Author: thestud

Changing China: the evolving Chinese dialects [Copy link] 中文

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Post time 2004-9-3 14:03:27 |Display all floors


Thanks for the info, TheStud.  I really appreciate it.

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Post time 2004-9-4 09:52:21 |Display all floors

Cantonese, please work hard on your command of Mandarin -Chinese

Our office received abundant of files recently, most of them were written or edited by Cantonese. All of these CHINESE documentations were badly written Chinese. You can barely read what they were trying to state.Most of them are from some renowned organization in Guangzhou, though.

Unfortunately, most of the Cantonese family born children write their composition in Cantonese and then translated them into Chinese. I met a Cantonese woman, she showed me her daughter's article, I cannot believe my eyes.

Why dont they work hard on their Mandarin-Chinese?

Dialect is so important, while Mandarin is more important.

What do you think of it,dear fellow forumites??

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Post time 2004-9-4 10:50:18 |Display all floors

Cantonese IS Chinese

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Post time 2004-9-9 20:01:36 |Display all floors

Linguistics, Languages and Chinese Dialects - BY Wing C. Ng

I find linguistics to be a fascinating field of study. I am not a professional linguist, but I read quite a few books on the subject.
As a Chinese from Hong Kong, I wondered as a child how my language relates to my cousins from other provinces, to my Chinese ancestors in history, and to more distantly related peoples. I found some of these answers in my amateur studies, and I want to share them on this forum. There are sure to be inaccuracies in my account from the scientific linguistic point of view, and so please bear with me.

The Western discipline of linguistics was started by Europeans coming into contact with the languages of India, especially the ancient language of Sanscrit. People noticed that there are many similarities between Sanscrit and the ancient language of Latin. Scholars pursued these features, and eventually came to the grand "Indo-European" synthesis that most of the European and Persian-Indian languages are related, and that these diverse peoples ultimately are descendants originating from a compact community probably located in Eastern Europe north of the Black Sea, say 5,000 years ago.

The linguists then applied these techniques to the other languages of the world, and classified them into groups. In particular, the Chinese language is classified into the Sino-Tibetan group, whose members include Chinese, Tibetan, Burmese, and many minor languages in the Tibet-Burma-Himalaya region. The study is based on the similarity in the basic vocabulary and grammatical structure, and excludes the borrowed words. So even though Vietnamese, Korean, and Japanese superficially look very similar to Chinese, (and one can read a Japanese newspaper and understand much of its contents,) these similarities are due to loan words that were borrowed during historic times because of close cultural contacts. Vietnamese, Korean, and Japanese are not related to the Chinese language.

Most scholars say that Tibetan and Burmese are closer to each other than either is to Chinese. Some say that Chinese and Tibetan are closer to each other. I look at the Tibetan vocabulary and there are many words which are similar to some Chinese counterpart, simply by casual examination. Scholars have compiled extensive lists of words with common ancestry in these two languages.

Here is a list of the numerals in Mandarin, Cantonese and Tibetan; the family relationship is self-evident:

yi       yat     chi
er       yi      nyi
san      saam    sum
si       sei     shi
wu       ng      nga
liu      luk     truk
qi       tsat    du"n
ba       baat    gye
jiu      gau     gu
shi      sap     chu

Ng (man-five) is my family name. I find it gratifying that the "ng" sound is very ancient, and is even still retained in the Tibetan pronunciation of "five".
What is clear is that Tibetan probably split off from Chinese about 4,-5,000 years ago. The Tibetan word for Chinese is "rgya". I have a personal theory, utterly unsupported by other linguists, that this word is related to "xia" (summer). Xia is the name of an ancient dynasty in China, and is also one of the words Chinese used to call themselves. It is possible that the split-off occurred sometime in the Xia dynasty.

Linguists speculate that, among the Sino-Tibetans, the Chinese moved east, the Tibetans moved south-west, while the Burmese moved almost directly south. They reconstructed that the original Sino-Tibetan community may be located somewhere near the Qinghai Lake. Similarly, linguists reconstructed the path of migration of the Malayo-Polynesians and some concluded that they all originated from Taiwan.

