"…not simply Mandarin Chinese pronounced in a different way"

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Chuin-Wei Yap has an interesting article about the southern conurbation known as Chaoshan in China Real Time:  "Underground Banks Trace Roots to the Sicily of China" (WSJ, 10/27/15).

Chaoshan is a portmanteau name composed of the first syllables of the two main cities that it encompasses:  Chaozhou (Teochew) and Shantou (Swatow).

I have long been intrigued by Chaoshan because of its rich history and the abundance of outstanding people who came from this area, including Li Ka-shing (the richest man in Asia; b. July 29, 1928) and my old friend, Jao Tsung-I 饒宗頤 (b. August 9, 1917), whom I consider to be the greatest living Chinese scholar, with a phenomenal breadth of learning and talent, despite the fact that he is basically an autodidact.  I am also partial to Chaozhou because it is the home of one of China's most distinguished operatic traditions and gongfu tea, about which I wrote this very long blog post.

I would not have expected to find interesting remarks concerning language usage in an article about money laundering, illegal drug trade, gun running, counterfeiting, and smuggling.  Yet, nestled amongst all the lurid details describing the bustling criminal activity centering around Chaoshan in Guangdong Province, there is one paragraph that caught my eye:

In the small convenience stores and tea shops clustered in Shenzhen’s many aging, ramshackle shopping complexes, the musical Chaozhou accent is noticeable. The Chaozhou dialect is distinct among the many variations of the Chinese language. Sociologists say it is not simply Mandarin Chinese pronounced in a different way, as with the Sichuan or Henan accents, but rather a version of the Chinese language that has stayed unchanged for so many centuries and in so many ways that it now diverges in key aspects of grammar and construction from the Mandarin lingua franca. A unique tongue is another advantage for running underground banking networks.

(emphasis added)

While there is much that one could take exception to in this passage (the conflation of "accent" and "dialect" when what we're talking about is essentially a separate language [here and here]; the reference to sociologists when he should be consulting linguists; the claim that Teochew has "stayed unchanged for … many centuries"; conversely the failure to note that Mandarin changed radically under the impact of Tungusic and Mongolic tongues), I wish to commend the author for pointing out that Teochew is "not simply Mandarin Chinese pronounced in a different way".  While he doesn't know quite what to do with that insight, it represents a significant advance over the run of the mill journalistic assertions that Chinese "dialects" are essentially the same language with a different "accent" or "pronunciation".

In its salient features (phonology, grammar, vocabulary), Teochew is one of the more conservative Sinitic languages, but it was not immune to change in diverse respects — through substrate uptake, contact with other Sinitic and non-Sinitic languages, and internal development.

[Thanks to Andrew Herron]


  1. Ahkow said,

    October 29, 2015 @ 8:37 am

    Surely the WSJ writer meant to say "Sicily is the Chaoshan of Italy"…

    But more seriously, what a strange analogy. Why would anyone even make that kind of comparison in the first place?

  2. Mike Aubrey said,

    October 29, 2015 @ 9:26 am

    "But more seriously, what a strange analogy. Why would anyone even make that kind of comparison in the first place?"

    Sicily is famous for being a center for organized crime.

  3. Dan Lufkin said,

    October 29, 2015 @ 10:36 am

    And Sicilian isn't just Italian with a different pronunciation. It's likely a good parallel with Teochew.

  4. Coby Lubliner said,

    October 29, 2015 @ 12:27 pm

    But is the writer correct in implying that the Sichuan and Henan "accents" are "simply Mandarin Chinese pronounced in a different way"?

  5. Rubrick said,

    October 29, 2015 @ 4:29 pm

    If Victor replies "Yes, actually" to Coby's query, I will eat my hat. :-)

  6. Ahkow said,

    October 29, 2015 @ 5:04 pm

    @Mike and @Dan:

    Yes, point well-taken. But why single out Sicily? Surely there are other regions in the world that have a similar reputation. In what context was this analogy first coined?

  7. shubert said,

    October 29, 2015 @ 5:58 pm

    @Coby: Sichuanese Mandarin is closer to Mandarin than Cantonese

  8. Coby Lubliner said,

    October 29, 2015 @ 6:53 pm

    @shubert: I know that Deng Xiaoping's speeches had to be dubbed into standard (Beijing?) Mandarin because of his Sichuanese accent, but is it really just an accent (like Scottish English) or another language variety (like Scots)?

  9. shubert said,

    October 29, 2015 @ 7:42 pm

    @Coby: check wiki… Both Mao (Hunan) and Deng are from places closer to Canton but non-Canton.

