Preface to the Chinese-English Dictionary of the Vernacular or Spoken Language of Amoy

By the Reverend Carstairs Douglas, 1873.

The vernacular or spoken language of Amoy, which this Dictionary attempts to make more accessible than formerly, has also been termed by some “The Amoy Dialect” or “The Amoy Colloquial;” and it partially coincides with the so-called “Hok-kien Dialect” illustrated by the Rev. Dr. Medhurst in his quarto Dictionary under that title. But such words as “Dialect” or “Colloquial” give an erroneous conception of its nature. It is not a mere colloquial dialect or patois; it is spoken by the highest ranks just as by the common people, by the most learned as by the most ignorant; learned men indeed add a few polite or pedantic phrases, but these are mere excrescences (and even they are pronounced according to the Amoy sounds), while the main body and staple of the spoken language of the most refined and learned classes is the same as that of coolies, labourers, and boatmen.

Nor does the term “dialect” convey anything like a correct idea of its distinctive character; it is no mere dialectic variety of some other language; it is a distinct language, one of the many and widely differing languages which divide among them the soil of China.

The so-called “written language” of China is indeed uniform throughout the whole country; but it is rather a notation than a language; for this universal written language is pronounced differently when read aloud in the different parts of China, so that while as written it is one, as soon as it is pronounced it splits into several languages. And still further, this written language, as it is read aloud from books, is not spoken in any place whatever under any form of pronunciation. The most learned men never employ it as a means of ordinary oral communication even among themselves. It is in fact a dead language, related to the various spoken languages of China somewhat as Latin is to the languages of South-western Europe.

A very considerable number of the spoken languages of China have been already more or less studied by European and American residents in the country, such as the Mandarin, the Hakka, the vernaculars of Canton and Amoy, and several others. These are not dialects of one language; they are cognate languages, bearing to each other a relation similar to that which subsists between the Arabic, the Hebrew, the Syriac, the Ethiopic, and the other members of the Semitic family; or again between English, German, Dutch, Danish, Swedish, &c.

There is another serious objection to the use of the term “dialect” as applied to these languages, namely, that within each of them there exist real dialects. For instance, the Mandarin, the greatest of all, contains within itself at least three very marked “dialects”, the Northern, spoken at Pekin; the Southern, spoken at Nanking and Soo-chow; and the Western, spoken in the provinces of Sze-chuen, Hoo-peh, &c.

In like manner the language which for want of a better name we may call the Amoy Vernacular or spoken language, contains within itself several real dialects, especially those of Chang-chew, Chin-chew, Tung-an, and of Amoy itself. In this Dictionary the form of the language spoken at Amoy itself is taken as the standard, and the principal variations of the Chang-chew and Chin-chew dialects are marked, as also a considerable number of the variations occurring in Tung-an, Chang-poo, and some other regions. The language of Amoy, including these subordinate dialects, is believed to be spoken by about eight or ten millions. This is the first dictionary of the spoken language. There are numerous dictionaries of the universal written language of China. One of these, by the Rev. Dr. Medhurst, called “Dictionary of the Hok-kien Dialect,” gives the Chang-chew sound (or more accurately the sound of Chang-poo, i.e. Chiuⁿ-phǿ͘) of the written characters. Some colloquial words are given in Dr. Medhurst’s Dictionary, but they are few, and entirely in the Chang-chew or Chang-poo dialect, and unhappily the colloquial forms given are often far from accurate. The only other publications that have anything of the form of a dictionary are the very brief vocabularies in the Manuals of Doty and Macgowan.

The basis of this Dictionary is the manuscript vocabulary prepared by the late Rev. J. Lloyd, Missionary of the American Presbyterian Church. When I arrived at Amoy in 1855 I copied it for my own use, adding the additional words in Doty’s Manual, and have been constantly enlarging and re-arranging the collection of words and phrases ever since. A few years after copying Lloyd’s Vocabulary I collated the manuscript dictionary written by the Rev. Alexander Stronach of the London Missionary Society. I also at a later date went over all the words in the native dictionaries of the Chang-chew and Chin-chew dialects, and in a native vocabulary which attempts to give the Mandarin words and phrases for the Amoy ones. Of these native works the only really good one is the Chang-chew or rather Chang-poo Dictionary, named the Sı̍p-ngǿ͘-im, which is the basis of Medhurst’s Dictionary. Having thus the original source to refer to, I have made but little use of Medhurst’s ; for such colloquial phrases in it as are not drawn from the Sı̍p-ngǿ͘-im are very questionable, while its valuable book-phrases do not serve my purpose. Macgowan’s Manual, though very useful for a beginner, was of course published too late for my use. In looking over it I found very few words which I had not already in my manuscripts.

