There are four parts to this very long post: 1. a message from a Shanghainese mother explaining her attitude toward the language she speaks with her little daughter, 2. the use of Shanghainese in the poster that I discussed in my previous post, 3. non-Mandarin college entrance exams, 4. an important resource for those interested in Wu topolects.
1. In response to my previous post on Shanghainese, a professor of Mandarin in America who is a native of Shanghai sent me the following message:
I have spoken exclusively in Shanghainese with my 1-year-old daughter since her birth. She hasn't started to talk yet, but she understands Shanghainese, English, and Mandarin. I hope she will be able to speak Shanghainese when she grows up, in addition to English and Mandarin. Unfortunately, my nephew who lives in Shanghai, and my cousin's daughter who also lives in Shanghai, both being elementary school students now, cannot and do not speak Shanghainese.
To my knowledge, the attitude toward Shanghainese in Shanghai now and in China now is mostly very negative. For example, my daughter's paternal grandparents refuse to speak Shanghainese with my daughter when they visited us here, even though they are native Shanghainese. They insisted on speaking Mandarin to her (even though their Mandarin is very, very poor). They seemed to hold the view that Mandarin is better for children and that Shanghainese is vulgar.
I am glad my parents do not think this way. They are very happy that I am speaking in Shanghainese with my daughter. But they were forced to speak in (poor) Mandarin with my nephew because he could only speak Mandarin (though I believe he could understand spoken Shanghainese.)
I think the hardest part now for promoting Shanghainese is to let people understand that promoting a dialect is different from saying it (together with its culture and people) is superior than other dialects (and people and local cultures). Shanghainese and Shanghai people had such a bad reputation in the past (for which we only have ourselves to blame) that it is very difficult for people to distinguish these two separate issues.
These attitudes are typical of all my friends, students, and colleagues from Shanghai: a very complex mixture of guilt (over alleged feelings of superiority to people and languages from other parts of China) and shame (over the presumed vulgarity of their own language).
2. A number of commenters on my previous post astutely noted that the poster was written in Mandarin, not in Shanghainese. As a matter of fact, the poster pictured and translated in my previous post was not entirely devoid of Shanghainese. When I translated DIAN4XIAN4 MU4TOU 電線木頭 as "telephone pole," I felt that it sounded strange, since in Modern Standard Mandarin we would normally say DIAN4XIAN4GAN(R)1 電線桿(兒) for "pole for electric wires; telephone / utility pole." It turns out that DIAN4XIAN4 MU4TOU 電線木頭, pronounced something like DI2XI1MO2DOU in Shanghainese (please forgive my makeshift romanization and uncertainty about how to indicate the tones; what I wrote is a rough approximation), not only refers to poles for electric lines, it is also very commonly used as a metaphor or simile for a nincompoop, dolt, clueless person, etc.
As several other commenters equally astutely pointed out, it is actually difficult to write full-blown colloquial Shanghainese in characters (ditto for Cantonese, Taiwanese, and the other Sinitic languages; we have discussed this extensively before).
However, proponents of written Shanghainese are trying to work out conventions for capturing indigenous expressions in characters, similar to what has been done for Cantonese by Hong Kongers. Here is a list of terms that is being circulated by the same groups who are circulating the poster pictured in my previous blog on this subject. It is prefaced by a short statement discussing the nature and significance of the terms in the list. As for the list itself, the Shanghainese expressions are in the second column and their definitions are given in Mandarin in the fourth column.
A few general observations about the Shanghainese terms in the list:
- for some the characters are used to phonetically transcribe the sounds of the Shanghainese term
- for others the semantic value of the individual characters are operative
- few are transparent to monolingual Mandarin speakers
- many are swear words and curses
- note that Shanghainese speakers (and this is true of speakers of Cantonese, Sichuanese, and other non-MSM [Modern Standard Mandarin] Sinitic languages) refer to their own language as LI3YU3 俚語 ("slang; vulgar expressions"), a practice which I consider to be grossly unfair to themselves
Here is the Preface to the list, preceded by my English translation:
Shanghainese Slang: Review the Old to Learn the New
See how much you still remember. All of these will be handy during ordinary chats with your friends.
If you don’t know some words, then you must make up your homework eagerly. These are classical vocabulary items in the Shanghai School Culture. Those cursing words in the list should, of course, be ignored. The reason to collect them here is for everyone to know their meanings, just in case you think people are praising you while actually they are reviling you as a “stupid bumpkin.”
不晓得的真的要穷心穷恶 (B)补课了，这些可都是海派文化的经典用语，当然里面骂人的话请直接忽略，收集在里面是要让大家晓得(C) 啥意思，不要当人家(D)勒该(E)骂侬(F)寿头骨气(G)的晨光(H)，侬还以为人 家讲侬好艾话(I)来(J)。
[The full glossary is here, with links to .mp3 files of pronunciations and commentary.]
Thanks once again to Wicky Tse for supplying me with this list of terms. I am especially grateful to Lily Chen who translated the Mandarin definitions of the terms and provided them with rough phonetic transcriptions. I should note that I have never met a Shanghainese speaker who is confident about his or her phonetic transcription of his or her own language. All the Shanghainese speakers I know always express great ambivalence about how to transcribe what they say, and are especially uncertain of what it might be in IPA. In fact, one of my informants, who declined to be identified by her own name, was so unsure of how to write Shanghainese in roman letters — even though she is an expert in MSM pinyin! — that she opted to record each and every one of the items in the list for us, together with spoken definitions in English.
The collaborator who supplied me with these recordings refused to be identified by name because she was ashamed of using so many foul words and wouldn't want her parents and friends to know that she actually uttered them! She identifies herself as "an anonymous informant (born and raised in Shanghai in the 70's; came to the States in mid-1990's; mother native Shangainese; father a migrant to Shanghai from Zhejiang province in his teens)." My collaborator also said that she feels she could have done a better job if she had more leisure time.
3. Lately there have been 方言高考题 FANG1YAN2 GAO1KAO3 TI2 ("topolectal high school examination questions") circulated over the internet. These are simulated "college entrance exams" for Cantonese, Shanghainese, Sichuanese, etc. A Shanghainese friend attempted to take the Shanghainese one and it turned out to be so hard that she began to doubt her Shanghainese ability. It turned out she was not alone in her inability to answer the questions, so it could be that the "test makers" didn't make the "test" right.
4. For those of you who are interested in learning more about Shanghainese in particular and Wu languages in general, I can warmly recommend The Annals of Wu.