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The Languages of China [Hardcover]

S. Robert Ramsey
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)

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21 May 1987
"In producing a book on China as a linguistic area, the ideal is a comprehensive and accurate account that places China's linguistic diversity in a meaningful historical, geographical, and social context. Ramsey has succeeded admirably in achieving this end."--Jerome L. Packard, The Journal of Asian Studies." . . a unique and brilliant work. . . . Ramsey integrates nearly all of the gains of modern research on the Chinese language and skillfully presents the results in a concise, interesting, and comprehensible manner."--Charles N. Li, American Anthropologist." . . I find The Languages of China a pleasure in virtually all respects. It is extremely easy to read, full of useful information, and beautifully produced."--Victor H. Mair, Pacific Affairs
--This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 355 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (21 May 1987)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691066949
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691066943
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 6,112,684 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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"In producing a book on China as a linguistic area, the ideal is a comprehensive and accurate account that places China's linguistic diversity in a meaningful historical, geographical, and social context. Ramsey has succeeded admirably in achieving this end."--Jerome L. Packard, The Journal of Asian Studies

". . . a unique and brilliant work. . . . Ramsey integrates nearly all of the gains of modern research on the Chinese language and skillfully presents the results in a concise, interesting, and comprehensible manner."--Charles N. Li, American Anthropologist

". . . I find The Languages of China a pleasure in virtually all respects. It is extremely easy to read, full of useful information, and beautifully produced."--Victor H. Mair, Pacific Affairs

"[This] is a volume that provides a feeling of depth while still being accessible to the general reader: I recommend it to anyone at all interested in Chinese history or comparative linguistics."--Danny Reviews

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In the early years of the Republic, a Chinese intellectual named Qian Xuantong published an open letter to Chen Duxiu, the leader of the attack on Confucianism. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars good book 31 May 1998
By A Customer
Format:Paperback
This book is completely engrossing. I knew next to nothing about the history of my native language and it's place among the "dialects" of Chinese. Nor was I really aware of the roles played by geography, politics, and cultural influences in shaping a language or even in a language's classification. The writing is concise and lucid; and much of it is accessible to laymen. I think for the information contained within and for the price, it deserves a 10. (FYI, the colors on one of the maps seem to be offset in my book. Maybe it's intentional?)
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Amazon.com: 4.4 out of 5 stars  10 reviews
21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A description and history of Chinese with its dialects and of China's other languages with their dialects, 22 July 2006
By Vincent Poirier - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
The book is divided into two parts. Part I examines the Chinese language and the Chinese dialects while Part II surveys the other languages spoken and written in China.

The book offers fascinating historical, grammatical, and political, insights; for example about possible reasons why the north is more unified than the south (easily traversed northern plains vs. isolating southern valleys and mountains).

Westerners often say that Chinese is a language without grammar simply because it's uninflected. This is grossly wrong and Ramsey describes the rudiments of Chinese's positional grammar and how the grammatical rules change somewhat from dialect to dialect. He also gives many examples of morphemes and words and how different dialects put them together.

As for political insight, I am no fan of China's repressive government and its policies. But when it comes to the cultural and linguistic minorities, its policies are surprisingly tolerant and have been for centuries. When we think that as recently as the 1950s, the French government was still trying to suppress the Gaelic language of Bretagne (Breton) we must wonder if there isn't something we can learn from Chinese policies. After all China has for centuries been making room for its minorities, and when Mandarin (putonghua) was created and adopted as the national common speech, much was made that it was no one's native tongue.

I personally wasn't very interested in the other languages of China, but they get the same, though shorter, descriptive treatment of their history and grammar. On the other hand, one real failure of the book is that all the examples are romanized (pinyin) but almost always without the corresponding Chinese characters. This is a pity since with them the book would have certainly been more useful as a study aid. I suppose in 1987 it was much harder (and expensive) to typeset Chinese passages in English books.

All in all, a fascinating survey of the linguistic landscape of China.

Vincent Poirier, Tokyo
22 of 26 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars good book 31 May 1998
By esseyo - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
This book is completely engrossing. I knew next to nothing about the history of my native language and it's place among the "dialects" of Chinese. Nor was I really aware of the roles played by geography, politics, and cultural influences in shaping a language or even in a language's classification. The writing is concise and lucid; and much of it is accessible to laymen. I think for the information contained within and for the price, it deserves a 10. (FYI, the colors on one of the maps seem to be offset in my book. Maybe it's intentional?)
17 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A fantastic story of China by way of language. 12 Dec 1999
By Philip Wilk - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
I picked up the book out of curiosity and could not put it down. It gives an engrossing history of the Chinese people by way of a study of the languages of the area. It is not just a linguistic text however; it is about all aspects of life in China: politics, economics, poetry,history, everything. Language is just what ties it all together, much like the language ties the country together.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A concise but superbly complete guide with rare attention to historical linguistics 1 Jun 2006
By Christopher Culver - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
S. Robert Ramsey's THE LANGUAGES OF CHINA is a survey originally published by Princeton University Press in 1987. China is an immense country with a rich linguistic heritage, and it is a challenge to cover even the basics adequately in a mere 340 pages. Ramsey does an admirable job, and this student of historical linguistics was thrilled to see such attention paid to the diachrony of many languages mentioned within.

