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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?"

Reporter: "Yes."

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.

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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

勿/不 vəʔ12

孩/好 hɔ34

一脚气/一脚去 iɪʔ33 tɕiᴀʔ55 tɕ‘i21

岗/讲 kɑ̃34

八/百(as in 老八/百姓). 百 pᴀʔ55

阿是 ᴀʔ33 zɿ44

瘪三 piɪʔ33 sᴇ44

娘/让 ȵiã23

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]


  1. julie lee said,

    May 16, 2013 @ 11:28 am

    Thank you for this blog and the painstaking notes and glosses. I speak Mandarin and Cantonese but couldn't understand the recordings the first time I listened to them. After reading your notes, and listening carefully again, I could make out a few words and phrases here and there, but as a whole it was still all Greek to me. Mainly because there are so many expressions not found in Mandarin or Cantonese.

  2. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 16, 2013 @ 1:26 pm

    Wikipedia sez: "About 9 million out of the 23 million residents of Shanghai, or more than 39%, are long-term migrants, triple the 3 million in 2000.[62] The main origins of the migrants are Anhui (29.0%), Jiangsu (16.8%), Henan (8.7%), and Sichuan (7.0%) provinces, and 79% are from rural areas.[62] They account for the entire population increase as Shanghai's natural growth rate has been negative since 1993 due to its extremely low fertility rate[63] — just 0.6 in 2010, probably the lowest level anywhere in the world." Now maybe some (although certainly not all) of these intra-PRC migrants are from close enough that they grew up speaking Shanghainese or some other sufficiently similar variety of Wu to give them a head start, but what is this massive demographic change doing to the viability of Shanghainese-as-such in Shanghai (especially since I assume the educational system / mass media etc mean that a higher and higher percentage of Shanghainese speakers are also functional in something approximating MSM if/when they want to be, as this interviewee apparently was)? It's a variation of the problem where Barcelona's prosperity (plus low local birth rate) means it may attract an influx of intra-EU immigrants from Romania or wherever but it's not clear what will make those immigrants (and their kids) want to prefer Catalan to Castillian if they have a choice in the matter? And in Barcelona you have a local government willing to push back against the nationally-dominant standard, which I assume is NOT the case in Shanghai.

  3. Steve from Pittsburgh said,

    May 16, 2013 @ 1:37 pm

    Is there a social/political component to which topolect one speaks, or what you would call it?

    In college, I met a handful of Chinese students/expats, most of whom were from the Shanghai region. I asked one of them about topolects and mutual intelligibility. He seemed to turn brusque and a bit irritated, then told me that Mandarin was spoken everywhere in China except Guangdong Province, which spoke Cantonese. Was he trying to make a political statement? Perhaps save face by presenting a united China? Or just simplifying things for the dumb American? I get the impression that this is a very touchy subject on the mainland.

    Another Shanghai native later told me "Everyone in Shanghai speaks Mandarin, but Shanghai Mandarin is different than Beijing Mandarin."

  4. julie lee said,

    May 16, 2013 @ 2:12 pm

    For those who don't understand Chinese, here is an example of the differences in sound of the phrase "eat a meal" between Mandarin, Shanghainese, Taiwanese, and Cantonese:

    Mandarin: tr fan 吃飯 (literally "eat a meal"; also means "eat lunch or dinner")
    Shanghainese: ch ve 吃飯 (the vowel in "ve" is like the vowel in English "air"; "ch" as in "church")
    Taiwanese: ja bng 吃飯 ("ja" as in English "jar")
    Cantonese: sig fahn 吃飯

    (I've used my own approximate romanization here; the differences in the sounds of this phrase 吃飯 are compounded by the tones, which are different for each topolect.)

  5. Victor Mair said,

    May 16, 2013 @ 4:33 pm

    @Steve from Pittsburgh

    It IS a very, very sensitive subject. Do not broach it with Chinese unless you are prepared for them to bristle at you.

    I leave it to others to reply to the rest of your questions in detail, but I will say that what your Chinese acquaintance told you about Guangdong is no more true of that province than it is of other places in China. His statement, rather, reflects the intense intercity rivalry that exists between Canton and Shanghai.

  6. Kellen said,

    May 16, 2013 @ 7:51 pm

    上海話大詞典 is more a phrase-book supplement than much of a dictionary. In that sense, the semantic categories are reasonable enough. What it is good for is vocabulary. If you're looking for a better all-around reference for pronunciation of individual characters, 上海話常用同音字典 by Ichiro Miyata is quite reasonable and has an alphabetical pinyin index based on Mandarin pronunciations, making it much easier to find things.

