An interesting site I came across today called the Chinese Pear Stories features material in seven Chinese languages – Mandarin (普通话), Cantonese (广东话), Hakka (客家话), Shanghai Wu (吳), Xiamen Min Nan (閩南话), Xiang 湘 and Gan 贛. The material consists of recordings and transcriptions of stories told by speakers of each of these languages. This is the first time I’ve heard the latter two and to me they sound a lot like Mandarin.
A researcher from the University of California made a short film, which can be seen on the site, called ‘Pear Stories’ about some children stealing fruit.The film has no dialogue and is designed to elicit samples of various languages, including the Chinese ones already mentioned and also English, German, Greek, Japanese, and one of the Mayan languages. People watched the film, then were asked to say what they’d seen in their language. The idea was to compare how speakers of different languages describe the same events.
One finding that emerged was that the structure of the stories was very similar across all the languages – there appears to be a common ‘story grammar’. There were however some minor differences in the vocabulary used, and some people added moral comments about stealing.