Mutual unintelligibility among Sinitic lects

« previous post | next post »

By chance, I came across this most revealing section of a perceptive book by Linda Jakobson entitled A Million Truths: A Decade in China (pp. 175-177), which shows how people from different parts of China often don't really understand each other.  That includes people who are supposedly speaking different varieties of Mandarin.  I know this from my own experience travelling across the length and breadth of China.  For instance, see the second paragraph of this post, "Mutual Intelligibility of Sinitic Languages", also the next to the last paragraph of this article, "English and Mandarin juxtaposed", where I describe a climb up Emei Mountain in Sichuan, during which incomprehension among "Mandarin" speakers was a demonstrable, inescapable fact.  Seldom, however, do people write about this semi-taboo topic so clearly as Linda Jakobson.

Although Jakobson is fluent in Mandarin, she has only a crude understanding of how the Chinese writing system works ("the characters are pictograms and conceptual ideograms" — PUHLEEZE! [shades of Chineasy — here and here]) and she persists in calling the different Sinitic languages "dialects", but the concrete examples she gives of people not understanding each other in daily life are valuable data for coming to grips with the real linguistic situation in China.  She also draws apt comparisons with the use of different languages in Europe and emphasizes how northern Chinese can't speak / understand southern languages and how southern Chinese don't like to speak Mandarin.

This reminds me of my wife's many stories about her teachers at National Taiwan University in the 1960s who hailed from all over China and spoke to their classes in their own native tongues, most of which were extremely difficult for the students to understand.  My wife said that she often understood 20% or less of what the professors were saying.  Moreover, for someone from Sichuan to sit through a class where the professor spoke Shandongese (and vice versa) was either pure agony or a powerful soporific, despite the fact that Sichuanese and Shandongese are both supposedly "Mandarin" topolects.

Even more unexpected than Jakobson's account of mutual incomprehension among Chinese is this interesting discussion of the mutual unintelligibility of Sinitic "lects" and "sublects" (their terms — interesting!) that I found on "Pakistan Defence".

The site includes three videos, two of Wu topolects, and one of Wenzhou, supposedly the most difficult of all topolects for outsiders to understand.  See "Devil-language" and "The enigmatic language of the new Windows 8 ads".

There are several things to note about the videos on the "Pakistan Defence" website.  First, all of the videos have subtitles; in the first it is a translation of what is being said into Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM), the other two are sinographic transcriptions of the syllables being sung.  The first video also has English subtitles in addition to the MSM translation.  I have even seen films / videos with triple subtitles:  transcription, translation into MSM, and English translation.  The widespread use of subtitles in China — even for news programs, and especially those parts of broadcasts where people speaking something other than MSM appear — is a conspicuous feature of television and film in China.  This attests to the fact that few who view the programs would understand much of what was being spoken without the assistance of the subtitle transcriptions and / or translations.

I dare say that not even the most literate Wenzhou speaker would be able to match up all of the spoken syllables in Wenzhou speech with Chinese characters.  There are simply too many morphemes in Wenzhou speech for which there are no known characters — not even if we apply the dreaded theory of běnzì 本字 ("original characters").  Search here for an explanation of this notion.

Incidentally, to one degree or another, what I say in this post about the topolects I have mentioned here is true of all nonstandard Mandarin forms of speech in China.

As for what it means to be literate in Chinese (in Zhōngwén 中文 or shūmiànyǔ 书面语 ["book language"] — whatever those terms actually signify, it is certainly much closer to MSM than it is to Cantonese or Taiwanese or any of the other non-MSM lects), we have discussed that matter at enormous length in "Is Cantonese a language, or a personification of the devil? and the comments thereto.

Quick question!

This is something that has been bothering me for many years, and I still don't have the slightest idea what the real answer is.  Since it may be related to the questions discussed above, I am raising it here in hopes that I can receive a definitive answer.  Namely, when a high-ranking Chinese leader is speaking on television, even though we see his mouth moving, we almost never hear his voice.  Instead, someone speaking CCTV MSM will summarize what the great leader is saying.