    If I can respond to Matt Anderson's comment about 脚节头, the tones for 脚节 without 头 would be tɕiɑʔ³³ tɕiɪʔ⁴⁴. The underlying tones of the syllables are 55 – 55 – 13 which becomes 33 – 44 for bisyllabic words and 33 – 55 – 21 for trisyllabic words.

  7. David Morris said,

    May 16, 2013 @ 10:48 pm

    One of my former colleagues is on holiday in Spain. Recently, she wrote on Facebook: "Speaking basic Catalan in Barcelona will get you SO much further than speaking fluent Spanish." I was struck by the difference between the difference between the situation in Spain, where speakers of (generally) mutually intelligible varieties will emphasise their differences (and/or different-ness, given that language there is caught up in political self-determination >> separatism), and that in China, where speakers of increasingly mutually unintelligible dialects, topolects, langauges will emphasise their similarity (as particularly Steve above notes).

  8. Rostislav said,

    May 16, 2013 @ 11:45 pm

    Glad to see it in translation.
    Also, interesting that they use the Buddhist term for cursing — i need to note this.
    The whole situation reminds me of the "interview" from Kiev that i once heard. An old shaggy woman was asked to say something by the reporter. Her first reaction was: "May I speak Russian?" — "Ok, go ahead" Then she gives her opinion with dirty cursing words inserted here and there.
    Does this mean that one would just being comfortable with censored words while speaking one's native tongue, not officially prescribed standard language?

  9. mondain said,

    May 17, 2013 @ 4:07 am

    As the pronunciation of Shanghainese varies among different age groups, the second speaker would sound to me as older, in contrast to the first and the third, both of whom have distinctly younger 'accent.'

  10. Vanya said,

    May 17, 2013 @ 5:09 am

    ""Speaking basic Catalan in Barcelona will get you SO much further than speaking fluent Spanish."

    I'm not sure what that means. People may be more friendly to you initially in Barcelona if you can ask directions, order food or initiate a conversation in Catalan. But obviously if you want to really get to know people and have interesting conversations then speaking fluently in a language everyone in Barcelona knows has to be more useful than speaking halting Catalan. It's also true, due to immigration from other parts of Spain and Latin America, that an increasingly large part of the population in Barcelona proper doesn't speak Catalan very well or at all.

  11. Anonymous Coward said,

    May 17, 2013 @ 5:26 am

    I think the network that might be asked to charge fees is the Weixin social network, not a microblog. See

  12. Matt Anderson said,

    May 17, 2013 @ 6:28 am

    Thanks for the note about the tones, Kellen. And I'll look into the 上海話常用同音字典.

  13. Yi Zhang said,

    May 17, 2013 @ 6:36 am

    A note on the Sinographic transcription used in the article: As you said there is no established standard for transcribing colloquial Shanghainese. But i wonder if in this case there's also an intentional usage of unconventional transcription, so that it becomes harder for the automatic internet censoring system, given the slight controversial opinion expressed in the of the passage.

    For a simple test, try to ask Mandarin non-Shanghainese/Wu speakers to read the following transcription in comparison to the original transcription, and see what they say:

    拆那! 这帮鬃牲想钞票想疯忒了,这种"生活"阿拉政府也勿管咯闲话,这么正宗一脚去了。娘屁,新来咯习老板勿是讲要拨阿拉老百姓一只中国梦做做吗,阿是啊? 帮帮忙哦,拆那这点网络运营商搭之发改委一帮瘪三,工信部要是再让伊拉为所欲为,这么阿拉咯中国梦一生一世也就是拆那娘做白日梦喽。娘屁,想想这帮棺材、浮尸、缺西、瘪三、鬃牲、赤佬模子就促气! 憨大, 鞋子勿适意好调一双勿啦? 脚结头痛好斩忒勿啦? 算了算了,拆那勿讲了,爷叔要吃豆腐浆大饼油条去了,拜拜!

  14. Victor Mair said,

    May 17, 2013 @ 8:22 am

    @Zhang Yi

    Please clarify what you mean by "Mandarin non-Shanghainese/Wu speakers" and why you focus on Mandarin speakers rather than on Shanghainese speakers.

    The question is which transcription is closer to Shanghainese for Shanghainese speakers, not for Mandarin speakers.

    For example, you transcribe 这种 instead of 格宗, and there are many other instances where your transcription makes the passage seem more like Mandarin and less like Shanghainese. Moreover, most of these instances have nothing to do with the problem of internet censoring.

