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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,
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...
Published on July 21, 2006 by Vincent Poirier

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Basically good, but dated.
This book is basically good, but dated. (It was written in 1986.) As I was looking through the books that I have bought, I realize that I bought this book 3 years ago and needed to get it read and disposed of before it became even MORE dated.

Short verdict: If I had it to buy all over again, I would save my money or read Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy in...
Published 13 months ago by Lemas Mitchell


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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,, July 21, 2006
By 
This review is from: The Languages of China (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
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22 of 26 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars good book, May 30, 1998
By 
esseyo (Jersey City, NJ United States) - See all my reviews
This review is from: The Languages of China (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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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, June 1, 2006
By 
Christopher Culver (Cluj-Napoca, Romania or Helsinki, Finland) - See all my reviews
(TOP 1000 REVIEWER)   
This review is from: The Languages of China (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.
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17 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A fantastic story of China by way of language., December 11, 1999
By 
  (Berkeley, CA USA) - See all my reviews
This review is from: The Languages of China (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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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, September 25, 2011
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This review is from: The Languages of China (Paperback)
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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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good coverage of languages of China, but no Chinese characters, July 22, 2009
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This review is from: The Languages of China (Paperback)
This survey of languages used in China -- from spoken to written Chinese, the different Han dialects, and ethnic minority languages -- gives excellent coverage on its topics, and covers many aspects of these languages, including sounds, scripts and grammar. One major problem is it doesn't use any Chinese characters, so it cannot be said to be perfect for the serious student of China's language phenomenon.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A great read, October 20, 2006
By 
A. Rubin (Pennsylvania) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: The Languages of China (Paperback)
I agree with the other reviewers that this book is completely engrossing. Rarely cam that be said of a reference type work like this! The author did an excellent job of making things understandable for someone like me who does not know any Chinese. He gives a very clear overview of the different dialects, including discussion of what exactly characterizes these dialects. It is also a great into to the other language families of China (Mongolian, Tungusic, Tai, etc.), information which is not easy to come by. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested Chinese, China, minority languages, and language classification in general.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Basically good, but dated., November 3, 2013
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This review is from: The Languages of China (Paperback)
This book is basically good, but dated. (It was written in 1986.) As I was looking through the books that I have bought, I realize that I bought this book 3 years ago and needed to get it read and disposed of before it became even MORE dated.

Short verdict: If I had it to buy all over again, I would save my money or read Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy in preference to this book. (Said book is equally outdated, but it is at least more readable and interesting.)

What is missing:

1. There is almost not a single Chinese character in the whole book (a book about Chinese, by the way).
2. There are no side by side comparisons of what something looks like in Language X (let's say Cantonese) vs in Language Y (let's say Old Xiang). For someone who has taken the trouble to get a book on the languages of China, it would make sense that that person should know at least a few characters.
3. It appears that this book was written for linguists. There is the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) and lots and lots of technical terms (alveolar trill, labiodental, etc) without corresponding examples of what that sounds like in some familiar non English language.

What things are dated?

1. Obviously the numbers of the speakers of the languages.(p. 87).
2. Ramsey mentions that newscasters speak in a shrill voice (on the Mainland) that is much higher than their normal speaking voice.(p.47) That has not been what I've observed in any of the 11 years that I have been here.
3. Wade Giles! Sorry, but no one uses it anymore. It's just too clumsy.

What things are good?

1. There is some good (brief) history that can be used in the way of explaining how these languages came to be what they are.(pps. 3-41) There is history of how the language was decoded and how linguists have gone about the business of deducing the phonological structure in a language that has been dead for hundreds of years (Middle Chinese) and another that has been dead for thousands of years (Old/ Proto Chinese). Along the way we met the history of a lot of people who are actually professional linguists and go about the business of gathering primary data (i.e., not Noam Chomsky) to test in preference to developing elaborate, silly theories.
2. There is good discussion of the names involved in choosing Mandarin as the national language (it didn't have to be that way and it could have been different). (pps. 3-41)
3. The book reads like a brief history book without all the excessive detail of some history books. There is *just enough* supporting detail to explain the context in which the linguistic shifts occurred.
4. The overview of the linguistic groups and their origin is generally great. In that way, it is superior to the aforementioned DeFrancis book.
5. There is some great discussion of the various histories of languages and how they came to be what they are-- and a lot of those examples are generalizable to other cases.

What could have been made better?

1. The author insisted on using the clunky Wade Giles romanization. I can't think of a reason in the world to use it when Pinyin has been in widespread, standard use even before the time of this books publication.
2. Chinese words could have been placed with the examples so that we would have an idea of what the Chinese characters correspond to which idea. (I can read a decent amount of Chinese, so I could deduce what was being said-- but then were also many examples where I could not easily deduce what the author was implying.)
3. There is no need to use historical names of towns that no one remembers anymore. When he said "Mukden," I had to go and look it up to find out that he meant "Shenyang." We know that Peking is Beijing and Canton is Guangzhou, etc. But what of Amoy? It gets more than a bit annoying having to look up archaic names when modern names have been in use for a long time.

The reading is light and easy and this can be finished in 3-4 afternoons.

In spite of the many good points, I still can't recommend this book for the reason that it is: 1) dated; 2) a bit too technical; 3) has been updated by a number of later books.
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5.0 out of 5 stars An Interesting Book, February 1, 2014
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This review is from: The Languages of China (Paperback)
I had to purchase this book for my Chinese Linguistics class, since the author (Ramsey) is a professor at my university, and it is probably still one of the most useful books when examining the varying languages and linguistic differences within China. My own professor, Minglang Zhou, is a leading voice in the field of Chinese linguistics, and has nothing but high praise for Dr. Ramsey. If you want to learn anything about Chinese languages (from Tibetan to Miao and Mandarin Chinese in its many forms), then this book is the way to go!
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3.0 out of 5 stars a general survey, July 11, 2013
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This review is from: The Languages of China (Paperback)
it is a general survey that touches upon many things but without enough detail on anything. The unique thing about this book is that it describes a lot of non-Chinese languages in China. But one problem that I think it has is that the phonetic symbols are so non-standard, and it is very hard to read. If standard IPA symbols are used, I am sure it will be more useful.
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The Languages of China
The Languages of China by S. Robert Ramsey (Paperback - October 1, 1989)
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