No one can more sensible of the defects of the work than I am myself. It was at first prepared for my own use alone; as it grew larger I hoped it might be used in manuscript by beginners, or copied, abridged, or expanded by successive missionaries; and it was only after repeated solicitations, culminating in a formal request by all members of the three Protestant missions at Amoy, that I consented to prepare it for the press. This is my apology for all its faults and imperfections. It attempts to fill a real blank and to supply an urgent want; and I shall be only too glad when it shall be superseded and forgotten, or remembered only as the foundation on which a far more complete and accurate work shall have been reared.

When the Amoy missionaries asked me to prepare for the press the manuscript which I had compiled, the Rev. John Stronach of the London Missionary Society, and the Rev. John Van Nest Talmage, D.D., of the American Reformed Mission, were at the same time appointed to assist me in the revision of it. Mr. Stronach went over the whole from beginning to end, but Dr. Talmage was prevented by other duties from revising more than a few dozen pages. After their revision it was necessary for me to harmonize and recast the whole (with large additions and alterations which never came under their eyes), when writing out the copy for the printer. So that while a large share of what is good in the book should be put to the credit of my coadjutors, I must myself be held responsible for all its faults.

The most serious defect is the want of the Chinese character. This is due to two causes: (1) There are a very large number of words for which we have not been able to find the corresponding character at all, perhaps a quarter or third of the whole; and the time when it was necessary for me to take my furlough made it impossible to make the search for the missing characters, many of them rare, and many difficult to recognize from the great variations that take place between the written and spoken forms of the language. (2) Even if the characters had been found, it would have been very difficult or impossible for me too use the Chinese character in printing at home. But it was necessary to print it during my furlough at home, because we have not the means of printing such a work at Amoy; and on my return to China I could not have been spared from the mission long enough to go to some other port to carry it through the press. I cherish the hope of publishing a Key or Sequel in two or three years, giving the characters so far as they can be found. Meantime, while I greatly regret that the Chinese character does not appear in the book, I am in one sense glad that it is absent. For it may serve to make manifest the fact that the Vernacular of Amoy is an independent language, which is able to stand alone without the help of the written character. And I should hope that many persons may thus be encouraged to study this language who would have been repelled by the sight of the complicated and fantastic characters. Of course every missionary, and every one who would be counted a scholar, must study the written character too, for the Vernacular or Colloquial cannot for a very long time to come possess any literature worthy of the name.

Another defect, which I greatly regret, is the very scanty identification of plants, animals, medicines, &c. Want of time is here also the excuse, which I trust my readers will count sufficient. Many such names have been put in with a query, being taken from such works as The Fuh-chau Recorder, Notes and Queries on China and Japan, The Phœnix, Dr. Porter Smith’s Book on Medicines, the various dictionaries of the written language, &c., while I had not the means of verifying them.

To some it seems also a great want that there is no English-Chinese part. But that must really be a separate work. The whole style and character of Chinese thought and expression is so different from the nearest English equivalents, that the work of reversing a dictionary, which at first sight seems very easy, would really be enormous, falling not very far short of the original composition.

With all its imperfections I trust that this book shall prove helpful to those who study the language of Amoy. My chief object has been to assist those who are engaged in the work of Christian missions; but for this purpose I have endeavoured to give a full view of the language so far as I have been able to learn it; and the book is fitted to be equally useful to merchants, travellers, mariners, interpreters, and students. It is most desirable that foreigners residing among the Chinese should learn their language, so as to hold direct intercourse with them, instead of using the miserable jargon called Canton-English or “pigeon English,” or being left at the mercy of interpreters. Few things would so much tend to remove causes of dispute or bad feeling, and to make the intercourse between these nations both pleasant and beneficial.

The explanations in the Introduction and Appendix have been much condensed from want of time at the last; I have therefore not been able to give the several subjects a scientific treatment, but have contented myself with such practical directions as will facilitate the use of the book and the acquisition of the language.

In conclusion I would express my thanks to HUGH M. MATHESON, Esq., Convener of the Foreign Mission Committee of the Presbyterian Church in England; to ROBERT BARBOUR, Esq., of Bolesworth; and to C. E. LEWIS, Esq., M.P., for the kind liberality which has enabled me to publish the work.

AYR, 4th April, 1873