Chinese Phonemes: An Interactive Map of Sinitic Languages
At the beginning of the Lunar New Year, Modu invites you to take a short break and have a peek at an interactive map posted on phonemica.net. The project, based on public language archives, began in 2012 and was initiated by two American researchers, Kellen Parker and Steve Hansen. Parker and Hansen’s work focus on the Chinese languages or “Sinitics” (a subcategory of the great Sino-Tibetan language family), including Mandarin, Cantonese, Hakka, Wu, Gan, Min and Xiang. Collectively known to linguists as the modern Chinese languages (it’s worth noting some would add Jin, Hui and Ping to this list), these languages all stem from ‘Archaic Chinese’, despite bearing few similarities with their origins today.
Many markers on the map provide access to voice recording samples, including anecdotes and glimpses of life sketched in one of the many Chinese dialects. The site also offers transcriptions of the languages in original dialects, Mandarin, IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet), and in English. Both culturally and geographically sensitive, as well as visually stimulating, this enormous undertaking aims to promote the survival of Chinese dialects in the context of a rapidly colonizing Putonghua. According to its founders, the project was made possible by the voluntary participation of users who submitted audio recordings of personal stories, and volunteers who also aided in the process of transcription and translation. The recordings come from all across China, at times even traversing its borders (for example, South Korea and Vietnam are included). The map is also infinitely extendable as new users opt to participate and contribute. Site managers hope to gradually reach the Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia and abroad (Singapore, Calcutta, San Francisco, and Paris are promising future sites).
While increasingly concerned about the absence of minority languages in China, the authors of the site emphasize their need to draw a line somewhere. In this case, that line is under the Sinitic languages. If they were to accept recordings from Zhuang, Miao or Hmong dialects, it would require considering other Hmong dialects or other minority languages such as the Dai, which could then further lead to the inclusion of several Thai dialects, making it even more difficult to bound the project and present a coherent product.