  10. Matt Anderson said,

    October 29, 2015 @ 8:27 pm

    Well, Sichuan & Henan "accents" are simply [Standard] Mandarin pronounced in a different way, for the most part, if the speakers are speaking otherwise standard Mandarin with their native pronunciation. But, in practice, the diverse varieties of Henanese and (especially) Sichuanese differ in a lot more than pronunciation, though they are varieties of Mandarin. This doesn't necessarily mean that they're mutually intelligible with the standard, though.

  11. Matt Anderson said,

    October 29, 2015 @ 8:41 pm

    To follow up on that last comment: coming from a background in Standard Mandarin, the Anyang variety of Henanese doesn't really give me any problems, and Sichuanese as spoken in Chengdu (as opposed to the standard spoken by people from Chengdu) takes some getting used to, but I can deal with it. Get out into the countryside, though, and it can be a completely different story.

  12. Eidolon said,

    October 30, 2015 @ 12:50 pm

    The Scots vs. Scottish English analogy is actually quite apt when discussing the speech of Henan and Sichuan. Both provinces speak Standard Mandarin as a lingua franca these days but due to acquiring it as a second language, a lot of speakers, but not all, have accents, which is similar to the case of Scottish English. But they also have local speech – Henanese and Sichuanese, broadly speaking, but in practice divided into a myriad of local dialects even within each province – that are varieties of Mandarin but not necessarily fully mutually intelligible with Standard Mandarin; in this they are similar to Scots.

  13. liuyao said,

    October 30, 2015 @ 4:22 pm

    Mutual intelligibility is not so rigid a criterion as one might suppose. Before the 1990s all documentaries or movies featuring Mao, Zhou and Deng would have them speak "Mandarin" with their distinctive accents, and no subtitles were needed. At some point they all started speaking perfect standard Mandarin (and the actors don't have to look like them!). I'm not sure how much the millennials, when shown the old documentaries, would be able to understand their speeches to call them intelligible. Actually, just by going about your daily business in Beijing (before the 90s say, but still true today to a lesser extent), you'd pick up some distinctive traits of Sichuan, Henan, Shandong, Hebei, Tianjin, and Northeast versions of Mandarin, and even attempts of Southerners to pronounce Mandarin, without necessarily being able to formulate them, much less to "say" them. Of course they'd cut back on their local vocabularies and use standard words common to all Chinese, which is exactly what Hu Shih and his fellows were trying to promote: a vernacular for Chinese, not for Mandarin or Cantonese or Jixi topolect, but Chinese as a whole. Imagine going to Hu Shih's lectures in Peking University (there are recordings of his speeches), I bet most people today (even old people) would have hard time understanding. The students back then must be able to pick up the lecturer's distinctive accents after a few lectures at most, faster than we could today. Anyways, the mutual intelligibility among "Chinese languages" is certainly diminishing, despite the languages getting more similar, and some day we may count hundreds of Chinese languages if they didn't go extinct.

    On the other hand, there are movies and TV series (till this day) featuring non-standard Mandarin, in part or in whole, that must be intelligible to most audience. One interesting example is the movie 让子弹飞, which came out with a Sichuanese version that many say is better than the Mandarin version.

    Not to counter the point that Prof Mair (and many linguists) have been making repeatedly, but I've also heard that people (today) from Beijing transplanted to Hong Kong would be able to pick up Cantonese (listening only, office talks) in a matter of months. Is that possible with Romance languages or Germanic languages?

  14. Coby Lubliner said,

    October 30, 2015 @ 5:50 pm

    @ liuyao: with respect to Romance, I have heard quite a few conversations between one person speaking Spanish and another Italian or Portuguese, with reasonable mutual comprehension, at least on a practical, down-to-earth level. (Not French!) Less likely with Germanic, in my experience.

  15. Victor Mair said,

    October 30, 2015 @ 9:46 pm

    Mutual (un)intelligibility of Sinitic topolects

    Although I've provided this comment with a title, I do not intend to compose a treatise on the subject here. Lord knows that I've written about it often enough on Language Log and elsewhere, but I do want to emphasize that we should not take a high degree of intelligibility among the various Sinitic topolects for granted.

    The way I shall approach the matter here is simply to give some concrete examples which demonstrate that speakers of one topolect often have little or no comprehension of the speech of other topolects. Moreover, even if they live for long periods of time in a population that predominantly speak another topolect, they may develop little or no competence in the local language.

