Thursday, December 18, 2014

Listen to the world's languages! 2: Sinitic and other languages on Phonemica

Following on from the preceding post on listening to the languages of the world by navigating audio samples on maps, here I will introduce Phonemica 乡音苑/ 鄉音苑, a website with user-contributed audio files of Sinitic (and some other nearby) languages, mapped by pins that are (supposedly) colour coded by linguistic affiliations. Even if you are not into Sinitic languages, it is fun to listen to, and familiarise yourself with, the various Sinitic languages. (You know, just in case, e.g., the next pub quiz asks you to distinguish the Cantonese vs. Mandarin vs. Taiwanese Mandarin versions of 'Let It Go'.)

 Sample 1
Version A
Version B

(And just for fun, unofficial versions of 'Let It Go' in Taiwanese, Shanghainese, and 26 Sinitic lects.)

The level of diversity amongst the Sinitic languages is similar to that amongst the Romance languages. At around the same time that Vulgar Latin was spread around by Roman soldiers, Late Archaic/ Early Medieval Chinese was spread around by soldiers of the expanding Qín 秦 (221 – 206 BCE) and Hàn 漢 (206 BCE – 9 CE; 25 – 200 CE) Empires. The Sinitic languages are also commonly known as 'Chinese dialects'. This 'dialect' is a (mis)translation of the Chinese term 方言 (fāngyán in Mandarin). In terms of the dialect vs. language distinction, Chinese linguistics take an approach that is considerably more 'lumpist' than Western linguistics. Mutually unintelligible, but demonstrably related speech varieties are often called 方言 fāngyán of each other in Chinese linguistics. The difference between 'further apart' Sinitic languages like Hokkien and Mandarin is perhaps similar to that between English and Icelandic, French and Romanian, or Russian and Bulgarian. (I like the term 'topolect' as a translation of 方言 fāngyán; see, e.g., Language Log.)

Coming back to Phonemica. The first item that you might find useful is the language selection drop-down list in the top right of the page. Currently there is a selection of English, 中文正體 'Chinese Traditional', 中文简体 'Chinese Simplified', and 한국어 'Korean'. (Ultimately, most things are in Chinese.) After that, you might want to click on the map and click on a pin. Last year when I checked out this website, the pins were nicely colour coded according to the classification of the Sinitic languages in the Language Atlas of China (1987). However, the colour coding is now (Dec 2014) somewhat all over the place, especially for Hakka. (Someone needs to fix this.)

When you click on a pin, a pop-up box appears, giving you brief information about the speaker and the language variety. For instance, the pop-up box of the pin located at Seoul gives you a photo, the speaker ID of 华侨先生 [huáqiáo xiānshēng 'Mister Overseas Chinese'], age, gender, first order dialect group of 官话 'Mandarin', and subdivision of 胶辽官话 'Jiaoliao Mandarin'.

The following are the labels of the first order Sinitic dialect groups used in Phonemica (largely identical to the classification used in the Language Atlas of China):

官话 Mandarin
晋语 Jin
瓦乡话 Waxiang
湘语 Xiang
赣语 Gan
徽语/徽洲 Hui
吴语 Wu (including, e.g., Shanghainese)
闽语 Min (including, e.g., Hokkien)
客语 Hakka
粤语 Yue (including, e.g., Cantonese)
平话和土话 Pinghua and Tuhua

(This map and this article from Wikipedia might be useful. See also (*teehee*) de Sousa 2015.)

There are also recordings labeled as 多种方言 'multiple dialects', and recordings of non-Sinitic languages like Atayal, 壮语 Zhuang and 诺苏 Nuosu. (There is also Ong Be mislabled as Danzhou Yue in Hainan Island.)

When you click further, it leads you to a more-detailed page about the speaker, with links to the recordings. When you click further and get to the page of the recording, you can play the recording, you see waveforms, and underneath you get (maximally) vernacular in Chinese characters, romanisation, IPA, translation in Mandarin (i.e. Standard Written Chinese), and translation in English.

The following are samples of some better known Sinitic languages: Cantonese, Hakka, Hakka, Teochew, Taiwanese, Hokchew, Wenzhou, Shanghainese, Shanghainese, Beijing Mandarin.

At the bottom of the homepage are links to various media reports in English and Chinese on the Phonemica project.


de Sousa, Hilário. 2015. “The Far Southern Sinitic Languages as part of Mainland Southeast Asia”. In Enfield, N.J. and Bernard Comrie (eds.). Languages of Mainland Southeast Asia – The State of the Art: 352–435. Berlin; New York: De Gruyter Mouton.

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