A Potpourri of Materials on Shanghainese

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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.”


看看你还记得多少,都是平常嘎山胡 (A)会用到的。

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.


  1. Martin Ellison said,

    May 16, 2009 @ 2:38 am

    There seems to be very little in the way of learning materials for Shanghainese. I have only Lance Eccles' "Shanghai Dialect". Cantonese is reasonably represented, as of course is Mandarin, but there seems to be little or nothing in English for other topolects.

  2. Kellen said,

    May 16, 2009 @ 9:07 am

    First, thanks for the link. I'm honoured.

    Second, John Pasden of ChinesePod.com has compiled a list of texts that may be useful to anyone wanting to learn Shanghainese over at his site. You can check here. There are some good books listed. If you're looking for a list of Shanghainese books helpful to English speakers, this is a great place to start.

    The biggest problem with finding books for other Chinese topolects is first that they seem to only be available in the place in which that specific topolect is spoken, and second that they're all written in Mandarin with little or no phonetic transcription, though CDs are occasionally included.

  3. the Annals of Wu » Saturday Shanghainese Spectacular said,

    May 16, 2009 @ 9:32 am

    […] LanguageLog, Victor Mair has a post up (A Potpourri of Materials on Shanghainese) which, among other things, has a great quote from a mother who is raising her daughter to […]

  4. John said,

    May 16, 2009 @ 1:10 pm

    Thanks, Kellen. There's also a very simple Shanghainese soundboard on my site, if you just want to hear some basic phrases.

  5. anonymous said,

    May 16, 2009 @ 1:36 pm

    I'm fascinated and also sympathetic to the mother's post because it sounds like a carbon copy of many people's attitude toward the Taiwanese language in the '80s.

    I find it strange to refer to Shanghainese and Taiwanese as dialects/topolects/方言 rather than languages. I've never heard of 上海話 and 閔南話 referred to as 方言 in Mandarin — at least in the version (topolect?) of Mandarin that I speak. When we say 方言 it's usually about differences like 數位相機 and 數碼相機 — the latter is the punch line of a joke (樹跟馬站在一起像什麼動物?) that is usually delivered with the obligatory disclaimer: 這要懂大陸的方言才好笑. oh sorry, i just told a joke backwards.

  6. SnowLeopard said,

    May 17, 2009 @ 8:27 pm

    For those who are interested, I'm aware of two US-based sites that sell materials on Chinese languages other than Mandarin and Cantonese: you can get some materials on Shanghainese from http://www.dunwoodypress.com (search for "Shanghai" on the site), and materials on Taiwanese and Amoy Hokkien at http://www.spokenlanguage.com (click on "Courses"; the Taiwanese course reportedly relies heavily on the Amoy Hokkien materials). I haven't had a chance to review yet, so I can't attest to the quality of these items.

  7. Victor Mair said,

    May 18, 2009 @ 11:44 am

    No sooner had I made this post than I received in the mail from my friend Xu Wenkan in Shanghai the following book:

    Qian Nairong, Shanghaihua xin liuxingyu 2500 tiao (2,500 New Popular Shanghainese Expressions) 上海話新流行語2500條 (Shanghai: Hanyu Da Cidian Chubanshe, 2006). Judging from the wide range of terms related to many areas of daily life and culture in this book, Shanghainese language is still thriving.

    More resources for the study of Shanghainese are also mentioned in this recent message from my anonymous informant:


    It is fun doing this. I almost want to write a Shanghainese textbook now. Haha, maybe later when I am done with all my current projects. I myself still need to learn the linguistics of the Wu dialect/Shanghainese.

    Also, for #7 (ga liang), in the original recording, I said I had never heard of this term. I just heard it for the first time in my life in the recording of a Shanghainese comedian's performance that my brother sent me a couple of days ago. I think anyone serious about doing research on Shanghainese and the Shanghainese culture or Chinese performance culture should take a look at this guy's performance. He is extremely hot these days in Shanghai and is making Shanghai people feel proud of themselves and their local dialect and local culture.


    http://v.youku.com/v_show/id_XODE4MDk1MDg=.html (I think anyone who understands Mandarin should be able to follow because there are subtitles for his performance and he uses a lot of Mandarin when performing, an interesting language phenomenon in itself!)


