For May 21, China Real Time Report, the China blog of the Wall Street Journal, featured an article entitled "Do You Dare Try the Devil-Language? China’s 10 Hardest Dialects" by Isabella Steger.
Here's the full list of "hardest dialects", with many obvious omissions, such as Fuzhou and Chaozhou / Teochew:
1. Wenzhou dialect
3. Suzhou and Minnan dialects
5. Shaanxi dialect
6. Changsha dialect
7. Sichuan dialect
8. Shandong dialect
9. Tianjin dialect
10. Northeast dialect
This is quite a motley collection of branches, languages, and topolects, most of which are erroneously called such-and-such a dialect, and two of which are referred to as "-ese". Suzhouese and Minnan (no. 3) belong to completely different branches of Sinitic, while Wenzhou, Tianjin, Changsha, and Shanghai are cities, Shandong, Shaanxi, and Sichuan are provinces, and the Northeast is a region (used to be called Manchuria). Half of the items (5, 7, 8, 9, and 10) are considered to be types of Mandarin, though the degree of intelligibility among them varies greatly; the amount of intelligibility among the remaining five, and between those five and the five supposedly Mandarin types is zero or close to it. The five non-Mandarin types belong to or constitute separate, non-Mandarin branches of Sinitic.
One of the commenters (Zhang) astutely notes that, if you are referring only to mutually unintelligible spoken varieties, "then there will be thousands of languages in China."
The Chinese term for "devil-language" is guǐhuà 鬼话. Here it refers to the kind of language spoken by the devil, but in Mandarin it commonly has the extended meaning of "lie; nonsense; bullshit; deception; humbug".
We have previously come across the notion that one of the non-standard varieties of Sinitic is associated with the devil. See "Is Cantonese a language, or a personification of the devil?"
Two days later, on May 23, China Real Time Report followed up a special report on the number one allegedly "hardest dialect" in China, "What It’s Like to Live in China and Speak the 'Devil-Language'", by Lillian Lin.
The author states that, when she was living in a college dorm in Beijing, none of her roommates, "who were from five cities across China, could understand a single word of [her] conversations."
If you want to hear what Wenzhou language sounds like, there's a half-hour video with ample samples at the end of this article.
Wenzhouese is generally thought of as a highly divergent member of the Wu branch of Sinitic (includes the languages of Suzhou, Hangzhou, Shanghai, etc.). In actuality, Wenzhouese should be considered as a group of languages, since several of its constituent varieties have a very low degree of intelligibility among them, as observed by commenter Harland:
Wenzhou dialect isn’t just one monolithic thing, as this article suggests. It’s a whole family of languages in itself. Try speaking Wenzhou language in Ruian or Longyan and see how far you get. It’s a Tower of Babel out here.
If all of this talk about "devil language" and mutually unintelligible varieties of Sinitic teaches us anything, it is that "Chinese" is not a single, monolithic tongue and thousands of dialects that are all the same when written down (one of the grossest myths that is accepted by gospel truth by most people who know nothing about the real situation), but that it consists of innumerable languages and many branches that remain to be classified in a systematic fashion comparable to what we have for Indic, Romance, Germanic, Slavic, and so forth.
Here follows a sampling of the many Language Log posts dealing with the questions of intelligibility, dialect, and language raised above:
Based on the materials presented and referred to in the above and other Language Log posts, we need to keep the following caveats in mind when discussing questions of dialect and language in the Chinese context:
1. There is a huge gulf between spoken and written language in China.
2. There are countless varieties of spoken Sinitic, many of which are mutually unintelligible.
3. An adequate taxonomy and classification of the Sinitic family have yet to be adumbrated.
4. "Dialect" is at best a misleading English translation of fāngyán 方言; "topolect" is far more accurate.
5. A precise Chinese translation of "dialect" would be something like xiāngyán 相言.
6. Throughout history, there have basically been two different types of written Chinese: Literary Sinitic and Vernacular Sinitic (a koine or lingua franca). Since around 1920, China has had a written national language that we may refer to as Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM).
7. The non-standard vernaculars (i.e., all of the non-MSM vernaculars) are almost never written down, and when on rare occasions they do appear in written form, it is usually only as bits and pieces embedded in a fundamentally Mandarin matrix or as a sort of tour de force requiring numerous special characters or in romanized or other phonetic transcription.
8. Reading aloud a written Chinese text in the pronunciations of the various topolects is a very different matter from the unadulterated forms of the topolects as spoken in daily life.
Please, no talk of armies and navies.
[Hat tip to June Teufel Dreyer.]