  15. Yi Zhang said,

    May 17, 2013 @ 11:31 am

    To clarify, i should say that my "transcription" is not meant to be pronounced in Mandarin, but in Shanghainese. it is closer to the actual written form of shanghainese if there were one. but since there is no standard for it, I have to called it a "transcription". sorry for the confusion.

    For words like 这种, the difference between Mandarin and Shanghainese is purely on the accent, hence I wrote with the corresponding word. for Shanghainese speakers, this will make the reading much easier yet unambiguous.

    Overall, this is an interesting passage. But after looking it up, I'm pretty sure it is a made-up story, partly making fun of the media censorship in China, which confirms my suspicion on the intentionally unaccessible transcription for Mandarin speakers.

    To comment on the three readers of the passage: to me, the first and third are most likely to be local residents grown up in the city. The second has noticeable pronounciation variations, maybe also from the Wu speaking region, but clearly not Shanghainese.

  16. Victor Mair said,

    May 17, 2013 @ 11:43 am

    From a colleague:

    I looked up Shanghai fangyan cidian, by Xu Baohua & Tao Huan (1997), and found on p. 296 tsong saN, the curse word by calling other people animal. On introduction p.27, it says the measure word ge (in pinyin) is pronounced ge? In Shanghai, or in your transcription geq. In Shanghaiese, the near demonstrative (equivalent to Mandarin zhe 4) and the subordinate particle (equivalent to Mandarin de) have the same pronunciation, namely geq. This means that the near demonstrative and the subordinate particle are also etymologically ge. There are two differences. Shanghaiese has the ‘abrupt” pronunciation, which make a non-entering tone word sound like an entering word by adding the glottal stop -? at the end; also Shanghaiese makes the voiceless k- into a voiced g-. Lyu Shuxiang, Jindai Hanyu zhidaici (pronouns and demonstratives in Early Modern Chinese), p. 243-244 gives a precise historical demonstration.

    Jindai Hanyu zhidaici is a great book. Lyu demonstrated that Mandarin Wo, Ni, Ta (I, you, he/she) zhe na (this,that), shenme (what) all occurred in Tunhuang vernacular texts, which shows that Proto-Mandarin already existed in Late Tang and Five Dynasties. Most people (originally including me) do not realize that the book also contains philological sources for the pronouns and demonstratives in Wu dialects, including Shanghaiese.

    The early pioneers of Wu historical dialectology were Y.R. Chao from Changzhou and Lyu Shuxiang from Danyang. In recent years, the leaders are Pan Wuyun and Zhengzhang Shangfang, both from Wenzhou, and Tsu-Lin Mei, who is an ex-native speaker of Shanghaiese.

  17. Victor Mair said,

    May 17, 2013 @ 11:53 am

    @Yi Zhang

    Thanks for the clarification.

    All three readers are born and bred Shanghainese (I know them all personally). It's interesting that the third one — even though he is still relatively young and grew up under the modern Chinese educational system, having gone to what is generally considered to be Shanghai's best elementary, middle, and high schools — speaks Mandarin with what to me has always sounded like a highly idiosyncratic accent (though no one else besides me seems to notice or at least they don't comment on it, but it definitely has interesting features, such as a strongly guttural quality at the beginning of words that start with "h"). Perhaps there are distinct dialects within Shanghainese, or maybe it's just his idiolect, both in Shanghainese and in Mandarin.

  18. Victor Mair said,

    May 17, 2013 @ 11:58 am

    One thing that is very important to notice about the preceding five comments, indeed this entire post together with its comments, is the primacy of sounds over characters in the study of Sinitic historical linguistics.

  19. Victor Mair said,

    May 17, 2013 @ 5:02 pm

    From South Coblin:

    I thought that the colleague in question must in fact be Mei Tsu-Lin, until I got to the bottom, where he is mentioned in the third person. It sure sounds like him, though. There are actually quite a few central dialect groups where the possessive attributive particle appears to derive from the near demonstrative. And many people, including me, believe that the possessive attributive 之 of Classical Chinese is derived from old demonstrative 之.

    Incidentally, Jerry Norman always believed that the roots of Mandarin are even older than late Tarng. He thought they lay in the Six Dynasties period, though he readily admitted that it was difficult to test this hypothesis. It was something he often mentioned to me.

  20. Victor Mair said,

    May 17, 2013 @ 8:20 pm

    From Sanping Chen:


    Some interesting comments.

    But one of the commentators was certainly mistaken to transcribe 吃飯 into Cantonese, which should be 食飯. The difference is critical because 吃 would have a -t ending and 食 has a -k ending. Those of us who have read some medieval sources all know the Tang dynasty term 大食 for Arabs. Today probably only Cantonese still pronounce the name as it should be (~Tajik).

