Chinese pentaglot rap

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A Shanghainese friend of a friend just sent him a link to a curious video, and he forwarded it to me.  It looks like a Nike-sponsored rap song with five different fāngyán 方言 ("topolects") and lots of English.

My friend asked, "I wonder to what degree the Hànzì 汉字 ("Chinese characters") in the subtitles match the actual lyrics."

The video comes via Bilibili, which sometimes seems to load very slowly.  It is also available on iQIYI and DigitaLing.  Subtitles are more clearly visible in the Bilibili and DigitaLing (last one) versions.

The main questions, at least for me, are which topolects are presented, how faithful the presentations are, and how well the subtitles represent what is being said.

The title of the video is "Dirty Class / Bridge WOW" (the group and the name of their performance).

I watched the three versions of the video repeatedly, for a total of about a dozen times, so I have a good idea of who the singers are and where they're from, though I certainly cannot claim to understand everything they're saying.

First comes the emcee, who begins the song with these words:  "It's your boy P.Q.  We got Beijing, Chongqing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Changsha.    All Star.    Dirty Class on the track.    Rock."

Next is Sūn Xù 孙旭 from Beijing.  Native Pekingese report that they can understand most of what he is saying, and that the subtitles reflect pretty well the words he utters.  Most of his sentences end with "wow", which he pronounces more as if it rhymes with "hoe" than with "how".

After Sūn Xù is Ayuko 葉子, which is a distinctly Japanese-style name in its pronunciation, though I don't think it's a real Japanese name, whereas it means "leaf" in Mandarin.  The sole female rapper, she speaks in Cantonese with a very nimble tongue, and plenty of English mixed in ("Who's the champion", "I'm the champion", "Let me show you how we do it", "Shinning [sic] ring ring [sic] let me show it", "Just do it", etc.).  The gap between what she speaks and the subtitles seems to be larger than for the other singers.

Then comes BRIDGE GO$H from Chonqqing.  He's really good with twirling a basketball and I can hear that he's speaking some kind of Sichuanese, though I can't fully comprehend his words, not even when he speaks English:  "Hold up Hold up Hold up", which sounds like "Hola Hola Hola".

P.Q returns now, representing Shanghai.  His pronunciation sounds very Shanghainese, and he uses some Shanghainese words such as 作, which in Mandarin (zuò) means "make; do", with the meaning "kill" (zú [not sure of the tone and romanization]).  作 also has another special pronunciation and meaning in Shanghainese:  zo ("to make a mountain out of a molehill; to make a big deal out of nothing" — an expression favored by girls).

Last is DamnShine C-Block / Sup Music from Changha, who does sing in a very Hunanese way and the subtitles match what he is singing quite closely (verified by one of my students who is from that province).  The last words of the song are "Let me know. Wow" (to rhyme with "know") — sung by the group as a whole.

A couple of general notes:

1. Their English usage and pronunciation are remarkably au courant.

2. The tones, no matter in what topolect, are easier to control / maintain in rap than in more melodic forms of singing.

Cf., among many other relevant posts

"When intonation overrides tone" (6/4/13)

"When intonation overrides tone, part 2" (5/11/17)

"Stress, emphasis, pause, and meaning in Mandarin" (11/8/17) — with references to additional posts

A final observation:  this kind of expression, which mixes English liberally with Chinese, is becoming increasingly popular and natural.  I believe that it bears out a prediction I made about twenty years ago in a still unpublished novel, China Babel, viz. that Chinese is absorbing so much English that it is slowly merging with the latter.  In terms of the massive borrowings of tens of thousands of vocabulary items, the same thing has been happening in Japanese and South Korean.  But the borrowing in Chinese is more far-reaching, since it includes not only vocabulary, but morphemes, grammatical constructions, and whole snatches and sentences of English incorporated in Chinese speech.  It's an exciting time to be witness to these changes.

See "A New Morpheme in Mandarin" (4/26/11) and dozens of other posts about English creeping into Chinese, despite the protestations and prohibitions of the government.


  1. David Marjanović said,

    December 28, 2017 @ 6:38 pm

    "wow", which he pronounces more as if it rhymes with "hoe" than with "how"


  2. Jichang Lulu said,

    December 28, 2017 @ 8:46 pm

    Whoa betide the topolectal 本字 běnzì!