Chinese language was not written in a phonetic script, and this posed a problem, but not an insurmountable one, it seems, for Chinese have ancient poetry that used rhymes. From study of these rhyming words, linguists were able to reconstruct the ancient pronunciation of words up to the Zhou dynasty, which reconstruction primarily uses the rhyming scheme in the Shi Jing (Poetry Classic). As a result, we have fairly scientifically reliable way of knowing how Confucius spoke!

The consensus is that Chinese people even in the Zhou dynasty spoke differently in different regions, but these dialect differences were not as large as those today. As the Chinese speaking people spread from the Central Plains, they intermarried with and assimilated the locals in the South, who might have spoken a Thai-Zhuang language.

There was a song recorded in the Zhou dynasty of the locals in the South, transcribed phonetically in Chinese characters, that did not make any sense. Modern Chinese scholars took the ancient Chinese pronunciation of these characters and matched them against the Zhuang language, and succeeded in deciphering the meaning of the song in the Zhuang language, an amazing feat in my opinion.

The various Chinese groups in the south-east hilly regions became isolated from the Central Plains, and their dialect differences became more and more pronounced. Apparently these isolated groups tended to be conservative linguistically: they tended in their separate evolution to keep more of the ancient features of Chinese than the main group in the Central Plains. The Min (Fujian) groups seem to retain the oldest features, of the Han dynasty. One of the features of Han Dynasty of Chinese is that there was no "f" sound, and that is kept in the Min dialects. The name "Buddha" is now "fotuo" in modern Mandarin, but it was exactly accurate in Han dynasty Chinese, when those characters sounded like "byut dha". Also, "o" was an addition to Chinese sounds after Han, all "o"s used to be "a".

The Chinese language probably underwent a big change during the Nan-Bei Dynasties period of nomadic invasions from the north. In the Sui and Tang dynasties, a rhyming book "Qie Yun" was compiled, which attempted to regulate the rhyming schemes in poetry, and to have the rhyming scheme apply to all the major dialects at the time. So they classified any words as rhyming only when they rhymed in all the major dialects, not just in some standard Chinese of the Central Plains. As a result, the resulting rhyming scheme is extremely detailed, and modern linguists discover many details of the various dialects at the time. A big wave of immigration into Guangdong took place in the Tang dynasty, and again, linguistic conservatism ruled in subsequent developments, and as a result, the Cantonese (Yue) dialect retained many of the features recorded then in Qie Yun. A by-product is that Tang period poetry sounds especially good in Cantonese, being closest to the Qie Yun scheme among modern dialects.

So roughly speaking, to find out how Han dynasty Chinese sounds like, ask a Fujianer; to find out how Tang Chinese sounds like, ask a Cantonese.

There was another wave of invasion from nomads in the north in the Song dynasty, and the Chinese language in the Central Plains undertook yet another major change. This is reflected most prominently in the loss of p,t,k endings (which correspond to Ru Sheng) in the main Chinese group. These endings are however retained in many of the southern, more isolated and "conservative" dialects.

The big changes were recorded in the Yuan Dynasty in Zhongyuan Yinyun, which again is supposed to regulate rhyming, now in the Yuan Qu's. The Yuan Qu rhyming schemes are quite different from the Tang rhyming schemes, and the effects of losing p,t,k became clear in that some of these Ru Sheng words were used to rhyme with Ping Sheng words. The Koreans, being in the north, modified their pronunciation of their Chinese loan words in accordance with these sound changes, while the Vietnamese maintained the old sounds, which were also retained by their Cantonese neighbors.

Thus modern Mandarin already existed by the Yuan Dynasty, and presumably a Yuan Dynasty person's speech would be understood today by a Mandarin speaker. The effects of the Mongol Yuan and Manchu Qing invasions on Chinese speech appear to be not very large.


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Post time 2004-9-9 20:09:16 |Display all floors


I am with you.

I think the myriad Chinese non-mandarin dialects should be carefully documented by scholars for purposes of  linguistic, cultural, and historical studies only. They can be taught in the universities if one desires, and has the time and energy, to learn. It is not fair for a kid to grow up having to master two or more dialects in today's increasingly competitive world. Leave alone the burden of learning foreign languages. Educated Chinese nowadays speak mandarin, and mandarin only as means of communication both at work and at home, and so will their offsprings.