    Case #1

    In the years leading up to the final defeat of Chiang Kai-shek and his forces on the Mainland, a total of more than two million mainlanders (including Chiang's retreating troops) fled to Taiwan, when the total population of the island was probably around eight million. My wife, her extended family, and hundreds of their friends were among the refugees from the Communists. Most of the prominent teachers in the universities were also mainlanders. The point I want to make here is that, though they were surrounded by speakers of Taiwanese, none of the many mainlanders I knew when I lived in Taiwan from 1970-72 spoke or understood more than a few words of Taiwanese at best (most knew none at all). During my two years in Taiwan, I learned more Taiwanese than any of the mainlanders I knew for the simple reason that I studied it as a foreign language. Even though I was fluent in Guoyu (Modern Standard Mandarin), I had to make an earnest effort to acquire a minimal amount of Taiwanese. The mainlanders I knew were unwilling to make that effort, so they learned no Taiwanese.

    Case #2

    All together I have lived in Hong Kong for about two years. I love the place very much, and I'm happy to go back there whenever I get a chance. The linguistic situation I encountered in Hong Kong is somewhat similar to that which I met in Taiwan. Namely, mainlanders in Hong Kong can be there for years without acquiring any real competence in Cantonese — unless they make a determined effort to learn it as they would any other second language. My wife (who was no dummy) stayed with me for the academic year of 2002-3 while I taught at Hong Kong University and didn't learn a single word of Cantonese, even though she watched Cantonese TV (with Mandarin subtitles, of course!) and shopped in the local markets. On the other hand, because I studied it as a foreign language, I learned a fair amount of Cantonese during that year.

    I should also mention that, when I go to Hong Kong, I often eat in the student cafeterias, so I get to meet many students from the mainland who are studying in Hong Kong. Though some of them stay there for the whole period necessary to obtain a B.A., M.A., or Ph.D., they do not automatically acquire competence in Cantonese. Only those who make a concerted effort can pick up varying degrees of Cantonese, but most of the ones I met (and I'm now getting them as M.A. and Ph.D. candidates in my classes at Penn) didn't learn any Cantonese, or at best just a few words or sentences.

    Case #3

    I've told this story many times before, but it bears repeating. My wife, Li-ching Chang, was born in Changyi, Shandong (not far from Qingdao). Both her parents spoke Mandarin with a heavy Shandong accent. When Li-ching was still a baby, they fled with her to Sichuan, far away to the southwest. As an adult, Li-ching was a superb teacher of Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM), but up to the age of 11, when she again fled with her parents to Taiwan, she had grown up in Sichuan and spoke Mandarin à la Chengdu city (lots of tonal and lexical differences from MSM). In July, 1987, Li-ching and I went back to visit her old haunts in Chengdu, and she had no problem so long as she was in the city, because she would just shift gears from MSM to Chengdu-style Mandarin, with which she was very comfortable, having kept up contacts with many people from the city even after she had moved to Taiwan (many of them fled from Sichuan to Taiwan at the same time her family did) and then came to America. However, once we went outside Chengdu, Li-ching's ability to understand local speech diminished rapidly. When we went to villages around Leshan (140 miles away) and Emeishan (89 miles distant), she couldn't comprehend a word of what the indigenes were saying. In fact, Li-ching thought that they were "minority" people like the Yi and was astonished to find out that they were Han (i.e., Sinitic speakers).

    Quoted from:

    "English and Mandarin juxtaposed" (9/6/13)


    Case #4

    When my son was a little boy, he and another little boy would often play together in the big sandbox on the grounds of the Botanic Gardens where we were living at Harvard at the time. My son was accompanied by his waipo ("maternal grandmother"), my yuemu ("mother-in-law"), and the other little boy was accompanied by his grandmother. Over the course of a year, they played together several times a week for half an hour or more. Tom's grandmother spoke Mandarin with a heavy Shandong accent, and the other little boy's grandmother spoke only Cantonese. So the little boys would play together merrily while the grandmothers would look on. They would smile at each other, nod and gesture, and say things in their own language, but were never able to understand any of the other's language. I sometimes stood nearby and looked on as well, so I know what was happening. Neither of them seemed to be very troubled by the lack of their ability to communicate, but neither of them made the slightest effort to learn the language of the other one. I could understand my mother-in-law and knew a little bit of Cantonese, so sometimes I would translate bits and pieces of what they would say, but my Cantonese wasn't good enough, certainly not back then, to convey much beyond bare essentials.

    See also:

    "Mutual unintelligibility among Sinitic lects" (10/5/14)



    Speakers of a given Sinitic topolect do not naturally and automatically osmose the language of speakers of other Sinitic topolects.

  16. liuyao said,

    October 31, 2015 @ 12:19 am

    Interesting stories. I'm new to this blog, and I just looked into the posts you linked. Your question there about leaders not speaking directly through news is exact opposite to my impression (alluded to in my comment above). There's a YouTube video of Deng's famous "speech" right after June 4 (though there was caption, I believe it would still be very intelligible without it to those who followed news in the 80s). And Mao's and Zhou's accents are within living memories that they could be used to make impressions in comedy (not to make fun of them, of course, but they do have comical effects).

