Writing Shanghainese

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The recent discussion of different ways of writing Chinese reminded Jeff K of two books of Shanghai expressions that he had come across.  See here for scans of a few pages.

The first only provides English and Chinese characters (Hanzi), and is nearly useless for anyone who wants to learn to actually speak the Shanghai topolect, while the second provides English, Hanzi, and two different types of pronunciation guides, so would be much more useful for someone who is serious about learning to speak Shanghainese.

During the 80s, I was in touch with Dunwoody Press, the publisher of these books and many other dictionaries and textbooks for the study of less commonly taught languages.  I visited their offices in Maryland and told them that, while I was very grateful for their works on Sinitic languages, I hoped that they would always provide transcriptions, not just give characters and English translations.  Also, I encouraged them to use a single sort alphabetical order, which I had long advocated, but had not yet published on, nor had I realized it in any dictionaries or other reference works of my own.

Not long thereafter, my call for a Mandarin-English dictionary in single sort alphabetical order went out as the very first issue of Sino-Platonic Papers in February of 1986:  "The Need for an Alphabetically Arranged General Usage Dictionary of Mandarin Chinese: A Review Article of Some Recent Dictionaries and Current Lexicographical Projects" (free pdf). Not long thereafter, with the help of John DeFrancis and other friends, we published our first dictionary in that arrangement, the ABC Chinese-English Dictionary from the University of Hawaii Press.  There are now many other dictionaries in that series, including An Alphabetical Index to the Hanyu Da Cidian (2004).  For a description of the complete (and continuing) ABC Chinese Dictionary Series, see here.

While we can all be grateful to Dunwoody for the transcriptions in their second book on Shanghainese, they are too elaborate to be practical for use as a regular romanization.  For that I would recommend the system of Richard VanNess Simmons described in this post and the comments thereto:

"Shanghainese" (5/16/13)

See also Simmons' Shanghainese-English/English-Shanghainese Dictionary & Phrasebook .Those who would like to hear a good chunk of Shanghainese as read out by three different native speakers may listen to the recordings in the post cited above.


  1. Frédéric Grosshans said,

    May 25, 2016 @ 1:56 pm

    Readers of this post might be interested by a 2012 blog post by David Helliwell on some books they have in the Bodelian Library at Oxford. These books were written in the 1850’s by protestant missionaries in Shanghainese, using an original phonetic writing system. According to one of the few comments, the few pages scanned on the blog post show some phonetic differences with modern Shanghainese.

  2. Victor Mair said,

    May 25, 2016 @ 2:30 pm

    @Frédéric Grosshans

    Thank you very much for this extremely interesting and valuable information. It is great to know about David Helliwell's excellent blog, and I am particularly pleased to learn about the creation of a phonetic writing system for Shanghainese already in the 1850's. This complements well what we already knew about the gradual, general trend toward phoneticization of Chinsese writing during the last century and more, adding powerful new evidence and depth to our findings.

  3. Bathrobe said,

    May 25, 2016 @ 3:32 pm

    You recently featured my post on An Interview about Chinese Accents, which was about an interview with Xing Jin, head of the Confucius Institute at Sydney University.

    Interestingly, one of the questions the interviewer asked was: "So what are the challenges, then, for you to learn English, which is, of course, not a tonal language?"

    Xing Jin's reply was: "Actually, I found English is compared to Cantonese and Shanghainese actually is easy to learn. Because you have the Roman alphabet, so you have some principle how you pronounce the word. So you can learn the principle."

    This is an interesting endorsement of the need to transliterate "dialects" (topolects) into phonetic representations — although Xing Jin does not appear to have noticed this, because she followed it with a plug for the current regime for replacing the old zhùyīn alphabet with the Roman alphabet.

  4. Doc Rock said,

    May 25, 2016 @ 4:13 pm

    Wu Hu!

  5. Victor Mair said,

    May 25, 2016 @ 5:05 pm

    Ai zai!

    (only 1 in 100,000 people will get your joke)

  6. maidhc said,

    May 27, 2016 @ 2:45 am

    Doc Rock: No doubt a reference to the WC Fields classic "International House":


    (First clip after the intro)

  7. shubert said,

    May 28, 2016 @ 9:06 pm

    @Bathrobe: In Shanxi Province of China, the accents of two towns, 40-50 km apart, are so different that may be labeled as "quasi-dialect".

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