China Language

By | January 26, 2022

In 1949, with the founding of the People’s Republic, the definition of a linguistic standard appears in the mainland as a requirement of vital importance for the purposes of communication on a national scale: the need to organize the economic and social life of a population that over 500 million residents, 80% of whom are illiterate, urgently requires the effective solution of the language problem. Therefore, as a first step, the official language is selected, putonghua, a language in some ways artificial, based on the pronunciation of the Beijing dialect, on the lexicon of the northern dialect and on the grammatical structure of the language consolidated in modern literary production. The choice of the putonghua is motivated by the fact that the Northern dialect, in addition to being the simplest from the phonological point of view and the most widespread, being its area the largest and most densely populated, is spoken in the region traditionally considered central in a political and cultural sense. In order for the linguistic norm set in the putonghua can spread throughout the country as soon as possible, but it is a priority to make writing an agile and faster learning tool: language reform cannot fail to pass through writing reform. A committee was thus set up in 1952 to study the necessary measures with a view to the twofold objective of simplifying the units of the writing system (characters) and of developing a system of phonetic representation of the language. The work of the committee was accepted by the Council of State which in 1956 approved a list of 2236 characters, for each of which a more easily memorable variant was made official as it was made up of a reduced number of strokes. Later, in 1958, the State Council adopted the transcription system known as pinyin, consisting of 26 Latin letters. These measures prove to be the result of a compromise between two lines of reform which from then on will continue, with alternating fates, to be followed in parallel: that of the supporters of the conservation of the traditional writing system and that of the proponents of its replacement with an alphabetic system..

According to PETSINCLUDE.COM, the former see in the maintenance of the non-phonetic writing system, in a phase in which an oral standard is still far from being achieved, the safeguarding of the unity, not only linguistic, of the country. They consider the continuity between classical and contemporary culture, safeguarded by the writing system, a guarantee of the preservation of national identity, and evaluate the adoption of the Latin alphabet as a sort of capitulation in the face of a new form of colonization, this time cultural., by the West. Their opponents are instead convinced that the diffusion of an alphabetic script can accelerate the process of acquiring linguistic unity, and that the traditional writing system is a heavy obstacle to the technological and social development of the nation.

The alternating fortunes of pinyin over the next thirty years are in fact a direct reflection of the varying balance of forces within the Chinese leadership group. A first decade of pinyin ‘s application in primary education and in the fight against illiteracy (the rate of which, from 35% in 1964, will drop to 23% in 1982), follows a setback in conjunction with the Cultural revolution and the policy of closure then carried out. The changes in political equilibrium that occurred in the early 1970s, which made it possible to establish diplomatic relations with Western countries, also led to a relaunch of pinyin, undoubtedly more responsive than the characteristics to the application in sectors, such as that of international communications and information technology, which have become of primary interest.

As evidenced by the issue, in 1977, of a second list of simplified characters that was soon set aside pending “further improvements”, the growing openness at all levels of the China to the West contributes to giving ever greater strength to the proponents of reform of writing in the alphabetical sense. In this, a not insignificant role is exercised by the UN in 1979: the decision to adopt pinyin for the transcription of Chinese terms in texts that use the Latin alphabet, which was immediately received by most of the Western press, cannot fail to translate into a decisive solicitation to specify more clearly the rules of use. In the 1980s, the debate on linguistic policy therefore focused on the opportunity to define a set of orthographic rules to be placed side by side with pinyin, with the aim of transforming it from a simple transcription system to an effective writing system. This in the awareness, however, that this process can be completed only when a wide and prolonged practice of the new writing has transformed the orthographic rules into real usage conventions and has developed a new written style as different from the current one as the new writing will be different.

China Language