    This is partially prompted by another interesting commentary on pseudo-entering-tone words in Shanghainese. Today only Cantonese and the 閩 region seem to have retained the ancient -p, -t, -k endings of entering-tone words. Yet I have read a semi-academic book mentioning that several decades ago, the old generation of Shanghainese speakers still differentiated -k characters from other entering-tone characters. So it seems that these endings disappeared only recently there. My wife can certainly no longer make this distinction (just the same glottal stop).


    VHM: The character 吃 has the following pronunciations in Cantonese: gat1 hat1 hek3 jaak3

    In the expression 吃飯, I think (but am not absolutely certain) that the correct pronunciation is hek3 faan6. However, as Sanping notes, the usual way of saying "eat" in Cantonese is sik6 faan6 食飯.

  21. Victor Mair said,

    May 18, 2013 @ 3:42 pm

    From Tsu-Lin Mei:

    I wrote a short paper on the measure word ge (in pinyin), the near demonstrative, and the subordinate particle (which are homonymous) in Gan dialects such as Nanchang, Wu dialects such as Danyang and Jinhua (which have keq) and Shanghai (which has geq). The article is in Chinese and is intended as my contribution for a festschrift for a colleague. I also have a long article “8 criteria to distinguish Wu and Mandarin during Tang times and 4 additional criteria to distinguish Wu and Mandarin during Song times” which I will present next summer at Academia Sinica. After finishing “Sanskrit origins” I suddenly had an inspiration in 1991, i.e. I discovered that in Wu dialects there is a stratum which distinguish the Middle Chinese rhymes “fish” yu and “worry” yu. This has far reaching consequences. Jerry Norman in CHINESE already noted that 3rd person “ta” is a necessary and sufficient condition for a dialect to be Mandarin. There are also features involving the negative, the subordinate particle, etc. In my longer article, I showed that there were oppositions between Mandarin and Wu in the 2nd person (ni/ru), 3rd person (ta/i), near demonstrative (zhe/ge), distance demonstrative (na/xu, as in promise). For Song times, I also showed that there is opposition in the negative (pet/fet), perfective suffix (le/tsI), suffix for plural personal pronouns (men/nong) . As many people suspected the Mandarin/Wu(Gan) split started during the NanBeichau, pretty much along the lines as Yan Zhitui described it.

    The bit about “abrupt” enunciation in Wu (and Shanxi) is based upon an article by Zhengzhang Shangfan (1995). Zhengzhang just published his collected papers (on Wu and other matters) , which is well worth reading. In 2011 I gave a series of 8 lectures on this topic (actually the opposition between North and South) at Beiyu. In 2012 I gave a long paper at the 4th International Conference on Sinology at Academia Sinica in Taipei. So when it is said that Pan Wuyun, ZhengZhang Shangfang, and Tsu-Lin Mei are the new leaders of Wu historical studies, that is a reflection of the general consensus. Among the three, I am the one who has a deep appreciation of Lyu Shuxiang’s scholarship, since Lyu was the great leader of Jindai Hanyu (early Modern Chinese) research, a field I and Liu Jian and Alain Peyraube and Sun Chaofen and Cao Guangshun developed.

    I know most of the scholars working on Wu dialectology personally. Xu Baohua is not to be taken seriously, but Tao Huan is fine. Li Rong is rigid and the dialect dictionaries published under his editorship adopted a minimalist approach in etymological identification. Too bad these people do not read Lyu Shuxiang.

  22. Derek said,

    May 18, 2013 @ 4:08 pm

    In the expression 吃飯, I think (but am not absolutely certain) that the correct pronunciation is hek3 faan6.

    You're correct, Dr. Mair. That's the pronunciation Cantonese speakers would use if they came across that expression in written MSM.

    However, Cantonese speakers do occasionally say jaak3 faan6, usually in very casual/colloquial conversations. Since one of the alternate pronunciations for 吃 is jaak3 (which I didn't even know until I read your comment), I suppose you can say Cantonese speakers do say 吃飯 in normal conversations, but most of them won't realize that jaak3 faan6 can be written as such.

