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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