    To answer your friend's question based on the Shanghainese segment, the subtitles are a Mandarin translation, so the characters used don't really match the lyrics, and don't have to. Looking at the Shanghainese phrase discussed in the OP, here's what it looks like in characters often used for these morphemes, with Simmons' romanisation, where -q represents a glottal stop:

    拿伊拉做脱 nàe 'yila dzuteq 'do/kill/get rid of them'

    The Mandarin translation is 把他们做掉 bǎ tāmen zuòdiào, with only one character in common (zero if they had chosen 干掉 gàndiào).

    A lot could be said about just that short phrase.

    dzu 'do' is, for all I know, actually cognate with Mandarin 做 zuò (the more recent spelling for what once was the 'departing' 去 tone variant of 作 zuò). The tone in Shanghainese is 34 'rising' if pronounced in isolation (from older 阴去 yīnqù). In Simmons' system, this tone is left unmarked and the transcription is just dzu. As noted in the OP, it sounds a lot like pinyin .

    (The originally 'entering' (入 ) tone form of 作 is still separate in Shanghainese: 作 dzoq. The “作” meaning 'make a fuss' is also pronounced dzoq (as in 作天作地 dzoqti dzoqdi), but I understand it had a more open vowel in older Shanghainese, and might not be a cognate of 'do'.)

    The first word, the coverb usually written 拿, has several variant pronunciations. P.Q. in the video uses nàe, the most common now, but a form nàw/naw also exists, and I think even noe in the northern suburbs. The vowel and tone in nàe are quite problematic; one hypothesis is that they were influenced by 担 tàe, a coverb with similar functions in older Shanghainese.

    Those are only some of the problems one faces when trying to find 本字 běnzì 'original/proper characters' for topolects without a rich, continuous written tradition. Some of the easiest problems, in fact: Shanghainese is one of the best studied and most written topolects, and the above issues are more or less well known. For rarer morphemes and other topolects, the difficulties can be insurmountable. Unfortunately none of the existing romanisation systems for Shanghainese has gained general popularity, but people on the Internet still manage to write (about) it in all manner of combinations of pinyin, English and characters standing for their Mandarin or Shanghainese pronunciations or meanings.

    The phrase and its underworld overtones are well known beyond the confines of Shanghai, perhaps popularised by Shanghainese comedian Zhou Libo 周立波 (who says the phrase at 0:28 here). He was later arrested in Long Island, carrying a loaded gun and some crack.

  3. Ryan said,

    December 29, 2017 @ 1:17 am

    I remember seeing a video for this song about a decade ago. Not knowing any Chinese whatsoever, I was only able to pay attention to the subtitles, but it threw me that the chorus of the song seems to shift languages from English to Chinese right in the middle of a sentence.

  4. Matt said,

    December 29, 2017 @ 3:34 am

    “Ayuko” is a Japanese name, and 葉子 (usually “Yōko”) is a Japanese name, but it would be surprising to see “Ayuko” written with the characters 葉子.

  5. Christian Weisgerber said,

    December 29, 2017 @ 1:32 pm

    To somebody in the 15th century it must have seemed that English was absorbing so much French that it was slowly merging with the latter.

  6. Jenny Chu said,

    December 29, 2017 @ 11:33 pm

    I asked my kids for their opinions on this rap, since it is beyond my comprehension abilities.

    Comment from my older son: "For some characters, the tones were not the normal tones, but were tweaked to make it flow better."

    Comment from my younger son, on the Cantonese part of the rap: "That sounds so wrong."

    (Note: both are Hong Kong Cantonese speakers who also learn Putonghua in school.)

  7. TheJack said,

    December 30, 2017 @ 9:14 am

    The video is now also available on Meipai with the subtitles; what's interesting about this version is that, unlike the other sites, the post attracted numerous comments which (if I even remotely understand) compliment or complain about the performers' language.

    I'm curious what the pros (or their younger family members…) make of those…

  8. B.Ma said,

    January 1, 2018 @ 7:29 am

    The Cantonese sounds like someone whose native language is not a Chinese language reading out a text in Hong Kong Government Romanization.

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