American pair's online project hope to record China's disappearing languages

In an online effort, American pair hope to record China's dialects before they disappear

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 June, 2013, 5:25am

Two Americans have taken on the daunting task of trying to document as many of what they say could be more than 3,000 varieties of spoken Chinese. Four years ago, Kellen Parker and Steve Hansen launched an ethnographic project called Phonemica - an online, crowd-sourced effort to collect voices, stories and languages from China. As the nation's youth use standardised Putonghua in daily life, Phonemica's mission is to preserve the cultural heritage of non-standard varieties of Chinese. The duo and their team of volunteers make recordings of people telling stories in their native tongue. Those stories are posted online and transcribed into Chinese characters, pinyin, the International Phonetic Alphabet and English.

What inspired you to start this project?

Kellen: We actually were both running blogs covering the dialect of our local areas. We got to know each other first through the internet, and then two years later we started working on this.

Steve: One of the inspirations for us doing this project was to look at the way the world looks at Chinese languages. There's a large under-appreciation of the immense diversity that exists within this thing that we call Chinese, which has a common ancestor, but encompasses a huge range of varieties.

Kellen: Even at Tsinghua University in Taiwan, one of the top grad programmes for linguistics in Asia, all of my classmates are native speakers of a Chinese language, and none of them are studying this. They're all looking at aboriginal languages, European languages. Even in Asia it's not being addressed to the extent we'd like to see.

Who is supporting Phonemica?

Kellen: Up until very recently it was funded by Steve Hansen and Kellen Parker. We've been paying out of pocket for the last three or four years. Just recently we had a successful fundraising campaign through Indiegogo [an online crowdfunding platform]. Now we have a little bit of money, and we'll use that to purchase new equipment - new recorders, things like that.

Are you both linguists?

Kellen: I'm in a linguistics graduate programme at Tsinghua University. I'm working towards a degree specifically with Chinese dialects. So I guess that makes me officially a linguist.

Steve: I would not call myself a linguist. I did a master's programme in the English language and a linguistics programme at the University of Arizona many years ago. But I've been in business for many years. I teach at Bei Da [Peking University] in the MBA programme, and I run a small consulting business. So for me, linguistics is a very intense pastime, but it's not how I make my living.

How do you distinguish between a language and a dialect?

Kellen: In graduate-level linguistics, there is no debate; everyone has accepted that there is no difference between a language and a dialect. But there is an issue with how we translate fangyan (dialect) into English. For that we are just saying "varieties of spoken Chinese" because we figure that is the most universally understood. Whereas if we say "languages of China", people might think we mean Mandarin and Uygur and Korean in the northeast, for example, which really isn't what we are trying to get at.

Steve: We are focused on Sinitic languages - languages that have a common ancestor - rather than some of the other minority languages that are not related to Chinese.

Kellen: Sinitic means everything that is descended from old Chinese - Cantonese, Mandarin, Minh, Hakka, Wu. This is a huge project. For now, at least, it is limited to Sinitic because it's a way to set a boundary for what we're doing.

How do you know how many varieties of spoken Chinese there are?

Kellen: There is an infinite number of varieties because, ultimately, there are as many varieties as there are speakers. The rough estimate we've been given is 3,000, just because that's about how many administrative divisions there are in China, down to towns, villages or urban districts. So that's what we're saying, but it's not really a number that's ultimately knowable. We're hoping to have every geographical area represented.

Steve: If you go from one town to another - for example, from downtown Beijing to Yanqing [a county in the suburbs], where the Great Wall is, there is a very clear difference in speech. It's quite comprehensible, but it's also a language variety. So when you start to count it up that way, I don't think thousands is a stretch at all. I think language is very closely related to geography and a sense of place.

How long do you think the project will take?

Kellen: Right now we have 75 recordings from different locations. We haven't really talked about how long we plan for this project to run. For me, I'm envisioning 10 years as opposed to two years. It may be impossible to reach the goal of getting every dialect recorded. But we will continue.

Steve: There is a longitudinal element in this project as well. The language is changing rapidly; if we continue this project over years, we may be able to see that through the recordings. It's not just a matter of taking one snapshot of the linguistic situation, but also of looking at it over time.

Why is this project important?

Kellen: The ultimate purpose of linguistics is to better understand how language works, but we don't really have a good sample to do this because the number of languages that are being documented and studied is tiny compared with the number of languages that really exist. People are mostly studying the ones that are widely spoken. Every variety of language that we can document and study will help us form a more complete picture of how language in general works, which helps with understanding the brain, culture and society. There are a lot of interesting points with tonal systems in Chinese dialects, with grammatical structures and even with the lexicon - the words people use for different concepts. It can be really quite different from what we'd find in Mandarin or more standard Cantonese. So there is a lot out there that people aren't really aware of on an academic level. In that sense, the project is really important for linguistics.

Steve: And on the social side, language change is happening so fast. The language is being standardised towards Mandarin. Everybody knows it's happening. It's happening for economic and social reasons. You can't control it. But I'm afraid that if we miss this opportunity to document them, then people will lament the loss. I don't think we can affect whether language change happens or not, but at least we can make recordings and show the languages how they were.

Who is using Phonemica?

Steve: We had 4,758 unique visits to the site over the last month. But the thing that matters to us is that people sign up and help us do the work by going out and recording their parents and grandparents. As long as we do that then the viewers will come.

Kellen: We do have quite a few users in the US and Canada; But the majority are coming from China, which is really our target audience. We would really like to see visitors to the site coming from places such as Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong as well as Chinese communities overseas. We are doing this project for Chinese people.


Kellen Parker and Steve Hansen spoke to Olivia Rosenman