Bulletin No. 2, 2019

05 They Stand on the Shoulders of Giants Over 50 million people are native speakers of Southern Mǐn, which is mainly spoken in southeast Fujian, eastern and western Guangdong, the coastal areas of Hainan, southeast Zhejiang and Taiwan. The language is interesting in that many words can be pronounced in a colloquial or a literary way. Prof. Kwok Bit-chee , who has been delving into historical linguistics and Chinese dialectology, has unraveled the mysteries surrounding the two modes of pronunciation. Professor Kwok trusts his project will benefit language education as it reveals the rules governing compound formation. It also uncovers some lesser-known features of the Mǐn languages and deepens our understanding of their speakers. He says, ‘The academic freedom at CUHK is the key to the smooth progression of my research.’ Having a colloquial and a different, literary pronunciation is a common feature of the Sinitic languages. The literary mode is usually used when it comes to loanwords and literary works, while the colloquial mode is used in the vernacular. ‘Since the Mǐn languages retain rich archaic features lost in their Sinitic counterparts, they are historically significant,’ Professor Kwok remarks. The phenomenon appeared after the Sui and Tang dynasties. As the central authorities spoke the northern dialects, many in southern China adopted the pronunciations of those dialects, which eventually became literary pronunciations of their own. Accordingly, the original pronunciations became colloquial. In Southern Mǐn, over 1,500 words have both literary and colloquial readings. In his dialect fieldwork in Shantou and Xiamen, Professor Kwok has collected several hundred compound words with literary and colloquial modes. He conducted sociolinguistic surveys with more than 60 native speakers to measure the social factors in the compound formation process. In Shantou and Xiamen dialects, the literary elements in the compound words are found to be pronounced differently. For instance, ‘ 飛 ’ (fly) in ‘ 飛機 ’ (plane) is pronounced as [hui 1 ] (literary mode) in Xiamen Mǐn and [pue 1 ] (colloquial mode) in Shantou Mǐn. Sampling the right informants was a challenge at the beginning. He is grateful for the support of those who facilitated the surveys, including a former PhD student of his, who is a native speaker of Shantou dialect. He adds, ‘My work wouldn’t have been possible without my teacher Prof. Chang Song-hing , an expert in Southern Mǐn. The vast amount of linguistic data he had collected was crucial to my fieldwork.’ Chinese Dialectologist ‘To me, academic freedom is most important to the smooth conduct of research. I think the CUHK environment is very conducive to research.’