A strong nation needs a unified language.

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Post time 2004-9-13 15:55:05 |Display all floors

What's the best dialect to learn after mandarin?

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Joined: 09 Jan 2004
Posts: 487

Posted: Tue Mar 30, 2004 3:50 am    Post subject:   


Wu Chinese is the second largest Chinese dialect after Mandarin. The only problem is that Wu is really diverse. For example, there's over half a dozen sets of I/you/he/this/that among the Wu dialects. Northern Wu (Suzhou, Shanghai, Ningbo) sound pretty much the same though. I've never personally met anyone who learned Shanghainese or other Wu dialects. It's pretty hard to learn since there's almost no resource material. But I'm sure it can be done though. A dialect like Shanghainese needs to have audio, tone marks won't cut it since they are thrown out the window in speech. There are classes now in Shanghai, but they seem focused more on word trivia than actual functionality and fluency.

Yeah, if you want to learn a dialect, learn whatever dialect in the region you are going to be in. Otherwise it's a waste of your time.


Joined: 24 Aug 2003
Posts: 1667
Location: 美国嘅某个城市
Posted: Tue Mar 30, 2004 5:46 am    Post subject:   


The only problem is that Wu is really diverse

Same thing is true for Yue dialects. 1 hour's drive from Guangzhou, you will hear a different version of Cantonese, and 2 hours away it's virtually unintelligible, but then farther away in HongKong and Macau, you can find the same version again. The dialect you hear most often in the u.s. is Taishanhua, often grouped into Cantonese, but I can hardly understand a word in Taishanhua.
Once I went to this nursing home(apartment style) to visit my grandmother, for some reason when I pressed my grandmother's doorbell, her neighbor's bell sounded too. Then these two Taishan nannies came over knocking on our door, and yelled at me in Taishanhua like I killed their son or something. I had no idea what they were yelling about, until they showed me the pressing a button pose



Joined: 09 Jan 2004
Posts: 487

Posted: Tue Mar 30, 2004 2:51 pm    Post subject:   


Quest wrote:
Same thing is true for Yue dialects. 1 hour's drive from Guangzhou, you will hear a different version of Cantonese, and 2 hours away it's virtually unintelligible

Oh really? From a non-Cantonese speaker's perspective, it seems Cantonese is really unified; at least it seems there is a clear standard, and everyone accepts it. So curious question, what does 广东话 refer to? All the dialects within 广东省, or a specific dialect in/from 广东省? I've been getting the impression that everyone who speaks a variant of 广东话 seems to say they speak 广东话, leading me to think it's completely comprehensible amongst Cantonese speakers and that the variations are like rural/urban. And I also thought that even if some of the dialects of 广东话 are incomprehensible, there is still a standard in 广东话 based I presume in 广州 or 香港 that everyone agrees to as the almighty 粤语 standard that people sing to. So I'm guessing that the latter must be true since you said Cantonese dialects are diverse too, but if that's the case, wouldn't the younger generations "bridge the gap" and become all standard 广东话 speakers if such a standard exists? So is there a standard at all in Cantonese? It seems like there is....

As a Wu speaker, I always feel like I'm telling a hyperbole when I say Wu is the second largest Chinese dialect after Mandarin. Because it's not only very different in different regions, there's also no agreeable standard. A 苏州人 will never succumb this statement: "Shanghai is by far the more influential city today, therefore 苏州 (50km away) should start speaking the Shanghainese variant of 吴语." This is even considering that 新派苏州话 and 新派上海话 are completely understandable to each other (besides Shanghai's 侬 noN being switched with Suzhou's 你 ney). For that petty difference, 苏州人 will call their dialect 苏州话. 宁波话 in Zhej!ang province gets to be even more unwilling to accept neither Shanghai's nor Suzhou's cultural dominance. There's also 松江话(20km from Shanghai)、无锡话(80km from Shanghai)、崇明话 (10 km from Shanghai), even 浦东话、江湾话 which are in the city of Shanghai, etc. Each city in the 江南 area has a fill in the blank话, even though they might sound exactly the same albeit some word frequency differences. I blame it on the general arrogance of 江南人 and their individualist (or interpreted as xenophobic) streak. Many times Northern Wu dialects just sound different in the quality, as in how hard the syllables are, how fast it is... etc. The term 吴语 is only used by linguists. And most Wu speakers aren't even aware that Southern Wu dialects are part of the same family of dialects, since "they sound so different." This situation also explains why music with Shanghainese lyrics are limited to Shanghai only (and therefore you don't see music with Shanghainese lyrics anyway). This doesn't seem to be the case for Cantonese music though..... Maybe the Wu dialects can learn something from that..? Or is all the unity in Cantonese because of Hong Kong and that without Hong Kong, Cantonese would be in the same boat as Wu?

