roamed as far as the eyes could see;
Oh, Min River, my dearest Min River,
To thee, my soul flies, from my heart to my liver.

This article was first published by the author in his blog.

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  • Fox

    This is a joke, right? Please tell me it is so.

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  • Xin


    it is indeed a big fat joke. and this is classic:

    “Because of the poor quality of air in Beijing, it is hardly surprising that the Beijing dialect closely resembles what you will expect of a population that is usually gasping for air. Consonants at the end of a syllable will have to be dispensed with because they demand a large intake of air.”

  • sg lee

    I agree that Mandarin is not your mother tongue. However, a language is not used to express an expletive. If u are expressing an expletive, i would prefer not to know the meaning. U can express it and feel good about it, i do not need to understand it.

    The start of Mandarin predates communism. I know that the communist party choose Mandarin after it victory in 1949. For Singapore, once China has chosen its spoken language, Singaporeans can only follow if they consider themselves Chinese.
    Singapore Chinese need a language to communicate with the Chinese from China.

  • Lim Teng Leong

    sglee: “For Singapore, once China has chosen its spoken language, Singaporeans can only follow if they consider themselves Chinese.”

    What kind of logic is that? If you are such a docile lamb and you let the Communist Party of China decide your language for you, why don’t you let them decide your political views as well? You should also declare that a couple with more than one child should not consider themselves Chinese.

    Who gave the Communist Party or any Commie in China the right to decide on the prerequisites of what makes a person Chinese? I don’t accept this at all.

    • Fox

      Mandarin is not the national language of the People’s Republic of China. It is the state official language, much like English in Singapore. The communist party does not assert that it is the language of the Han Chinese group. That is why they call it 普通话, not 国语. It was the Nationalists who called it 国语. They were also the ones who picked it as the national language of China.

  • Lim Teng Leong

    sglee: “Singapore Chinese need a language to communicate with the Chinese from China.”

    You must sort out the issues carefully. I fear you are mixing them up in a confused heap. Singaporeans need a language to communicate with the outside world and hence the VITAL IMPORTANCE of English (more so than Mandarin). But nobody is suggesting that English is our mother tongue.

    I do not deny the importance of knowing Mandarin for the conduct of business in China. But that is a different issue from the mother tongue issue which is the thrust of my article (the original version of which appears in full in my blog).

  • ANON

    Lim Teng Leong,

    I find your articles humorous, except that the honour IMHO rightly belongs to the Cantonese dialect. I think Cantonese, in particular, as it is spoken in Hong Kong, beats Hokkien hands down esp when it comes to the colour of its swear words! Cantonese is so inventive and creative up or down the scale. :)

  • Lim Teng Leong

    Hi anonymous,

    Thanks for reading my article. Do go to my blog where I first posted the original article. I get this strange satisfaction when I see the visitor hits on my blog go up. Just click on my name above and you’ll be brought to my blog.

    I know little about Cantonese but I think the coarseness of Hokkien swear words is second to none. I understand the Cantonese dialect tends to be a little more dainty and subtle. For Hokkien, there is no need for subtlety – what you get is crude coarseness in its raw form.

  • seriously?

    … they accept this type of junk online? on man. i need a proper channel.

  • citizenearth

    Seems that you have something against Mandarin ala Beijing dialect. You have had a bad experience in Beijing?
    IMHO, the implementation of Mandarin (not necessarily Beijing dialect) as the standard language for China’s people and Chinese in general is a noble cause. In what way noble, you may ask? Mandarin as a common communication means among Chinese is imperative as it will prevent misunderstanding and enhances development of China and Chinese as a whole.
    This does not mean other Chinese dialects are less important and to be sidelined. In fact, other Chinese dialects should be encouraged as well as they bring many benefits to the speakers. Cultural, heritage, social, literature, even economic values come with knowing these dialects. Chinese dialects should be retained at all costs as everyone’s first language.

  • Mother tongue

    I’ m not focusing on which dialect or language is superior and which is not. From my experience, the fact that we are losing our mother tongue, in my case, Teochew, is a shame to the future generations. My parents are able to speak good Teochew and Malay and Hokkien, but my nieces and nephews speak English and Mandarin only, so you can imagine my siblings and myself, are the messengers (translators) for them; can you imagine what a household is like when the grandparents can’t communicate with grandchildren, speaking of losing traditional values/cultures! The family culture of Singapore Chinese are very much tied to their dialect groups they belong to; the fact that the government promoted Mandarin to replace the dialects in the 1980’s was a misstep as the currrent generations are having problems communicating with the previous. One has to understand it’s easy for a child to learn Mandarin (pretty much everywhere) as he/she gets older; but learning dialects need to start from home as dialects are not officially taught anywhere. My point is we should not degrade dialect or associate them with the uneducateds (I, for one is uni educated) so that the future generation have a chance to keep their tradition. I feel bad that I have been replacing English words when speaking my dialect due to the inability to pronoun those words in Teochew; wish the older generations can take time to teach proper dialect to the future generations. I don’t think we are losing traditional values because we are becoming more westernized but rather we fail to see the importance of communication/connection with the older generations, which was lost through the replacement of home dialect with some ‘official language’.

  • david

    Good. Hope it catches on. Less competition for jobs especially nowadays a lot of jobs require speaking chinese (which actually means mandarin).

  • Observer

    They should preserve the dialects.  It adds to the extra dimensions of the Chinese culture and persona.  A lot of culture and mentality is preserved in speaking the dialect.  Mandarin can be use a means to communicate across all groups of Chinese, but the dialects should be preserve and not discourage.  Beijing needs to stop telling people what to do or what to speak.  This can only benefit extending their grip.