The Many Dialects of China

Heavenly Street at Mt. Tai (See-Ming Lee / Flickr)

By Kiril Bolotnikov

The vast majority of people, if asked what language is spoken in China, would say: That’s a no-brainer: Chinese, of course! Some might know enough to differentiate between Mandarin Chinese and Cantonese. But the truth is far more complex than that.

Mandarin Chinese alone is the most widely spoken native language in the world: nearly a billion within China alone and 1.2 billion worldwide—a few hundred million people more than the next most widespread languages, Spanish and English.

This is yet another aspect of China and Chinese society that is easy to see as a monolith, but doing so would allow this number to obscure the many complexities and subtleties of the real story. In fact, Mandarin itself is only a dialect—albeit a widespread one—of the overarching language group of “Chinese,” which itself comes from the Sino-Tibetan family of languages. Mandarin Chinese is known as 普通话 (Pǔtōnghuà), the “common speech,” and it has only been the official language of China since the 1930s, when the country established it as the standard dialect and began pushing to make this a reality nationwide.

The point of all this is that Mandarin is one of many dialects, and it is important to understand the diversity of dialects within China.

Linguists have split Chinese into somewhere between seven and ten main language groups—the largest being Mandarin (also known as Northern), Wu, Min, and Yue—and each group also has a number of sub-dialects. For instance, Wu includes the dialects of Shanghai, Suzhou, and Hangzhou, which are, to an extent, mutually intelligible, but also includes a number of other dialects that are not really mutually intelligible with these three.

It is also important to understand that the concept of a “dialect” is sometimes slightly different from what an English speaker might expect. For instance, in English, our concept of a dialect is more similar to our concept of accents: that is, much more based on the pronunciation differences between American English, British English, Australian English, Irish English, and a few others, as well as some occasional sub-dialects within those groups (ex: the Cork Irish accent). However, unless the accent is particularly thick, most English have little to no trouble conversing.

Not so in Chinese. The most prominent example is probably Cantonese and Mandarin, which are both considered Chinese but are completely unintelligible to each other. It is also worth noting that accents also arise within dialects, due to regional differences in the sphere of a dialect’s use.

Living in Shanghai, most of my experience with dialect has of course been with Shanghainese. Though it took some getting used to, I have found Shanghainese very easy to distinguish because it has a very smooth flow and uses consonants that are not used in Mandarin. Notably, I have observed that the “b” sound in Mandarin seems to be replaced with a “v,” which is not used in Mandarin, and many “sh” sounds get replaced simply with an “s.”

Many Shanghainese words sound sort of like Mandarin words, but any Mandarin speaker with no knowledge of Shanghainese or another Wu dialect will freely admit that they have no idea what someone is saying in Shanghainese.

For example: 你好 (Nǐ hǎo, “hello”) is said almost like “nong ha(o)”; 不好意思 (Bù hǎoyìsi, “sorry”) sounds something like “ve hei yisi.” In addition, 上海话 (Shànghǎi huà, Shanghainese) is pronounced “sang hei wu.” If you say them out loud, or even just compare the sounds, you can see a certain similarity, but they seem similar in the way that the Romance languages seem similar.

The “standard” Chinese language can be seen as something of a construct imposed on the Chinese people, whose respective “dialects” are myriad, with hundreds of local languages that are often not at all mutually understandable. So while schools and government affairs are run in Mandarin, the language that a local grows up speaking is not at all necessarily Mandarin. It is also not uncommon in China to encounter situations where a group of people converse with one another in different dialects. Each can understand the other, but they are unable to speak the other’s dialect. For example, a storeowner who only speaks Cantonese has no problem doing business with a customer that only speaks Mandarin, but will reply either in Cantonese or through gestures; and vice-versa.

Personally, this has led to some interesting experiences in terms of my speaking Chinese, particularly in southern China where Mandarin is less prominent. In Guangdong province in the very south of China, Cantonese announcements are read before Mandarin, and there were massive protests when the government in Beijing wanted to enforce Mandarin-only television programming. Hong Kong and Macau, immediately adjacent to Guangdong, also speak Cantonese, and are some of the few places in China that are not bound by the law regarding Mandarin. Traveling in Hong Kong, I was shocked to find that I was able to communicate in Mandarin more easily with the Hong Kongese than with someone in Shanghai—until I realized that it was a second language for both of us, which must have meant a simpler shared vocabulary and set of grammar structures.

Many Chinese dialects are at least as different from each other as the Romance languages are, which should classify them as separate languages. However, for now they are almost universally described as dialects, and since most of them are spoken locally and not taught, there is no real way to teach it but aurally, or through immersion.

Finally, a practical point: Understanding the differences between dialects will also prepare you for your next trip to China. Don’t be alarmed if you find yourself in a province of China where you don’t understand anything, even if you have studied Mandarin. For those interested in the Chinese language, the diversity and beauty of dialects should be a motive for you to immerse yourself in not just Mandarin, but in local dialects and regional life as well. Exposure is essential to discovering the many nuances of local culture and life. 

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