Just yesterday, in "The enigmatic language of the new Windows 8 ads", we saw how delicate and uncertain is the comprehension of forms of Chinese that one is not intimately familiar with. A significant part of the problem is the result of a psychological barrier to understanding that comes from unfamiliarity with the context and content of what is being said. Thus, even though there was a considerable amount of Mandarin spoken in the videos of my post about the Windows 8 ads, of the scores of native speakers whom I consulted, no one could pick it out from the stream of sounds they were hearing.
The most important obstacle to intelligibility, of course, is the sheer difference (in grammar, syntax, phonology, vocabulary, etc.) among the topolectal varieties of Chinese. In this post, to show how dissimilar Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM) is from one of the most important Sinitic topolects, we shall look closely at a text composed in rather colloquial Shanghainese.
In "Nerd, geek, PK: Creeping Romanization (and Englishization), part 2", we discussed the corresponding Shanghainese terms for these and related expressions. This prompted a friend who knows Shanghainese to send me an interview which is laden with vernacularisms in that language. The interview begins in Mandarin.
A CCTV reporter asks a resident of the city of Shanghai: "What do you think of the plan for the microblogs to start charging a fee?"
Shanghai resident: "May I speak in Shanghainese?"
Whereupon the Shanghai resident replies in raunchy Shanghainese colloquial.
Most Language Log readers will have heard spoken Mandarin, so I give the resident's diatribe in three audio files in order that the very different sounds of Shanghainese can be fully appreciated. All three speakers are male because the female Shanghai speakers whom I asked to record the passage uniformly refused.
I will not give a word-by-word transcription of the Shanghainese, because you can hear for yourself from the audio files what it sounds like. I will, however, provide a rough translation of the whole, and then follow up with some notes.
"Bonk! This bunch of beasts are crazy over cash. If our government does not get this matter under control, then we're really screwed. Twat! Didn't the new boss Xi say that he was gonna give us common people a "China Dream"? Gimme a break! Bonk these businessmen who control the internet and the Development and Reform Commission! They're all a bunch of gangsters. If the Ministry of Industry lets them do whatever they want, then our "China Dream" will be a bonkin' pipe dream our whole life. Twat! Just thinking of these floating corpses in their coffins makes me angry — idiots! gangsters! beasts! damn devils! Muddleheads! If your shoes don't fit, wouldn't you just change to another pair? If your toes hurt, wouldn't you just cut them off? To hell with it! I'm not gonna talk about those bonkers anymore, I'm gonna go have a flat cake and fritter with some soybean milk. Bye bye!"
“拆那! 格邦宗桑想钞票想疯特勒，格宗桑活阿拉政府啊勿管额孩画，个么正宗一脚气了。娘比，新来额习老板勿是岗要拨阿拉 老八姓一只中国忙做做阿是啦？帮帮忙澳，拆那格底忙落运营桑德之发改委一帮瘪三，工信部要是再娘伊拉为诉越为，个么阿拉额中国忙一桑一丝啊就是拆那娘做白 热忙娄。娘 比，想想格帮棺材否尸缺西瘪三宗桑赤佬磨子就促气! 戆徒，鞋子佛适意好调一桑佛啦，脚节头痛好宰特佛啦? 算了算了，册那佛岗了， 爷叔要吃豆腐浆大饼油条去了，拜拜!"
[N.B.: The Sinographic transcriptions in many cases are tentative, since there are not always established, "standard" representations of Shanghainese morphemes in characters. I'm sure that some Language Log readers can do a better job of translating the colloquial passage, but I hope that my rough rendering can at least give an impression of the quality of the language.]
Lexical and general notes:
In this context, Shanghainese 生活 probably corresponds best to Mandarin gòudang 勾当 ("business; deal"; premodern yíngshēng 营生 ["earn a living"]).
The Shanghai / general Wu curse "animal" has an apparent Buddhist origin: zhòngshēng 众牲 < zhòngshēng 众生 ("sentient beings").
娘比 variant, short form of 娘希匹 (apparently this was Chiang Kai-shek's favorite curse).
