Xinhua Insight: Old dialects struggle to survive under new era

by Xinhua writers Lyu Qiuping, Xu Xiaoqing and Qiu Yi
SHANGHAI, June 10 — Shanghai, where a local once felt superior to the outsiders just because of their peculiar dialect, is now trying to prevent its own voice from extinction.
A video series created to introduce and promote the Shanghai dialect has attracted 400,000 clicks online, as it tries to help prevent the regional language from becoming extinct.
Producer Gu Yibo was inspired to make the six-part series after an embarrassing four-generation family gathering during Spring Festival last year.
The 39-year-old became aware that his son could only speak Mandarin and could not communicate with his 94-year-old great-grandmother. Gu had to translate for them.
“When my grandma praised my son with a local expression, he did not get at all,” Gu said, adding he then realized the danger of losing their own dialect because of poor inheritance.
He does not want his son to forget the Shanghai dialect that has been handed down from generation to generation.
“According to our family tree records, we were an educated family in the past,” said Gu, indicating he has a responsibility to pass on traditional culture.
Thinking of how he could get his son interested in the Shanghai dialect, Gu dubbed over the voice of the “Talking Tom” cat, a popular character on a smartphone game app. The six-part series was born, attracting online followers.
According to Qian Nairong, a linguist with Shanghai University, the regional language belongs to the branch of Wu dialects under the Chinese language system. Other branches include Hakka, The North, Hunan, Fujian, Canton, and Jiangxi.
With rapid social development over recent years, an increasing number of migrants with different dialects can be found all over China. However, people are encouraged to speak Mandarin between each other, threatening the existence of dialects.
“Middle-aged people nowadays have become unfamiliar with some old expressions,” Qian said.
As an important part of national cultural heritage, languages and words should be preserved, but a language could eventually disappear, he feared.
Qian and his team developed character input software using the Shanghai dialect in 2008, in an attempt to save the regional language using hi-tech means.
Some language experts are worried that dialects will become extinct under the era of the Internet, as most people type characters with unified pinyin, which is based on Mandarin.
Chen Shengxiang, 73, is one of the worriers.
He spent a year compiling a 100,000-character Shanghai dialect dictionary, which includes more than 2,000 entries and their corresponding Mandarin expressions.
For words rarely used, which usually relate to weather, farming and family, Chen had to seek the advice from old farmers for accurate pronunciation.
Gu Yibo said Chen’s dictionary was a vital tool for his video series, adding that experts like Chen are becoming rare.
“We should not only keep their words, but also record their voices,” Gu said.
To better preserve China’s dialects, the State Language Commission is building an audio database for the country’s languages.
Elsewhere, governments of Shanghai and other cities have been promoting the teaching of dialects in kindergartens. Shanghai’s Pudong New District government also opened a Q&A section for learning on its microblog at Twitter-like
Gu is confident the Shanghai dialect will not become extinct.
“Hi-tech will not be a dialect’s killer but an important tool for us to better inherit the dialect,” he said.
The microblog account of UNESCO at also stressed the importance of dialect inheritance.
Apart from being preserver of tangible heritage, UNESCO is engaged in the inheritance of intangible heritage, said Xiao Fan, who created the UNESCO’s weibo account in 2011.
Xiao said the organization is trying to introduce China’s intangible heritage to netizens as it attempts to attract the young to participate.
“Elements such as pop songs and celebrity effect tend to be effective to attract the young to participate,” she said.
The Chinese central government declared in 2005 that every second Saturday of June would be celebrated as Cultural Heritage Day in order to promote the protection of its rich cultural resources.[db:内容2]

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