I can see why, for one reason or another, it might sometimes be more efficient or practicable to report the news that way.  However, since it is almost always the case (in fact, I've never seen it otherwise), it must be an official policy of the government not to broadcast the voice of the top leaders.  In the context of the broadcast policies of all other countries that I know, this seems to be a quite bizarre practice.  Since the government is so consistent in adhering to this practice, they must have their perceived reasons for stipulating that leaders do not speak directly to the public with their own voice.

Is it because they fear the leaders should be perceived as faultless in speech, whereas everyone is bound to make mistakes big and small when speaking?  Or is it because very few of China's leaders speak anything close to MSM?  I am told, though, that Xi Jinping's speech is fairly close to MSM, and there was speculation that he might change the rules and speak directly to the public with his own voice.  But perhaps the convention of the leader's hidden voice is so ingrained that the people who manage the news can't imagine doing it any other way.


  1. maidhc said,

    October 6, 2014 @ 2:33 am

    Isn't Jiang Zemin an exception to this? I don't know if his interviews with western reporters were shown on Chinese TV, but I believe his discussion of the Hong Kong question posted recently was.

  2. endymion wilkinson said,

    October 6, 2014 @ 2:57 am

    Victor, why focus on the leaders? The practice of voicing over ALL those interviewed or quoted on CCTV has been going on for decades. It is not limited to the speeches of leaders. Every time a CCTV reporter interviews somebody the interviewee's voice is immediately voiced over and the interviewer or commentator gives a summary of what is being said. I used to think that this was because ordinary folks are sometimes incoherent and often speak too long. There is also often (as you point out) the difficulty of understanding what is being said. The words of those who cannot speak Mandarin are summarized by the interviewer or given in script at the bottom of the screen or both. As to the danger that incorrect thoughts are broadcast that is taken care of by recording most interviews hours or days before being broadcast. And finally there is the safety margin of broadcasting even live broadcasts with a slight delay to allow editors to quickly cut out incorrect words or ideas. We should all be thankful that CCTV takes such care to ensure high standards in broadcasting the correct line to the entire nation in such a clear standard Mandarin. Who knows what misunderstandings, chaos even, might break out if direct speech or incorrect thought were ever to be broadcast live?

  3. Wentao said,

    October 6, 2014 @ 6:14 pm

    Prof. Mair, I agree with your observation and also think it has something to do with the leaders' level of MSM. Jiang and Hu both speak MSM with an accent; Wen, from Tianjin, is better in this aspect and we hear his voice quite often during press conferences. I think the same can be said of the current leadership. Xi is perhaps the first paramount leader to master Mandarin, and we hear his voice more frequently. On the other hand, I tried to find the voice of Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli, who is a native of rural Quanzhou in Fujian. All videos of his speeches are dubbed on CCTV. When I finally found a short clip of his conversation with some local officials during a NPC session, it's confirmed that he speaks with a very heavy Min accent (pronouncing all the "f" as "hu", for example).

  4. Rubrick said,

    October 6, 2014 @ 7:56 pm

    What is the situation with radio broadcasts?

  5. Chris Kern said,

    October 6, 2014 @ 9:01 pm

    Frequent use of subtitles in news is found in Japan as well, even though the broadcasts are perfectly comprehensible to virtually every Japanese person. This is often explained with ideographic/indispensability-myth statements, but why not subtitle the news?

    (Japan often uses subtitles in variety shows as well, as a way of highlighting jokes or something — I think it's just become a standard feature of the programs that is copied without question by each successive show.)

  6. JQ said,

    October 7, 2014 @ 1:10 am

    @CK, it's the same with Korean game shows

    I don't pay attention to broadcasts from the "great leaders" but if what people are saying is true, do they just not understand each other properly when they are actually talking in person?

    HK news usually allows the leaders to say a few words before taking over, but I find that I cannot understand most of them unless I am paying attention. Of course all HK TV has subtitles in HK-standard written Chinese anyway.

