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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, TokyoThe Languages of China Overview
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