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Sinophone Southeast Asia: Sinitic Voices across the Southern Seas , by Caroline Chia and Tom Hoogervorst (eds)

In: Bijdragen tot de taal-, land- en volkenkunde / Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences of Southeast Asia
Author:
Nicholas Y.H. Wong University of Hong Kong Hong Kong SAR Hong Kong SAR

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Caroline Chia and Tom Hoogervorst (eds), Sinophone Southeast Asia: Sinitic Voices across the Southern Seas . Leiden / Boston: Brill [Chinese overseas 20], 2021, xviii + 259 pp. ISBN: 9789004421226, price: EUR 114.45 (hardback); 9789004473263, free (ebook).

Strictly speaking, “sinophone” refers to the sound or voicing of Sinitic, or Chinese, languages. Its implied diversity is what the recent field of Sinophone Studies takes cue from to study cultural forms like literature and cinema for speech acts implying difference, without necessarily invoking speech or spoken language as its unit of analysis. This volume centers anew the latter by looking at Southeast Asia’s Sinitic varieties as oral phenomena that also interface with their written forms in complex ways. In so doing, this volume reconceptualizes the sinophone via historical linguistics and language histories, for example, of Timor Hakka (Chapter 2) and Cambodian Teochew (Chapter 3), and of well-trodden ones like Bazaar Malay and Baba Malay (Chapter 4) and Penang Hokkien (Chapter 5). By avowedly studying language in terms of “change, lexical borrowing, creolization, and plurilingualism” (p. 245), this volume uses familiar terms in a literary scholar’s toolkit but modifies their contexts by going upstream to consider the mechanics of language’s dispersal, hence proposing a linguistic turn for the sinophone.

Before I expand on how this might look, I will show how this volume reconsiders the vernacular-standard divide in Sinitic languages, texts, and institutions. A common thread of this volume is the question of how certain romanization systems for Hokkien, Hakka, Cantonese, and other Chinese regional languages (fangyan) in Southeast Asia came to be, as they pass through the hands and mouths of lexicographers, traders, missionaries, colonial officials, teachers, and opera singers, and made their way into dictionaries, manuals, religious texts, primers, popular literature, and opera scripts. Romanized Chinese helped those who did not read Chinese, or wanted to mark out its regional sounds. Since this stopgap did not coincide with literacy campaigns of scriptural reform, as in mid-twentieth-century China, the results in Southeast Asia are non-standard and cater to audiences of specific generations, milieus, or professions, who will presumably get the sounds and then dispense with the written notation. Yet it is still possible to use the latter, or vernacular orthographies, to support a thesis of linguistic typology, as the concluding chapter states, given their contexts: note the modifiers in “Indies-style romanization of Mandarin words” or “Philippine-style transcription of Hokkien” (p. 249).

Often, written Southeast Asian Sinitic is ephemeral, a transitional form that facilitates the mastering of speech. But if the stakes meant conveying accurate sounds, why were multiple forms of notation used? Voice recording worked faster in the digital age, which interview subjects used for Cambodian Teochew (Chapter 3), along with written Khmer, Mandarin, or English, never opting for the Pe̍h-ōe-jī (“Church Romanization”) or Gaginang peng-im System (GPIRS), though we learn of their sounds via the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) (p. 94). In the analogue age, embodied language use was important, too, and genres and audiences mattered for how things were transcribed: textbooks of late-colonial Indonesian Mandarin (Chapter 7) employed the Mandarin phonetic system, or Bopomofo (p. 222) to supplement its “Indies-style romanization,” which ironically notated different sounds for homonyms (p. 225). Operatic Hokkien songbooks in the Philippines (Chapter 6) use generic romanization “informed by Quanzhou, Xiamen, Zhangzhou, and Taiwanese dictionaries,” though these also reflect “minor orthographic difference” inspired by Tagalog (p. 203). Not only is diglossia reflected in the Emperor’s and Empress’ lines in romanized Hokkien and Tagalog (p. 202), but also in the scripts’ stock phrases that are to be delivered using literary rather than colloquial Hokkien pronunciation (pp. 158, 213).

This volume sets the scene for such recent practices of romanized Chinese with an opening essay that reconsiders the etymology of the word pidgin and argues that its meaning shifted from ‘approve’ (pizhun) to ‘business’ (Chapter 1). Pidgin English feels like an apt synonym for business English prior to the advent of this multinational concept. The early example of romanized Chinese, pidgin, refers to the English used between Chinese and Europeans—a term for diglossia that pithily reminds us of the conditions and possibilities of lexical borrowing. Trade was good for linguistic mixing, and vice versa. It is no wonder that a Meixian trader in Chinese commodities, Chun-Foo Chun, penned several dictionaries (pp. 217–218). But the reverse was also true: the Canton Trade System (1757–1852) in China placed restrictions on language learning, which made intrepid traders and missionaries venture further to Southeast Asia, such as the port city of Malacca, to write their pioneering work on Chinese linguistics in English (p. 35). Such intense Anglo-Chinese language contact prior to the formal establishment of colonies has been studied extensively.

But this volume casts its net wider, to “speak to the field of Southeast Asian linguistics” (p. 250), that is, to develop the significance of Southeast Asian Sinitic beyond its relation to the China seaboard in order to encompass the Sinitic’s relation to indigenous languages, though this division is also in question given that so-called indigenous Southeast Asians use Mandarin and other Chinese topolects. The latter qualifies as both substrate and lexifier languages, hence the borrower-donor relation of loanwords, or lexical influence and innovation, works both ways: see the back-to-back chapters that discuss Hokkien and Malay (Chapters 4 and 5). The editors admit that the reverse of romanized Chinese, that is, “the use of Chinese characters (Sinographs) to transcribe colloquial and/or non-Sinitic words” (p. 249) is an important part and deserves another volume, beyond Chapter 5. Here, readers interested in “Chinese lexicography on Southeast Asian languages” (p. 250) might want to refer to the Singapore-based historians of Nanyang (or South Seas) Studies from half a century ago, whose late-Qing scientific mode of “evidential learning” (kaozheng), among others, aimed at reproducing sound, and resonates with the more empiricist strands in this volume. These historians also used romanized Chinese in their academic work: a possible case study.

The volume’s preference of lexical over grammatical categories to study the Southeast Asian Sinitic is an interesting choice. Perhaps imported vocabulary is more noticeably different than modified syntax, which also gets coded as a lack of fluency and is admittedly “difficult to connect with broader social developments” (p. 240). To return to what I call a linguistic turn in Sinophone Studies, we can rethink current lexical analyses of literature and film via the volume’s sociolinguistic perspective of textuality. Rather than view lexical variation in speech acts as simply evidence of cultural difference, scholars can think of the inner and outer bounds of linguistic communities in relation to how speech is produced in narrative voice, dialogue, and diegesis. This might produce a different angle to minority literatures and films where language use such as “koineization; the mixing of dialectal features” (p. 246) is the engine, rather than epiphenomenon, of creolization.

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