Among the many different languages found in China, the major ones all belong to what linguists call the “sinitic” group. The variance between major groups of sinitic languages, and even among minor groups of the same language, can be considerable. A large group native to eastern Guangdong and much of mountainous Fujian is called “Min.” It cannot be traced back to “middle Chinese”, making it appear more ancient than other languages at that end of Asia. It’s subgroups may even be unintelligible in adjacent villages. (Jerry Norman, Chinese, Cambridge University Press, 1988, p.188). Taiwanese, the language which I began learning in 1982 and used professionally until 2018, is rooted in Min.
Since the end of the first millennium CE, written Chinese has become a common medium for communication between people speaking different Sinitic languages. Mandarin speakers might say yī, Cantonese yāt, Shanghainese iq, and Hokkien chit, but all four will understand the character <一> to mean “one” (DeFrancis, John (1984). The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy. University of Hawaii Press. p.155-156).
The same character is pronounced differently in these different languages. That’s normal. Taiwanese enjoys yet another distinction, the same character, without changing meaning, may be pronounced differently depending on where and how it is used or where it appears. That was made apparent when I first learned my telephone number in Kaohsiung in 1982. The number was 331-6119. Each of those digits, when pronounced to count things (3 ducks, 1 pond, 6 eggs, 9 mosquitos) has a “counting” pronunciation, but each has another, and different, “naming” pronunciation. The “naming” pronunciations are used in telephone numbers. That’s a minor distinction, though. The character indicating “underness” or “belowness” or “nextness”, <下> has 3 or more pronunciations. Voicing the sentence: “The next day in the afternoon she will detrain”: <她下一日的下午會下車。> one must use three different pronunciations of the same character. The word repeated in the title of this missive, 香, has but a single pronunciation in Mandarin and another, also single pronunciation in Cantonese, but in Taiwanese, it has 4, each of which appears in the title.
I’ve left Taiwan and moved to a part of the US not the same as where I grew up. The language here has taken getting used to. Some pronunciations that are new to me, and some words are used in ways that I’d never imagined. For example, around here, to call something “different” is a way of saying that it’s incorrect or degraded. Where I’m originally from, “different” can mean exciting!
Wherever we find ourselves, there are new things to learn. I liked the ones I learned in Taiwan.
David Alexander resides in Holland, MI after 39 years in Taiwan.