Varieties of Mandarin

« previous post | next post »

Speakers of Northeastern / Dongbei topolect and Putonghua (Modern Standard Mandarin) speaking very common equivalent expressions and holding up cards with the written forms of what they are saying:

Northeastern / Dongbei topolect and Putonghua are both supposed to be closely related topolects of Mandarin, but — even if you know neither of them — just watching and listening to this short video in which equivalent common expressions in the two variants are spoken and shown in written form, it will be painfully evident how radically different Northeastern / Dongbei topolect and Putonghua are.

Now, when we multiply these distinctions by the hundreds of varieties of Mandarin that exist, we can see the enormous linguistic diversity in China, and that's not even mentioning the scores of Cantonese topolects, many of which are only partially intelligible to each other. Ditto for the JinWuHuiGanXiangMinHakka, and Ping groups.

So the next time that somebody tells you there are a billion speakers of "Mandarin" or that there is only one "Chinese" language, take it with an enormous grain of salt.

[Thanks to Zeyao Wu]


  1. Jonathan said,

    October 25, 2017 @ 1:13 pm

    The answer to this is probably more cultural than linguistic, but can anyone tell me why this is funny, why does this make the audience laugh? Do they have the same expectation/conventional belief that the two topolects are very similar, and the evident violation of that is funny? Or is along the lines of the traditionally hackneyed American stand-up trope "Black people do X like this, white people do X like this"?

    As a non-Chinese speaker (of any variety) I can see the contrast, but I don't understand why it's funny.

  2. J said,

    October 25, 2017 @ 1:50 pm

    I think the humor is because it's so completely different; it's like they've 'got another word for everything'. Northeastern ('dongbei') Chinese speakers of Mandarin are famous for their standard Mandarin. In the 1950s, radio announcers were hired from Harbin (China's northernmost major city) for national radio because of their clear accent. And Northeastern speakers, when speaking 普通话 'Mandarin', are known to speak it quite clearly when compared to southern Chinese. So people are often surprised when they hear actual 东北话 'dongbei speech'. Does that make it clearer?

  3. Michael Wise said,

    October 25, 2017 @ 3:46 pm

    I understand the Mandarin speaker completely, but I have never heard the words in the Northeast accent. This is a commonly overlooked part of accent: that different words will be used to describe the same thing. The word I learned for warm can be pronounced differently in different accents; garbage is the same. It’s funny because I (regular Mandarin speaker, based in Shanghai) know the Dongbei 东北 words, I just would never use them, because outside of Dongbei 东北,no one understands them.

  4. Michael Wise said,

    October 25, 2017 @ 4:06 pm

    Most people understand basic Mandarin 普通话,and they adjust their vocabulary accordingly. The quirks of individual regions get weeded out: as more Northeastern people go to Shanghai for work, they adjust their vocabulary to fit their new surroundings. It’s not that difficult: words are words they know how to say, they’ve just never used them that way before.

  5. J said,

    October 25, 2017 @ 4:11 pm

    I think you're missing the point. It's true that Northeasterners "adjust their vocabulary" when they go to Shanghai or Guangzhou. But it's also true that most people using 普通话 in Shanghai or Guangzhou haven't been exposed to unedited 东北话, and they are surprised (and amused) by how different it can be.

  6. Jacob said,

    October 25, 2017 @ 9:15 pm

    @Jonathan People tend to laugh at colloquialism or quirks in vocabulary, seemingly no matter the language or country. The ones that get the most laughs are usually the ones that were/are used by grandparents and/or country bumpkins. My family will often laugh about a word or phrase that was common in another time where I'm from; it was a regular topic of conversation among friends from different parts of China; I've had friends from England nearly piss themselves laughing discussing what they call different things; and I've had Mexican roommates laugh over the words they use versus those in other parts of Central America.

  7. Steven Marzuola said,

    October 26, 2017 @ 2:19 am

    So would this be like someone like west Texas meeting a Glaswegian?

  8. Jonathan said,

    October 26, 2017 @ 12:38 pm

    @J, @Jacob – Thanks for the replies; they cleared things up, especially the details of the reputation of dongbei speakers.

  9. J said,

    October 26, 2017 @ 12:39 pm

    @Jonathan 不客氣! You're welcome!

  10. Jonathan Smith said,

    October 26, 2017 @ 12:54 pm

    The simple fact of difference is not the funny, as Jacob suggested. I don't think the above is much more funny to a totally Dongbei-ignorant speaker of Putonghua than to a speaker of neither variety; it is those who are familiar with both to some degree, especially if in the form of a highly colloquial vs. a formal register in their own language (presumably the case for this audience), that will find it funny. Somehow, suggesting dictionary-style equivalences of this sort is simply comical, much like if an outsider in the American South were informed by a local that yapper, skedaddle and varmi(n)t meant 'mouth', 'run away' and 'animal' respectively (not the best examples as too widely known), listeners-on could find it true in a facile sense but also somehow totally inadequate, thus funny. Or for another parallel, speakers of AAVE having fun with "translations" of standard American English into "Ebonics."

  11. Jonathan Smith said,

    October 26, 2017 @ 12:59 pm

    Also there are different things going on. Some is just fun with "country" accent via eye-dialect (yong1 拥) for standard (yin1 因). Jie55?bi324? is, according to some, cognate to standard ge2bi4 隔壁 'next door [neighbor]' with a colloquial register palatalization (notice here for "putonghua" more literary lin2ju1 邻居 'neighbor' was chosen to play up the contrast.) Then there are "skedaddle" type words.

  12. J said,

    October 26, 2017 @ 1:14 pm

    "The simple fact of difference is not the funny," yes, your English is! ;-)

  13. Anonymous Coward said,

    October 27, 2017 @ 1:20 pm

    jièbǐr is the original Pekinese pronunciation of gébì; the current one is, like most elements dividing High Pekinese/Standard Mandarin from Low Pekinese/Hebei dialect, borrowed from the previous standard language of Nanjing.

RSS feed for comments on this post