  8. Li Yu said,

    May 19, 2009 @ 2:25 pm

    Victor Mair's observation that "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" struck me to be very true and very interesting. As native Shanghainese, we almost never had the opportunity to transcribe our mother tongue into phonetic transcription. Most of the Shanghainese textbooks I have seen in Shanghai many years ago (intended for a domestic readership at that time) used a combination of IPA and Chinese characters to transcribe Shanghainese. Reading this post and all the above comments prompted me to find out more about how to Romanize Shanghainese for non- IPA readers. I am pleasantly surprised to find this website:


    The administrators of the website claim to be a group of "non-professionals" who deeply love the Wu topolect. But their Romanization plans for all the dialects within the Wu topolect seem to be very professional to me. See this link:


    The website also offers a download center, where a PDF copy of a Chinese-English Shanghai Dialect Dictionary (originally published by the Jiaotong University Press in Shanghai). Its preface indicates this is "an unprecedented" publication because it was the first time that fangyankouyu 方言口语 was compiled as a dictionary for non-Chinese readers. This dictionary might be of interest to some of you out there.

  9. the Annals of Wu » Examples of Wu Transcription - 《咏鹅》 said,

    May 19, 2009 @ 8:50 pm

    […] Wu Transcription – 《咏鹅》 May 20 2009 0 comments In a comment on the previously mentioned LanguageLog post, commenter Li Yu drops a link for the Wu Association (吴语协会). It's a great resource […]

  10. Jidong Yang said,

    May 20, 2009 @ 9:40 am

    I was in Shanghai with my 11-yr old daughter. I was first surprised and then proud that my daughter spoke Shanghainese better than most Shanghai kids in her generation. It seems almost inevitable to me that Shanghai will become a Mandarin city when most people in my generation pass away. When that time comes, maybe my daughter can earn some cah by teaching Shanghainese in Shanghai. :)

  11. Terence LLoren said,

    February 28, 2010 @ 7:07 am


    I just want to let everyone know about my newest project. All dialog is in Shanghainese.




  12. Linda Zhang said,

    April 14, 2011 @ 12:54 am

    Finding this makes me so happy. I am so proud to be Shanghai-nese and I'm the first to admit that I might have some of that excessive better than thou shanghai attitude. Haha.

    I have always been so proud that I speak Shanghainese better most, especially since I grew up in the US. I am so excited about this Shanghainese revival. Anyway weren't most of the proponents of Mandarin, Shanghai intellectuals? Ah!! This is such exciting stuff!

  13. Angelica Yunzhi said,

    September 28, 2011 @ 2:35 pm


    My name is Angelica (Yunzhi), a native speaker Chinese and Shangahinese. I'm currently studying Teaching Foreign Language (TFL) – Chinese at MIIS (Monterey Institute of International Studies). We have a student-run club that offers a variety of language classes to the community, and this semester I'm teaching a Shanghainese class in addition to a Mandarin Chinese class.

    As someone who grew up in Shanghai, I'm strongly attached to the city and her own culture. Since my future career will be all about language and culture, I'd love to spread the love of local Shanghai culture, since more and more people are fascinated by the city's local and traditional beauty in addition to the modern and thriving image. That's why I'm very excited about this Shanghainese class that's going to take place.

    However, I feel a bit sad that Shangahinese is rather under-represented compared to Cantonese. It's going to be a challenging class to teach since there're relatively limited resources available.

    Nonetheless, I'm glad that there are people talking about and showing interests in Shanghainese. I feel it could have been so much more popular and well recognized if there were more efforts and promotions for this local dialect. I really hope that I can be part of the Shanghai-lovers who can build the foundation for the local culture to thrive in the near future!

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