Q&A February 17, 2021

Postdoc Spotlight: Jeffrey Weng on Language and Society

Shorenstein Postdoctoral Fellow in Contemporary Asia Jeffrey Weng shares insights from his research into how language and society shape one another, particularly how the historical use of Mandarin affects contemporary Chinese society and linguistics.
[Left] Postdoc Spotlight, Jeffrey Weng, Shorenstein Postdoctoral Fellow in Contemporary Asia, [Right] Jeffrey Weng
Jeffrey Weng's research examines the relationship between how language shapes society and society shapes language.

We often think of language as a democratic field, but it is not quite the common property of its speakers, argues Jeffrey Weng, APARC’s 2020-21 postdoctoral fellow on contemporary Asia. Rather, language is a skill that must be learned, says Weng, and it creates social divisions as much as it bridges divides. 

Weng studies the social, cultural, and political nature of language, with a focus on the evolution of language, ethnicity, and nationalism in China. His doctoral dissertation investigates the historical codification of Mandarin as the dominant language of contemporary mainland China. This summer, he will begin his appointment as an assistant professor at Lingnan University in Hong Kong. In this interview, Weng discusses the dynamics between linguistic and social change and the implications of his research for Asian societies today.


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What has shaped your interest and research into the study of language and linguistic dissemination?

As a first-grade student in the early 1990s attending Chinese school in central New Jersey on Saturday mornings, I learned how to write my first complete sentence in the language: “I am an overseas Chinese.” Now, this was a curious sentence to teach to a class full of American-born children of Taiwanese parents, and it’s a reminder that language is never a neutral conveyor of meaning. Language cannot but be freighted with social, cultural, and political import, a lesson reinforced in my high-school Spanish classes, in which I made my first forays into literature in a foreign language: stories by the great writers of Spain and Latin America not only spoke a wholly different language, but they told wholly different stories from those of their British and American counterparts.

Linguistic difference also is a signal of individual and social difference: my childhood visits with family in Taiwan opened my ears to a cacophonous Babel in the media and on the streets—though we spoke Mandarin at home, whenever we went out, people speaking Taiwanese were everywhere to be seen and heard. This was further amplified when I visited mainland China for the first time in my early 20s. Beijing, the supposed wellspring of the nation’s language, was bewildering—I could not understand much of the unselfconscious speech of the locals. And traveling several hundred miles in any direction would only deepen my incomprehension. And yet, on the radio and on TV, during formal events and on university campuses, there was always Mandarin to clear the way. I wanted to learn more about how this language situation came to be. For me, studying the social, cultural, and political nature of language is a way to a deeper understanding of how people are united and divided in vastly different contexts across the globe.

As you’ve looked deeper into how language shapes society and society shapes language, what is something surprising you’ve come to realize about that relationship?

People often see language as the ultimate democratic field when it comes to cultural practice. No matter how much you might tell people not to split their infinitives or end their sentences with prepositions, popular practice will always win the day. Or so we English speakers think. Ever since Merriam-Webster came out with its infamously descriptivist Third New International Dictionary in 1961, Anglophone language nerds have fought over whether dictionaries should be “prescriptive”—that is, rule-setting—or “descriptive”—reflective of popular usage. But really, these are two sides of the same coin. We take it for granted that privately-owned publishers of dictionaries spell out the supposed norms of our language. Not only that, we even think this ought to be the case. French is the usual counterexample: when government language authorities in Quebec or Paris try to stem the Anglophone tide, we think it absurd that so-called authorities would ever try to rule over something so fundamentally unruly as language.

In my research, however, I learned how fundamentally invented Mandarin as a language is—from its highly artificial pronunciation to the way its orthography has been stabilized. There used to be a lot of variability in how characters were written and how they could be used, much like English spelling before the 18th century. Mandarin, both spoken and written, was standardized only in the 1920s to facilitate mass literacy and national cohesion. So linguistic change might often follow and reflect social change, but the process can also operate in reverse—a government can change language in hopes of facilitating social change.

In your latest journal publication, you argue that language nationalization in Japan, Korea, and Vietnam between 1870-1950 was a state-led, top-down process directed at remaking society rather than the more traditional view of diffusion through trade, economics, and cultural exchange. Why is this an important distinction to make?