  7. Akito said,

    October 7, 2014 @ 2:22 am

    Subtitles in Japanese news are there for the benefit of the hearing-impaired, time permitting, similar to the CC captions on many U.S. programs. I'm afraid I fail to link the service to any kind of myth.

  8. Adrian Bailey said,

    October 7, 2014 @ 6:27 am

    Dubbing Chinese speakers on Chinese TV would seem to be an admission that they are "foreign", i.e. they speak a different language from, and are likely to be unintelligible to, the viewer.

  9. Simon P said,

    October 7, 2014 @ 7:48 am

    This is somewhat of a problem for foreign learners of Mandarin. All instruction materials use MSM, all TV shows and movies use MSM, so learners are never acquainted with any other variant. When they finally meet and try to converse with actual Chinese people, there is often a shock. What the heck language are these people speaking? I myself find it pretty easy to understand TV and movies in Mandarin, and I've gotten used to southern accents before, but encountering speakers from other Chinese regions, I often find my comprehension plummeting. Compare this with Norway, where I recently moved. Here, dialects are encouraged and given space on television, and people have no issues understanding wildly differing dialects (which I, as a Swede, find frustratingly opaque).

  10. Victor Mair said,

    October 7, 2014 @ 2:40 pm


    It's not so much that Jiang Zemin is an exception to the rule of the hidden voice, but that the tirade of Jiang Zemin on the Hong Kong question was a rare event in the annals of the interaction of Chinese leaders with the media (that is why it has become so sensational, almost viral). It is true, though, that Jiang Zemin was considered to be more spontaneous than any other Chinese leader — such as when he sat down and began to bang away on Mozart's piano uninvited. So often did he do things like this when he was travelling abroad that many people were embarrassed by how he was making a fool of himself.

    @endymion wilkinson



    Good question, but there too — even though there are MSM subtitles to rely on — you hear the voice-over paraphrase / summary.

    @Chris Kern

    "but why not subtitle the news?"

    Not sure I understand what you're getting at with that question, in light of what you said in the first paragraph of your comment.

    "I think it's just become a standard feature of the programs that is copied without question by each successive show."

    The question remains how / why it got started.


    "do they just not understand each other properly when they are actually talking in person?"

    In many cases that is true, so they tend to end up talking to people from their own sphere or those who really speak MSM (if they do so themselves).

    "Of course all HK TV has subtitles in HK-standard written Chinese anyway."

    Yes, which means that they may be hearing something in Cantonese but reading something that is much closer to a translation into Mandarin than it is to Cantonese.


    Your explanation is different from that of Chris Kern. Only for the hearing impaired?

    @Adrian Bailey

    "Dubbing Chinese speakers on Chinese TV would seem to be an admission that they are'"foreign'"….

    Good point.

    @Simon P


  11. Chris Kern said,

    October 7, 2014 @ 6:04 pm

    I just meant that we don't necessarily need a deep explanation for why they would subtitle the news — it seems harmless and potentially useful, so why not do it? I've seen news broadcasts in Japan with both sign language and the subtitling, so I don't know if it's always because of hearing impaired people.

    The kneejerk explanation you usually hear is that it has to be done because there are so many homophones in the language that the news wouldn't be comprehensible otherwise (i.e. the indispensability myth).

    But I don't know the real reason or the history behind it.

  12. AntC said,

    October 7, 2014 @ 8:58 pm

    @Chris Kearn But if there are so many homophones in the language that the news wouldn't be comprehensible otherwise, wouldn't the same incidence of homophones affect ordinary speech, or telephone conversations? [Presumably this is what you mean by "myth"(?)]

    Or do newscasters go out of their way to sprinkle especially homophonous words into their bulletins?

    Next we'll be hearing that 80% of communication is 'body language'; and that we're too obsessed with words — or some such.

  13. Adrian said,

    October 7, 2014 @ 9:35 pm

    Of course unintelligiblity can be a dialect issue too. Within the UK we can *just about* get by when we watch each other on TV, even though it's a struggle to understand many a Glasgow or Dudley speaker. (And for Americans the struggle encompasses many other British/Irish accents.) The same with e.g. Franconian and Austrian varieties of German. When Austrian programmes are shown on German TV they are sometimes subtitled. By dubbing everyone, China is avoiding difficult questions about language but, more charitably, it could be said to be being fair generally to speakers and listeners according to some communistic ideal.