The part about shoes not fitting and toes hurting is inspired by Xi Jinping's use of this analogy for how to make policy adjustments.
Speculation on the origin of the folk expression "floating corpse": to curse that someone's ancestral tombs be flooded — one of the the most vicious imprecations in premodern China. This certainly predated the recent spate of thousands of pig corpses floating in one of the main rivers of Shanghai.
The expression bāngbāngmáng 帮帮忙 still means primarily "(please) help me" in Mandarin and in most northern topolects, but in Shanghainese, it has become almost exclusively a euphemism for "don't insult my intelligence", similar to the evolution of English "Give me a break!"
Phonological notes from Matt Anderson, who is currently in Shanghai doing research on oracle bone inscriptions:
I've consulted the Shanghaihua da cidian 上海話大詞典, which is something of a misnomer, as it's not really a dictionary and it's not at all comprehensive (and the words are not only not arranged alphabetically, but they're not even arranged by any other system — just according to rough semantic categories, so you need to consult the index, which is only arranged by stroke order). It naturally doesn't have a lot of the single words in this text, and I don't think it has any of the most vulgar ones (though I may just not be able to find them).
I've put together a list of some transcriptions of some of the key terms (see below). In all cases, the Shanghainese transcription is for the last character or group of characters on a line.
宗桑/畜牲(畜生) ts‘oʔ33 sɑ̃44
桑活/生活 sã55 ɦuəʔ21
一脚气/一脚去 iɪʔ33 tɕiᴀʔ55 tɕ‘i21
八/百(as in 老八/百姓). 百 pᴀʔ55
阿是 ᴀʔ33 zɿ44
瘪三 piɪʔ33 sᴇ44
否尸/浮尸 vɤ22 sɿ44
磨子/模子 mo22 tsɿ44
戆徒/戆大 gɑ̃22 du44
脚节（头）(I included the last syllable because that’s how it was listed in the dictionary and I don’t know how its absence might affect the tones) tɕiᴀʔ33 tɕiɪʔ55 dɤ21
脚趾（头） (I’ve also included this one because it was your correspondent’s translation / transcription and it was also in the “dictionary”) tɕiᴀʔ33 tsɿ55 dɤ21
Shanghainese is definitely alive and well in my neighborhood. In my apartment complex (or however you translate xiaoqu 小區), it's probably the primary language. I haven't really been able to learn anything, though, except for a few words.
Glosses from Richard VanNess Simmons:
I think the "Shanghai_interview.doc" that you supplied is quite effective in showing how the passage was transcribed into characters. There are actually very few words that are purely Shanghainese, even counting the few vulgarisms. So much of the character transcription is simply using characters to gloss the Shanghai pronunciation of a common Chinese word -– thus effectively making it look as strange as it sounds to a person who knows Mandarin but does not speak Shanghai. For example 岗 glosses the Shanghai pronunciation of 讲 'say', which would be Romanized as /gã́w/; and 娘 glosses the pronunciation of 让 /niã́/ 'let, allow'; 八 for 百 /bāq/ 'hundred'; 桑 for 生 /sã̀/; 丝 for 世 /sì/; 忙 for 梦 /móng/, etc. In a few places, the characters are fairly standard ways of writing the actual Shanghai words, such as
阿拉 (=我们) āq-la
伊拉 (=他们) ‘yí-la
佛／勿 (=不) veq
额 (=的) g’eq
勒 (=了) leq
个么 (=那么) gēq-meq
特 (=掉) tēq
格底 (=这点) g’eq-di
适意 (=舒服) sēq-yi
阿是 (=是不是) āq-zï
Much of the rest is the same in both Shanghai and Putonghua, as can be seen by the fair amount of overlap where the characters are what they usually mean and are thus the same in both.
[Thanks to Sanping Chen, Richard VanNess Simmons, Matt Anderson, Wenkan Xu, Jidong Yang, Zhichen Zhao, Bill Hannas, Rebecca Fu, and Rostislav Berezkin]