Again, we often see language as a democratic field, the common property of its speakers, but it isn’t really. Sociolinguists are often quick to remind us that linguistic differences reflect class differences—“proper” language is that of “educated” speakers. But language is a skill, and skills must be learned. Some people can learn skills more easily than others, whether through natural ability or, more importantly, the life circumstances they were born into. Rich people can more easily get a good education. Educational disparities are now part and parcel of today’s broader debates about inequality. But the very fact that we think this is a problem is a product of developments in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Before then, broad swaths of humanity were totally illiterate and had no chance at being educated, and most people did not think this was a problem. In Europe, the language of the Church and academia, even to some extent in Protestant areas, was Latin until the 18th century. Local vernaculars had gradually developed as independent media of communication in government chancelleries and popular literature since the Middle Ages, but they did not really gain ascendancy until the age of print-capitalism and nationalism in the 18th and 19th centuries. Marxian-influenced scholars have therefore concluded that the rise of national languages coincided with the rise of the bourgeoisie, whose own languages became those of the nations they constructed.

In France, for example, while revolutionaries in the 1790s advocated the use of Parisian French to unify a country divided by hundreds of local forms of speech, into the mid-19th century, even journeying 50 miles outside Paris found travelers having trouble making themselves understood to the locals. It took more than a century for French to gain a foothold in most of the country. Asia, too, was a polyglot patchwork for millennia, unified at the top by an arcane language much like Latin—Classical Chinese. This situation became politically untenable in the 19th century as European imperialism encroached on traditional sovereignties in China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. In order to counter the foreign threat, governments sought to strengthen their societies by educating their populations, which required making it easier to learn how to read and write. While standard languages have been described by historians and sociolinguists as “artificial” for less-privileged learners, Asia’s standard languages were artificial even to their bourgeois inventors.

Our understanding of the present is invariably colored by our interpretation of the past: if we understand a national language to be a bourgeois imposition that diffused via economic development, then we more easily see its continued imposition as a perpetuation of class prejudices. If on the other hand, we see an invented national language as a tool for bridging regional divisions and expanding economic opportunity for our children, then we feel much more positively about the spread of such languages. Both interpretations can be true at the same time, but we must remember that one is inseparable from the other.

Do you see any parallels between how language nationalization has occurred in the past to how language and society are shaping one another in the present?

The number of “standard” Mandarin speakers in the early 1930s could be counted on one hand. Today, it’s the world’s largest language by a number of “native” speakers. Though it began as an elite nationalizing project that was largely ignored by the masses of people in China, Mandarin is now more often seen as a hegemonic threat to local languages and cultures. Language can thus bridge divides, but also create new divisions. People in China are often ambivalent about the pace of change these days. When I visited cousins in rural Fujian during the Lunar New Year a few years ago, I noticed that all my nieces and nephews spoke Mandarin in almost all situations, to their parents, and especially to one another. Only my grandparents’ generation used the local Fuqing dialect as a matter of course. My parents’ generation spoke dialect to their parents, but a mix of Mandarin and dialect to their children—the cousins of my generation, who were able to speak the dialect, but were more comfortable speaking Mandarin among themselves and to their children. One of my young nieces who’d grown up in Beijing, where her parents had moved for work, even had a perfect Beijing accent. In a span of three generations, migration due to expanded opportunity had wrought enormous change in language habits. Much had been gained, but also much had been lost.

How has your time at APARC as one of our Shorenstein Postdoctoral Fellows aided your research project?

It’s certainly been a strange year to be a postdoc, given how we’ve all been operating remotely. Nevertheless, life and work have continued, and we’ve all been able to find new ways of building community and getting things done. I’ve personally benefited from the access to the vast academic resources of Stanford—library access, even online alone, is a lifeline to any researcher. Moreover, I’ve had the opportunity to chat on Zoom with Stanford faculty about research and connect with my fellow postdocs to support one another as we figure out how to move forward in our careers in these challenging times.

With your recent appointment as an assistant professor at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, how do you anticipate your research interests growing and developing given some of the uncertainty about how language and free speech is being monitored in Hong Kong?

It’s both a privilege and a responsibility to bear witness to the ongoing changes in Hong Kong. We’ve all been reading the same news, but it’s quite another matter to find myself soon to be in the thick of things. Hong Kong is a fascinating microcosm of the wrenching change that has taken place in Asia over the past two centuries—a site of the social, cultural, economic, and political upheavals brought about by colonialism, revolution, war, and global capitalism. Hong Kong’s linguistic culture is also fascinating as a place that has developed in parallel to the evolution on the mainland and in Taiwan. A place that speaks and writes Cantonese, Mandarin, and English, Hong Kong is a kaleidoscopic bellwether for things to come as the world moves forward into an ever more uncertain future.

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