RE: writing Chinese dialects

From: Martin J. Heijdra (
Date: Thu Jan 25 2007 - 16:04:07 CST

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    In addition to Chinese "dialects", there are also quite a few other non-Chinese languages in South China which at one point or another have been written with adapted Chinese characters, in ways not unlike new Vietnamese or Cantonese characters were formed (and in some cases very possibly predating and being the basis of the latter): Dong, Bouyei, many Zhuang and other Tai language versions, Yao, various Miao languages. All very dispersed and uncontrolled, and certainly under researched. But I have always thought that the term CJKV privileges Vietnamese in a way that's not really warranted; one could start talking about CJKDBZTYMV….


    (Chinese books on such material often merely state that such languages were written "with Chinese characters", not pointing out that in many cases systematic changes were applied to the Chinese forms which makes them no longer standard Chinese.)


    Martin Heijdra



    From: [] On Behalf Of John H. Jenkins
    Sent: Thursday, January 25, 2007 4:07 PM
    Subject: Re: writing Chinese dialects



    On Jan 25, 2007, at 12:14 PM, Douglas Davidson wrote:


    There actually are two bilingual Cantonese-English public elementary school programs in San Francisco ( and <; their material states that they aim for literacy in both Cantonese and English, but I haven't seen anything in enough detail to say to what extent Cantonese-specific characters might be used.



    I'll have to contact them and find out.

    OTOH, Unicode *has* made an effort to cull Cantonese-specific characters from such references as exist for such. When Extension D is encoded in the (hopefully) near future, there will be as complete a repertoire of Cantonese-specific characters as is reasonably possible.


    My impression is that Cantonese is in a better position here than most other dialects--that is, that there are dialect-specific characters used in writing other dialects, but that the usage is usually not as widespread or consistent as with Cantonese. Are these being gathered as well?


    Nobody has contacted Unicode with offers to do the gathering for us, and we don't have the resources (i.e., authoritative print sources and time and/or money) to do it ourselves. The only issues involved are practical.


    Naturally there are political aspects to all of this. On the mainland, as you say, the push is toward Mandarin. In Taiwan there has recently been something of a revival of Taiwanese, but my impression is that this is primarily as a spoken language, and that when it is written, one of the romanizations is often used rather than characters; however, this is not first-hand information, and I would welcome correction on this.


    There are, I understand efforts, to write Taiwanese with ideographs, but I don't know much about them and would welcome pointers to additional information.


    As you say, there are political aspects. Cantonese is in an unusually good position because of the semi-independence of Hong Kong and Macao. There has bee a notable upsurge in the interest in written Cantonese and Cantonese linguistics in Hong Kong in the last ten years.


    John H. Jenkins


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