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Disappearing Dialects

An interview with Steve Hansen, the co-founder of Phonemica, a website collecting China’s dialects

09·06·2015

Disappearing Dialects

An interview with Steve Hansen, the co-founder of Phonemica, a website collecting China’s dialects

09·06·2015

Steve Hansen’s website is open to all to upload all kinds of stories: regional lore, nursery rhymes, local history, anecdotes, etc—in local vernaculars. If you can speak a Chinese dialect, please contribute to the diversity of their collection at www.phonemica.net

WHAT PROMPTED YOU TO START PHONEMICA?

My friend Kellen and I were both living in China when we met online in 2007 through our blogs. He was blogging about language stuff around Shanghai, and I was blogging about language stuff around Beijing. After a couple years of getting to know each other, one day he sent me an email that basically said, “Hey, I want to build something that will aspire to collect recordings of all dialects of Chinese, do you want to work on it together?” I said, “Heck yeah,” and we started working out how we should approach the problem.

hansen-1

Steve Hansen

WHAT PARTICULARLY INTERESTED YOU IN CHINESE LANGUAGE DIVERSITY?

This question seems to assume I’m interested in language diversity in general—and in fact that is true! I was just born with an interest in language variation, especially in the sounds, but also in vocabulary usage and so on.

SO THEN, WHY CHINA?

First, because I was there. Second, because it’s one of the biggest unknown language stories in the world right now, I think. It seems like almost no one outside of China is aware of how linguistically diverse it is. At worst you’ll hear people saying everyone speaks one language. In better cases you’ll see language maps that show eight to ten fangyan (方 言, dialects). But as anyone who lives in China knows, that doesn’t begin to capture how incredibly many language varieties there are in China.

IN 2013 YOUR WEBSITE EXPERIENCED A BOOM IN CHINESE MEDIA ATTENTION. WHAT KIND OF CHANGES HAS IT BROUGHT? HAS IT HAD ANY LASTING EFFECTS?

Certainly a lasting effect. Without the media coverage our site would be just a few recordings we’d done ourselves. Since we received that huge flood of coverage in 2013 and 2014, we’ve continually had users contributing stories. And for us, that’s critical. Phonemica is user driven. It’s designed that way. All of our content is put there by people who hear about us and are inspired to upload a story from themselves or their grandma, grandpa, et cetera. To this day there are people uploading new stories every week. As the archive accumulates over time, Phonemica will get ever closer to what we envisioned when we started—a comprehensive repository of the local linguistic and cultural diversity that exists across China and even beyond.

HOW IS PHONEMICA BEING RUN WITH YOU OUT OF CHINA?

I have returned to the US (Minnesota) for work reasons. As for Phonemica, it will continue to run. As I mentioned above, it’s mostly self-sustaining right now. People come across it, upload recordings, and transcribe them. The pace isn’t as fast as it was when we were in China doing a lot of promotional activities, but it’s still in existence and doing well. It will continue to grow and be a free resource for anyone who’s interested in language and culture.

IN YOUR LAST INTERVIEW BEFORE YOU LEFT CHINA, WITH SOUTHERN PEOPLE WEEKLY, YOU SOUNDED GRAVELY CONCERNED ABOUT THE DEVELOPMENT OF PHONEMICA. WHAT ARE THE MAJOR DIFFICULTIES PHONEMICA IS FACING RIGHT NOW?

It’s funny, I don’t feel pessimistic at all, but many people read that article and forwarded it to me saying I sounded depressed. Maybe the day I gave the interview I was a bit nostalgic because it was my last day in Beijing, which had been my home for the previous six years. I will always have a very strong attachment to China and to Beijing in particular, so you can see how I might have felt. But, I’m actually quite optimistic about Phonemica. While I would like to be doing more for it now than doing the occasional interview, there’s no doubt in my mind that even if we did nothing it would continue to grow. For one thing, we have a lot of fans in China who still promote it here and there, in their own social circles, and keep it going. We also have a couple of super-volunteers, who are always doing things to keep Phonemica known.

WHAT CHANGES HAVE YOU WITNESSED IN CHINESE DIALECTS? WHAT CAUSED THESE CHANGES?

I can’t say I’ve been around long enough to witness changes personally. But like everyone else, I can see the changes that are apparent from one generation to the next. Older folks use ways of speaking and vocabulary that are quite different from younger people, even when the younger people still speak the same fangyan. And of course there are lots of young folks now who have lost their parents’ native tongues, or who can only understand but can’t speak well. It’s quite clear that if this trend continues, many dialects will be lost.

WHAT LOSS DO YOU THINK WE WILL SUFFER WHEN WE LIVE IN A WORLD WITH FEWER AND FEWER DIALECTS?

The loss of local dialects is, in the big picture, just a facet of the more general uprooting that the modern economy has brought to the world. Globalization, the death of distance—whatever you want to call it, it’s people leaving the place their forefathers called home and venturing to new parts of the world. In that process they acquire the lingua franca that enables them to communicate with co-travelers, or, even if they stay put, they acquire the lingua franca that allows them to communicate with newcomers. It’s this mass churn, fundamentally, that is causing language change. The linguistic loss is inseparable from the psychological loss of place; each word of a local dialect that atrophies, unused, as a speaker loses contact with that language, is like the features of one’s childhood land that fade in memory—the tree at the top of the hill you will no longer visit, the community center that was razed to make way for a new housing development. Any single loss is minor, but taken collectively I think it’s no exaggeration to say this severing of connections is a leading cause of the environmental degradation and anomie that plagues the world.


“Disappearing Dialects” is an interview from our latest issue, “Law”. To continue reading, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the iTunes Store or Google Play Store.

Cover image is a map of dialect uploaders available at Phonemica.