  14. Akito said,

    October 8, 2014 @ 1:52 am

    I don't want to go too OT since this thread is about Chinese. Regarding subtitles in Japanese news, I'd still maintain the primary purpose is to assist the hearing-impaired. On reflection, though, I've seen them used when interviewees, eyewitnesses, etc., speak in dialects far removed from the standard or their speech is otherwise unclear. Subtitling takes time and needs preparation. False starts, changing structure midsentence, etc., are edited/smoothed. That is a feature not shared by CC captioning, which is only seconds behind speech and ususally verbatim.

    I too have seen both sign language and subtitling used at the same time. That is useful too. It is presumptuous to think all hearing-impaired know sign language. Some have lost hearing only recently or partially and haven't been given a chance to learn signing.

    Do homophones prevent comprehension? On rare occasions, maybe. Usually context, register, and the like provide enough clue for disambiguation. So I don't know what myth there is. And people comprehended radio news long before television.

  15. Bathrobe said,

    October 8, 2014 @ 6:51 am

    Re: Japanese news. While the news is prepared ahead of time, I just wonder whether it would be technically feasible to have all the subtitling done in time. What is more, the content of the news can change, sometimes just before it goes to air.

    The subtitles would also have to be closely coordinated with the reading of the news, again possible, I suppose, but requiring some finesse. Although newsreading is done with pretty precise timing, it could be pretty stressful to be in charge of subtitling if there is any sudden change in order or content.

    Another thing is that there would be rather a lot of content, possibly necessitating either very rapid exposure or multiple lines.

    Nowadays, with computers, it might be possible to do all this, but I think it would have been a lot more difficult before computers.

    As for game shows, I think that Chris is right, it's done for the effect, with big exclamation marks and other exaggerated punctuation, booms and boings, and other sound effects. Often the subtitles are ironic comments on the actions of the participants. Chinese TV uses this, too, probably copied from the Japanese.

  16. Victor Mair said,

    October 8, 2014 @ 3:38 pm

    From an anthropologist colleague:

    I am surprised that anyone who has tried to learn "Chinese" has not experienced unintelligibility over and over. It would be very interesting to rough-in a percentage of the population who actually speak MSM–my estimate would be about 20%. And as to leaders, no-one who ever listened to Jiang Jieshi orating about "Ngomun jiong-hwee min-gok" in the company of an MSM speaker will forget the snorts and giggles of even the most loyal of his followers. Oh yes: Wenzhou hua is pretty amazing, but go up north into the hills to Lishui if you really want to hear Martian with a Chinese accent.

  17. Simon P said,

    October 9, 2014 @ 3:06 am

    On HK news, the news readers are usually not subbed (since they're speaking live), but the prerecorded segments are.

    Interestingly, if you look at old movies from the 90's, you can sometimes find versions subbed in written Cantonese, character-by-character, morpheme-by-morpheme. There's an incomplete list here:,33199,page=5

    I own a few of them, and they're great resources for students of Cantonese. It's another datapoint. The audience of these movies were either Cantonese or English speakers (many versions have double subs), so the subs catered to them, I guess. But it was never the norm, and it hasn't been done since the handover, AFAIK.

  18. Nathan Myers said,

    October 10, 2014 @ 1:06 am

    I wonder about this oddly widespread usage of the term "dialects". Is there a danger to foreign sinologists that referring to these very different languages as such in published papers would make it difficult to secure permission to travel in China?

    I am reminded of what was described to me as the wildly stretched timeline of official Chinese history. Is being seen to publish accurately dated ancient Chinese history (similarly?) hazardous to travel privileges? I can imagine, under such conditions, avoiding mention of numeric dates, and identifying events relative to contemporaneous figures, e.g. emperors, with a well-known mapping to actual dates implied but not mentioned.

RSS feed for comments on this post