Getting tongues tied about Chinese dialects

Despite nostalgia and the availability of clan association classes, it appears hard for Chinese dialects to hold their ground in modern Singapore.

Chinese opera performers at the official opening of the upgraded Kreta Ayer People’s Theatre in July 2019. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
New: Gift this subscriber-only story to your friends and family

There is a joke among linguists that a language is a dialect with an army. This still raises chuckles when people hear it for the first time but it has a more serious point, highlighting the fuzzy lines between the two concepts and the inescapable truth that hierarchies, based on prestige or political backing, exist in the linguistic world.

In layman understanding, certainly here in Singapore, dialects are usually seen as spoken forms of communication, subordinate to languages which have an official status.

Already a subscriber? 

Dive deeper at $0.99/month

Want more exclusives, sharp insights into what's happening at home and abroad? Subscribe to stay informed.

Unlock these benefits

  • All subscriber-only content on ST app and straitstimes.com

  • Easy access any time via ST app on 1 mobile device

  • 2-week e-paper archive so you never miss out on any topic that matters to you

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.