Last edited by ala on Tue Mar 30, 2004 3:13 pm; edited 1 time in total


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Post time 2004-9-17 02:08:11 |Display all floors

"Just curious, how many tones are there in Shanghainese and what are they like?


Joined: 09 Jan 2004
Posts: 487

Posted: Sun May 16, 2004 1:28 am   

Shanghainese has 5 CITATION tones (from traditional Chinese linguistics), but 4 of those are dependent on the initial consonants (whether voiced or voiceless) and vowel length (rusheng 一六七八十 are all short). Only 1 tone can create semantic variation from tonal variation alone. Hence there is only the contrast between the 4 "regular" citation tones and a "falling" citation tone. You can say there's only 2 tonemes (regular and falling) in Shanghainese. Thus, for Shanghainese, citation tones are rather irrelevant. Even the falling tone is limited to only one type of consonant and vowel length (that is, voiceless and long). What makes citation tones even less relevant is the added tone sandhi that is exhibited for EVERY polysyllabic word. The contrast between regular and falling tonemes vanishes in a polysyllabic sandhi phrase (usually a word) for all subsequent syllables. The initial syllable type (voiceless/voiced, and vowel length) determines the sandhi pattern, and subsequent syllables follow that pattern. There are generally 2 sandhi patterns (H-L-L-L-L... and L-H-L-L-L...), and the precision of the sandhi pitches are quite poor, most Shanghainese can only distinguish a relative scale of High and Low.

This makes tones almost a non-issue in Shanghainese. The critical concern in learning Shanghainese is knowing the word boundaries (where one word ends and the next one begins). And that's not a trivial concern, since aspect particles, etc all belong in the same sandhi phrase as the verb or adjective (they are perceived as conjugated). Your entire notion of Chinese as character-based language gets tipped over. 电子计算机 is perceived as two words from sandhi patterns: 电子 and 计算机, whereas Chengyu such as 瞎七搭八 is one word. 亨邦浪 (total) is one word. 心理状态 is two words: 心理 and 状态. 一天世界 is one word. All familiar Chengyu are perceived as one polysyllabic word. 蚀本 is two words (蚀 is the verb, and 本 is the direct object). 日本 is one word. If you didn't know, and pronounced 蚀本 and 日本 similarly (as both terms involve the same consonants and vowels, and actually have the same citation tones too), your listener would be very confused. Shanghainese using Chinese characters without spacing is an incredible chore to read. This is also what makes Shanghainese much much easier to Romanize (for purposes of a viable script) than Mandarin or any other Chinese dialect.

I posted this before, but for convenience here it is again:

钱乃荣 《上海方言发展史》:


语音随着词汇语法词双音节连调成为主流以后,上海话在吴语中最快进化到“延伸式”连调,后字都失去了独立的声调而弱化粘着,重又向屈折语变化。前字有声调音位的作用,除此以外,只有一高一低或一低一高,上海话语流中的语音词读音已像日语的读法。目前,上海话语的语流中,相对稳定的音位有两类,一类是声母,一类是前字声调,这两类为首的音位对上海话语音正起着重要的稳定作用。值得注意的是,在青年中,有的常用词读成前字都是44,最后一字为低升调的读法,如:睏觉kuəɲ44 kɔ13,一点点ʔiɪʔ4 ti44 ti13,做勿来tsu44 vɐʔ4 lE13,规规矩矩kuE44 kuE44 ʨy44 ʨy13,这种读法有缓慢发展趋势,这是上海话向重音化语言转变的前兆。

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