The "Chinese language", the set of mutually unintelligible dialects belonging to Han people and descended from a relatively recent common ancestor, is by far the most widely-spoken in China, and Ramsey dedicates the first half of the book to it. He begins with a presentation of the historical debate over Han linguistic unification, with the northern dialects winning out over southern dialects like those of Shanghai and Guangdong. Since Mandarin has, for better or worse, been taken as the standard, it is the phonology, morphology, and syntax of Mandarin that Ramsey describes as representative of the entire language. Ramsey clearly wrote for a non-specialist audience, as he tries to debunk older Western myths that Chinese is somehow a "primitive" language due to its lack of inflection. The grammar of Mandarin here is splendidly full for just a few pages, though the debate over the use of the particle "le" isn't mentioned.

Ramsey's coverage of Chinese isn't, however, purely synchronic, for he also devotes space to the earlier stages of the language. He begins with an explanation of the Qieyun rhyming dictionary, the document compiled by Lu Fayan that, in spite of its faults, is our only useful source for the pronunciation of Middle Chinese. Ramsey then gives a colourful presentation of the life and work of Berhard Karlgren, the Swedish scholar who, by applying the comparative method to modern Chinese dialects, worked towards a phonetic reality for the mere algebraic relationships of the Qieyun dictionary. But this is not mere blind adulation, Ramsey does acknowledge Karlgren's faults and lists the younger scholars who followed him and improved on his theories. Ramsey also briefly mentions Old Chinese, the reconstruction of which is quite uncertain, and talks about some of the important changes from Middle Chinese to modern Mandarin.

The second half of the book deals with the many non-Han languages of China. First is the "Altaic family" spoken in the north of China, the Turkic, Mongolic, and Tungusic languages that may or may not be a valid genetic grouping, but which have significant typological similarities. Here again Ramsey gives abundant space to diachronic issues, showing how various modern languages each differ from their common ancestor. Writing systems, too, are covered. The languages of the south come next, including the Tai, Tibeto-Burman, Miao-Yao, and Mon-Khmer families, as well as unclassified or isolated languages. The story of how these languages have fared under Han domination is a major theme of the book.

If you have little bit of Mandarin under your belt (and you don't need a lot) and are interested in the linguistic diversity of this part of the world, THE LANGUAGES OF CHINESE is worth seeking out. This is especially true for historical linguistics curious about China. I can only wonder why it hasn't been reissued.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Chinese is a tough nut to crack, but this book can help 25 Sep 2011
By Daniel Cole - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
As I have been finishing a paper on Shanghai dialect phonology for a master's program, I have been reviewing parts of Ramsey's book, which I bought several years ago when I first became interested in learning more about Chinese. I am only realizing now that many assumptions that I take for granted, and which are necessary for reading any specialist work on Chinese, I learned in Ramsey's book.

Having grown up in the US, I was under the impression that there were two languages spoken in China: Cantonese and Mandarin. However, when I lived in Shanghai briefly, from 2006 to 2008, I learned China's linguistic environment was vastly more complex than I had imagined. I began turning to books in order to try to understand that complexity, and fortunately, The Languages of China was one of the first books that I read.

For the average reader, as well as someone with a background in linguistics, Ramsey has managed to put together an easy to read and very digestible primer on the languages of China. The book's scope is sufficiently broad to cover many questions that people have about the Chinese language yet sufficiently detailed to provide adequate explanation of the statements made. For example, if you have ever wondered how Standard Chinese (aka Mandarin) became China's national language, you will find that story in this book. If you have ever wondered how the Chinese dialects (some would say languages) are related to each other, you will find that story too. You will also learn about the histories of larger minority groups, the languages they speak, and the writing systems they use.

For scholars, while still an excellent introduction, Ramsey's book might appear to have some limitations. Although he has an excellent bibliography with sources in many languages, there are no in-text citations. Instead, one must look in the 'Notes' section at the back of the book where he includes annotated references for each chapter. This might be irksome at times for some. Though I am not as familiar with the volume, Norman's Chinese (Cambridge Language Surveys) has a more academic style to it with in-text citations. Norman's topics seem to overlap much of what Ramsey covers, except that Norman does not discuss minority languages. Norman does, however, include a chapter on Chinese sociolinguistics.

Overall, I highly recommend this book as an introduction to anyone interested in learning more about languages of China. After reading this book, you will be better able to understand many important topics related to the relationship between Standard Chinese, the Chinese dialects, and minority languages in China.
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