  23. Richard V Simmons said,

    May 18, 2013 @ 7:45 pm

    Regarding the primacy of sounds over characters in the study of the history of Chinese: we also must remember that characters also have, and had, a pronunciation, though that pronunciation can, and could, vary greatly across time and space, and speaker to speaker. And that is the rub. Writing 岗 for 讲 'say or 娘 for 让 'let, allow' glosses the pronunciation for a Mandarin speaker, but leaves the morphology behind. 岗 and 娘 thus become a kind of an inside joke meaning this is how Shanghainese sounds, but not what it means. A Shanghai speaker, if reading in Shanghainese, would read 讲 as /gã́w/ and 让 as /niã́/. Writing those characters is perfectly fine Shanghainese and doesn't necessarily make a passage more Mandarin-like. But, on the other hand, writing 不 for vet (佛/勿) would be writing Mandarin instead of Shanghainese. By the way, the literary–Mandarin based–Shanghainese reading for 让 is /zã́/, very close to 上 /zã́w/ hence a window into the Wú origin of the new phonetic for a character originally written 讓 (see Norman 1988, Chinese, p. 82, note 10).

  24. noname said,

    May 18, 2013 @ 11:19 pm

    @Richard V Simmons , this Shanghai romanisation you use here ….

    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

    …. is both good-looking and sensible. Does it have a name? Where, or by whom, is it used? Where can the entire system be seen?

  25. Victor Mair said,

    May 19, 2013 @ 6:56 am


    It's Prof. Richard VanNess Simmons' own romanization. Here's a brief IPA conversion chart for it:

    My Chinese surname, 梅維恆 (in Hanyu Pinyin that would be Méi Wéihéng) according to Richard's Shanghainese Romanization would be Máe Ví-h'en. The Shanghainese Romanization fits the intitials of my English name, VIctor HENry MAIr, very closely, much better than the Mandarin, and that is no accident, since the person who gave it to me is a Wu speaker.

  26. Victor Mair said,

    May 19, 2013 @ 7:00 am

    @Richard V Simmons

    "Regarding the primacy of sounds over characters in the study of the history of Chinese: we also must remember that characters also have, and had, a pronunciation, though that pronunciation can, and could, vary greatly across time and space, and speaker to speaker. And that is the rub."



  27. Victor Mair said,

    May 19, 2013 @ 7:47 am

    From South Coblin:

    This reminds me again of something Jerry Norman was wont to say, i.e., that there were three good criteria for identifying Mandarin and deciding how old the family is. These are the concurrent presence of the third person pronoun tā, the negative bù, and the subordinative particle de/di. Jerry called languages of this type “Tabudish”, and he sometimes used this name for them in correspondence with me.

  28. julie lee said,

    May 19, 2013 @ 10:45 am

    @South Coblin,
    How good to know about "Tabudish". I can understand the diverse Mandarins of the provinces of Hubei, Hunan, Sichuan, and Guizhou, though the tones (lilt, melody) are different from Beijing Mandarin or Standard Mandarin, and from one another, and I can understand quite a lot of the Mandarin of Datong (capital of Shanxi province). In the 1950s I was invited to have lunch with the renowned battle-hero and former warlord and governor of Shanxi province, Marshal Yen Hsi-shan, in his home in the hills outside Taipei. (Just out of college, I had translated a political pamphlet for him into English). He was now a refugee from Mao China, and was literally holding court with his relatives and loyal supporters from Shanxi. They were all speaking Shanxi Mandarin. I had to try very hard not to laugh because their tones (melody) were so different from Standard Mandarin, so that their speech sounded to me like a broken phonograph record. (Once I heard Beethoven's Fifth Symphony on the phonograph at my home and I yelled, "Qiuck, the phonograph is broken !!" because it sounded so strange. It turned out it was not the phonograph, it was the record, a recording of my daughter's high-school orchestra playing the Fifth.) I say Yen's court were speaking Shanxi Mandarin because I could understand quite a lot of it, after adjusting for the Shanxi melody/lilt. However, I couldn't understand my mother- and father-in-laws' Mandarin (of Tenghsien, Shandong province) because they pronounced Standard Mandarin -ing as yong, and j- as g-. The melody was also very different. So "Dong-jing" (Tokyo) would be "Dong-gyong" in their Mandarin. (Many expressions also were archaic, dating to at least the 13th century, I learned later, but now disappeared from Standard Mandarin.) Later my father-in-law's second wife spoke Shanghainese only. After living together for 30 years they still couldn't understand each other's speech (Shandongese and Shanghainese), and would always shout at each other because they thought shouting would help. (A Hispanic friend who understood little English told me people were always shouting at her because they thought it would help. "But I'm not deaf." )

  29. julie lee said,

    May 19, 2013 @ 11:10 am

    p.s. to my comment just now:

    It was not the record of Beethoven's Fifth that was broken, it was the high-school performance of the Fifth that sounded strange.

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