From time to time, I have written about the mutual (un)ntelligibility of Sinitic languages, including here. Of course, the distance between Cantonese or Shanghainese and Mandarin is immense. But even within Mandarin there is tremendous variation. A friend recently sent me a video about patient abuse in a Chinese mental hospital, along with this short note: "The video footage shows three hospital staff workers in white lab coats kicking and beating an elderly patient with a mop and tying her to a bed. Staff are also shown making her sit naked from the waist down on top of a plastic cloth during winter."
Although the subject matter of the video is hugely disquieting (live video beginning at 3:20 shows the patient being beaten by staff; eventually she dies), I post it to show a typical feature of Chinese news broadcasts. Namely, the newscasters speak Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM; Putonghua), but virtually everyone else speaks something else. Because most of the non-MSM speakers cannot be understood by persons from other parts of China, it is standard operating procedure to include subtitles for anyone who is not speaking MSM.
The place where this happened is the city of Laiwu in the province of Shandong. Laiwu is located near the center of Shandong, which puts it squarely within the ambit of Mandarin. Laiwu is only 430 kilometers from Beijing, yet most people from elsewhere would have difficulty understanding the speech of the local denizens, hence the necessity for the subtitles. This is especially true for the individuals who speak very rapidly and without making an effort to MSMize their speech. Naturally, non-Laiwu speakers who are listening to the news will be looking at the subtitles, so they will get the gist of what the Laiwu (or other non-MSM) speakers are saying, and they will also be able to match up some of the characters in the subtitles with what is being said, even though the sounds may be quite dissimilar.
What is even more striking, and I have noticed this while watching newscasts all over China when I am in that country, there is never a one-to-one correspondence between what is being said by a non-MSM speaker and the transcription in the subtitles. Often, in fact, what is presented in the subtitles amounts to an MSM translation of what is being said by the non-MSM speakers, or a partial translation, partial transcription of what is being spoken. For full-blown (non-MSMized) Hoklo (Taiwanese), for example, subtitles would need to be more to the translation end of the scale. Yet, even for Laiwu, which is so close to Beijing, there is a significant discrepancy between what is written in the subtitles and what is actually being spoken.
My in-laws were from Changyi (near Qingdao), about 200 kilometers directly east of Laiwu, and they spoke with a watered-down (in the sense of somewhat MSMized) Changyi patois, so I do have some experience with one particular Shandong dialect. However, I must say that, when listening to these Laiwu speakers, it is not easy for me to follow everything they are saying. Moreover, even though I do have some familiarity with Changyi dialect, when the people there talk fast and make no attempt to MSMize their speech, I miss a lot of what they are saying. And, when I go visit my relatives in the nearby big port city of Qingdao (where the German-recipe beer comes from), if they start having a free-flowing, no-holds-barred confabulation, it is very easy for me to get lost altogether.
Now, as an antidote for the heaviness of the first video, an entertaining "Shandong dialect" version of the Titanic is here.