Digital dialects

Updated: 2013-12-08 07:30

By Sun Ye (China Daily)

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"Families should speak the same dialect," Zhu says, noting that this is a criterion for finding native speakers - the speaker should be brought up there and have family members who speak the same dialect.

"We had a college student record Hubei dialect and a granny record a local Zhejiang dialect. We told them: 'Your words could be heard across the country'."

Zhu and his wife recorded part of the Jiangxi dialect.

The game that started as a side project now rakes in 2 million yuan ($328,000) in monthly advertising revenue.

And one in three overseas players make in-app purchases.

"I believe (overseas Chinese) are missing something they took for granted back home," Zhu says.

Zhu says he has been inundated with about 10,000 responses. Most are users' calls to add their hometowns' dialects.

"Dialects are the key to the game's popularity," Zhu says.

And dialects are used by about 30 percent of China's Siri-like digital speech assistant Wormhole's 22 million customers.

"We hope it will become customized enough that whatever dialect you speak to it in, it will respond in the same one," the company's co-founder Wang Xiaoyi says.

Wormhole used only Putonghua when it launched last March. "Requests for dialects started piling up," Wang says.

"It's persistently the No 1 demand. So we can't ignore it."

They aggregated data from source companies and created the dialect function.

"But we always need more dialectal data."

Wang uses the app she developed in the parlance of Henan province, although she is a Hunan native. She chooses Henan dialect because she finds the tones interesting.

"I like the way it warps the ends of syllables," she says.

The app's users average age is 30. Most learned Putonghua in school but speak dialects at home and with local friends.

Some fear Putonghua will - or is - overtaking vernaculars. Many consider dialects "living fossils" that testify to ancient rituals, arts and lifestyles.

So, people are setting up high-tech data banks and software, in addition to traditional textbook-and-chalkboard language classes.

Some dialects spoken by perhaps a few hundred, mostly older, locals face extinction. Others are essentially going strong but are slipping from the youth's grasp.

But it's the young whose technological obsession and aptitude may save many.

And while some dialects are rapidly vanishing, others are holding their ground to various extents.

"China was a country of dialects - and still is," Association of Chinese Sociolinguistics president Su Jinzhi says.

Su, who's also a Chinese Academy of Social Sciences professor involved in language surveys, says: "About 90 percent of Chinese spoke a dialect a decade ago, and the same proportion still do. But the number of Putonghua speakers has increased tremendously during that time. People are becoming bilingual."

Su acknowledges urbanization shapes language.

"People from different places gather in cities and have to find a common language," he says.

"That's a fact of city life. But it doesn't have to extinguish dialects."

Chinese University of Hong Kong professor William Wang's research suggests two parlances can coexist in a population with proper education. And bilingualism is beneficial, he finds.

Media enhances this education, Wang says.

"It will expand the language's dissipation if it's on TV," Wang says.

China Radio International broadcasts in many dialects, including Cantonese, Hakka, Minnan and Wenzhou.

Li Jun, director of the department that creates CRI's dialects programs, points to growing consumption among youth.

"They're our online listeners," Li says.

Their favorite shows delve into pop culture and fashion in their own dialects, he says.

Wang, who has studied China's dialects for half a century, says: "Language-preservation is largely a spontaneous bottom-up process."

"(Multimedia) are a healthy and inevitable step. Language is part of cultural identity. Losing it is to lose our roots."

Su explains that Putonghua and dialects are complementary.

"One is the common language. The other offers cultural value," Su says.

"We'll speak and develop both."

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Xing Yi contributed to this story.

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