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The Fāngyán (Chinese: 方言; Wade–Giles: Fang-yen; literally meaning "regional speech"), edited by Yang Xiong, was the first Chinese dictionary of dialectal terms. The full title is Yóuxuān shǐzhĕ juédài yǔ shì biéguó fāngyán (輶軒使者絕代語釋別國方言) "Local speeches of other countries in times immemorial explained by the Light-Carriage Messenger," which alludes to a Zhou dynasty tradition of imperial emissaries who made annual surveys of regional vocabulary throughout China. Yang's preface explains that he spent 27 years collating and editing the Fangyan, which has some 9000 characters in 13 chapters (卷).
Fangyan definitions typically list regional synonyms. For instance, chapter 8, which catalogs animal names, gives regional words for hu (虎 "tiger") in Han times.
(虎, 陳魏宋楚之間或謂之李父, 江淮南楚之間謂之李耳, 或謂之於菟. 自關東西或謂之伯都.) "Tiger: in the regions of Chen-Wei Song-Chu [Central China], some call it lifu; in the regions of Jiang-Huai Nan-Chu [Southern China], they call it li'er, and some call it wutu. From the Pass, east- and west-ward [Eastern and Western China], some call it also bodu." (adapted from Serruys 1967: 256)
Comparative linguists have used dialect data from the Fangyan in reconstructing how Chinese was pronounced during the 1st century CE, which is an important diachronic stage between Old Chinese and Middle Chinese. In the above example, Serruys reconstructs "tiger" as Old Chinese *blxâg.
The Chinese word fangyan is a compound of fang 方 "direction; locality; side; place; region; area" and yan 言 "speech; talk; language; word; saying". Fangyan semantically ranges across "language", "regional language", "variety", and "dialect" in comparative linguistics terminology, which involve criteria of mutual intelligibility, vocabulary, idiom, and pronunciation. Chinese fangyan is usually, but problematically, translated as English "dialect". Regarding the differences between fangyan and dialect, Victor H. Mair says,
It is no wonder that massive confusion results when one is used as a translational equivalent of the other. The abuse of the word fangyan in its incorrect English translation as "dialect" has led to extensive misinformation concerning Chinese language(s) in the West. (1991:6)
Two English neologisms have been coined to remedy this mistranslation of fangyan. John DeFrancis (1984:57) suggests regionalect for the mutually unintelligible varieties of Chinese, leaving dialect for the mutually intelligible sub-varieties. Mair (1991:7) suggests topolect, which is fully Greek in derivation and size-neutral in regard to the speech area. (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language includes topolect). Although these fangyan distinctions may seem like pedantic hair-splitting, this word is crucial in some political, social, and linguistic arguments whether Chinese consists of "dialects" or "languages". Julie M. Groves (2008) analyzes attitudes among native speakers of Cantonese and Putonghua whether Cantonese is a language or a dialect, or whether it in fact fits the concept of a 'topolect' better.
- DeFrancis, John. 1984. The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy. University of Hawaii Press.
- Groves, Julie M. 2008. "Language or Dialect – or Topolect? A Comparison of the Attitudes of Hong Kongers and Mainland Chinese towards the Status of Cantonese", Sino-Platonic Papers 179:1-103.
- Mair, Victor H. 1991. "What Is a Chinese "Dialect/Topolect"? Reflections on Some Key Sino-English Linguistic terms", Sino-Platonic Papers 29:1-31.
- Serruys, Paul L-M. 1959. The Chinese Dialects of Han Time According to Fang Yen. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Serruys, Paul L-M. 1967. "Five Word Studies on Fang Yen (Third Part): The Dialect Words for 'Tiger'." Monumenta Serica 26, 255-285.
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