The Languages of China

10 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0691014685
ISBN-10: 069101468X
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Paperback, October 1, 1989
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Editorial Reviews


"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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Product Details

  • Paperback: 355 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (October 1, 1989)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 069101468X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691014685
  • Product Dimensions: 1 x 6.2 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #736,401 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

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.
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23 of 27 people found the following review helpful By esseyo on May 30, 1998
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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18 of 21 people found the following review helpful By Ф УИ on December 11, 1999
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.
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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.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Daniel Cole on September 25, 2011
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.
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