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US linguists' web map preserves China's dialects

01-26-2014 10:42 BJT

BEIJING, Jan. 26 (Xinhuanet) -- Thousands of variations of Chinese are spoken in the vast nation and two Americans have created a unique online map of Chinese dialects, featuring 10 major dialects and 300 stories so far.

Kellen Parker and Steve Hansen launched Phonemica ( in May 2012 to collect and preserve disappearing dialects. Other websites are devoted to dialects but this gathers them in one place.

“The website is for archiving the stories and dialects for future generations, so that in 30 years people can know what their grandparents lives were like,” Keller told Shanghai Daily in a recent interview through email.

Parker and Hansen are looking for volunteers to tell stories themselves and to find and record other storytellers, especially older people, to build their archive and preserve dying local speech. Most of it now is crowd-sourced.

The project has gained a following in China and generated some controversy. While some people applaud the effort, others are embarrassed that Americans are doing something they believe Chinese should be carrying out. Some are even angry.

On the Phonemica map, green icons represent Mandarin, yellow stands for Hakka dialects, blue for Min dialects, orange for Wu dialects, auburn for Xiang dialects, rose for Gan dialects, violet for Cantonese, and brown for Jin dialects. When visitors click on the icons, corresponding audio will be played; information about the speakers is included.

As China emphasizes Mandarin, which is mandatory in public schools, many dialects are dying out.

“Language is incredibly interesting and most people go about their lives speaking it perfectly without ever thinking about it,” Parker said. “You can take any dialect from any small town, and there will be a lifetime of complexity to learn from, and it will always be changing, so you will never reach the end.”

Parker, 33, is working on a degree in historical linguistics at National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan. He first visited China in 2006 to study philosophy. He traveled around, visiting Beijing, Shanghai, Xi’an in Shaanxi Province and Urumqi in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. He lives and studied in Jiangsu Province.

Parker is fluent in Arabic and was fascinated by its dialects. “In Shanghai I came to learn about the situation in China and how different Shanghainese is from Mandarin,” he said.

He became fascinated by China’s dialects.

“It’s fascinating to hear how different someone from Beijing speaks compared to someone from Chengdu, or from New York to Glasgow,” he said.

He found there was no single place on the Internet where Chinese dialects were organized. “I wanted to go online and listen to the Changsha Xiang dialect or Hakka or the Min dialect of Fuzhou,” he said.

In 2007, Parker connected with Steve Hansen who has long been interested in Chinese dialects. Hansen is proficient in multiple languages, including Chinese, Korean, Spanish and Latvian. He cofounded the Chinese linguistics blog, Sinoglot and at the time was blogging about Wu dialects spoken by people in the lower reaches of the Yangtze River.

Parker’s Phonemica idea was too big for any one person to execute; He and Hansen joined forces.

“While we were just getting started, some of our friends gave us recordings, but now mostly it’s crowd-sourced like Wikipedia,” said Parker. “This project isn’t about us, it’s about people who want to share part of their culture and people who have stories to tell.”

Most volunteers uploading recordings are young people but Phonemica is seeking older speakers.

“The way that a 25-year-old person speaks Shanghainese is not the same way that their parents speak. Their grandparents speak it differently as well,” Keller said. “It would be wonderful if there were more stories from older people, because these are the dialects and stories that are disappearing.”

People rushed to listen to the archives and once the website crashed because there were so many visitors.

“Many dialects are dying as only seniors know how to speak some of them,” Parker said. “Dialects will be extinct when the seniors pass way. Phonemica is buying time for dialect protection.”

Speakers are the only ones who can protect dialect, he said. “The website just provides a platform for stories. The rest is up to the users.”

By Lu Feiran


Editor:Zhang |Source: Xinhua

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