    To make an apology (pun intended) on behalf of the Chinese fellows who reacted strongly with labeling fangyan as languages, I believe the fault is with the attempt to translate both yu and wen as language (and back, English is both yingyu and yingwen), and try to fit fangyan into the European notion of languages/dialects (as so often happens Chinese prefer translating the meaning of a word, as opposed to just transliterating the sound, precisely because there's no one sound for a word). No matter where they were from, they just needed one English-Chinese dictionary, and as zhongwen is on par with yingwen, what would you put yangyan other than dialects? (Plus, the dictionary says so.) So, I'd respond to those Chinese friends that, take it easy, English and Italian are just different fangyan, according to the Chinese scheme.

    To take a somewhat weird but telling example: the Chinese surnames 王 and 黃 are distinct in Mandarin (Wang and Huang) but have identical pronunciation (Wong) in Cantonese. But no one would say a Cantonese-speaking 黃 bears any relation with a Cantonese-speaking 王, but rather, different 黃s (be it Huang, Wong, or Ong in Fujian) were "probably one family five hundred years ago," as the popular saying goes. In the Chinese mindset, the character and the meaning it carries are the foremost components, and the sounds come secondary (despite what all linguists say, this is what comes naturally to the Chinese), in stark contrast to all other extant languages that use scripts (often foreign, and may switch to a different one) to record the sounds. Incidentally, we treat John and Johann as the same name 約翰 (yuehan, nothing like John at all), and apparently the Americans who founded St John's in Shanghai were okay with this, though I don't know how it sounds in Shanghainese. (By the way, Saint, San, and Sao are all 聖, which in addition to sounding like sheng in Mandarin is a superb albeit inaccurate translation that puts the saints on par with Confucius and a few others.)

    I suppose even those who want to make Mandarin into 300 different languages would not want to have their name transliterated into each of them.

  17. liuyao said,

    October 31, 2015 @ 1:24 am

    P.S. My mentioning John and Johann (also Jean), and Saint, San, São (also Santa), is to illustrate how English, German, French, Spanish and Portugese are all fangyan to the Chinese mindset. If hypothetically a Javanese name happens to sound exactly like Johann, we wouldn't use 約翰 as the transliteration, but to choose a homophone or near homophone. (Lest anyone trying to argue, Giovanni and Juan, not to say Ivan, are indeed transliterated differently, but the point stands.)

    P.P.S. I've always suspected the choice of 約 is due to the alternative pronunciation yao as found in many variants of Mandarin. It also explains New York as 紐約. It's very interesting that most transliterations were made prior to standardization of MSM (as Prof Mair calls it), such as 秘鲁 bilu for Peru, 柏林 bolin for Berlin. They are still pronounced so, but 秘 is now otherwise pronounced mi, and 柏 in the mainland is pronounced bai (Taiwan retains its "literary reading" 文讀). Those are all Mandarin, but the name Holmes is popularly known as 福爾摩斯, and one could safely guess that it must came from a Fujian translator! So much for that.

  18. JQ said,

    October 31, 2015 @ 6:51 am

    約 for York may be due to a final -k which has been lost in Mandarin. It makes sense in Cantonese as yeuk.

    I have also observed Victor's Cases 2 and 4 personally.

    Case 4 – I was on a bus in Vancouver and stood up to let an elderly woman sit down next to another old woman. One spoke Cantonese and the other spoke Mandarin. They spent most of the conversation lamenting the fact that they could not understand each other beyond simple words. When each one spoke, the other would try to guess what they had heard and repeat it in their own language, but they were not really successful without the use of hand signs and actions.

    Case 2 – A Beijing couple migrated to HK with their son aged 10. By age 12 he had become as proficient in Cantonese as any 12 year old local HK boy attending an English-medium school. Even by the time he was 18, his parents only had a basic grasp of Cantonese, because all adults they interacted with either accommodated them in Mandarin or English.

  19. JQ said,

    October 31, 2015 @ 12:18 pm

    Here is some further evidence:


    When Principal Magistrate Bernadette Woo Huey Fang asked in Putonghua whether he spoke the language, Zheng replied: "English is better."

    "What is your nationality?" Woo continued, switching to English.

    "People's Republic of China," Zheng, clad in a black T-shirt, replied.

    Under further questioning from Woo, Zheng said he came from the southern megacity of Chongqing , so he understood the local dialect there but not Putonghua.

    He had lived for seven years in Britain, hence he was comfortable in English.

  20. Coby Lubliner said,

    October 31, 2015 @ 12:20 pm

    The cases described by Victor and JQ are reminiscent of the situation in Catalonia, where adult incomers from Spanish-speaking areas (Spain or the Americas) rarely learn Catalan.

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