Crosstalk about topolects

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In the last few days, we've been discussing the notion of "national language" and its relationship to other languages and topolects spoken in China.  Here's a famous 6:47 comic skit filmed in 1980 featuring the late Mǎ Jì 马季 and his straight man, Zhào Yán 赵炎, called "Guǎngdōng huà 广东话" ("Cantonese") (I will describe its contents below):

Comedy duos, like Abbott and Costello, have been quite popular in China for the past century and more.  In Chinese, they are usually referred to as xiàngsheng 相声 ("crosstalk; comic dialog"), which is centered in Beijing, but also is much loved in Tianjin, Nanjing, and elsewhere, particularly in the north.  The Northeastern equivalent of crosstalk is called xiǎopǐn 小品 ("comedic sketch").

Ma begins the skit by saying that when he does crosstalk he speaks Pǔtōnghuà 普通话 (lit., "common speech", i.e., "Mandarin"), which Zhao calls Huáyǔ 华语 (lit., "florescent language", i.e., "Chinese").  Ma immediately follows by repeating the designation Pǔtōnghuà 普通话 (lit., "common speech", i.e., "Mandarin").  He says that we should speak Putonghua, not just in crosstalk, but also in daily life.  Zhao stresses that this is for the purpose of tǒngyī yǔyán 统一语言 ("unification of language").  Ma agrees that this will result in a gòngtóng yǔyán 共同语言 ("common language") and says that we (Chinese people) shouldn't just speak in fāngyán 方言 ("topolects").  When people from different parts of the country speak their own topolects, they can't understand each other, which results in people making fools of themselves.

By this point, Ma is really warming to his topic.  With the help of Zhao, he emphasizes that China is a big country and that it has many topolects and tǔyǔ 土语 ("patois").  Ma says that we shouldn't speak that kind of language because others won't understand.  If we only go several tens of kilometers away, we encounter another topolect that we can't understand.

Ma tells us that his name is Mǎ Jì 马季 (lit., "horse season"), but when he goes to Shanghai, people there pronounce his name as though it sounds like mǔjī 母鸡 ("hen"), and he milks that for all it's worth.  (I won't go into all the silly details [e.g., he can't lay eggs like a hen].)

Then he turns to Guangzhou, where they speak Cantonese.  There they pronounce his name so that the second syllable sounds to him as though it means guǐ 鬼 ("ghost").  In the north he is human, in the south he's a ghost.  So that's a problem with the topolects.

After that, Ma rattles off the numbers from 1-10 in Putonghua / Mandarin.  He shows that there's a difference even between Beijing and Tianjin, which are only a little over a hundred kilometers apart.  The difference is much greater when you get to Shanghai, and when you get to Guangzhou, the numbers sound so different that they make Zhao's head hurt.

Ma repeats that, if you don't understand topolects, it's easy to make a fool of yourself.  As an illustration, from around 3:30 in the video, Ma tells how, once when he and his wife were in Guangzhou, they rode their bicycles to a market to buy a hen.  Since he couldn't speak Cantonese, he was unable to ask where they could park their bikes.  Finally with lots of gesturing, his Cantonese interlocutor comprehends that he wants to know where to park their bikes, whereupon the man says "over there", which sounds to Ma as though he were saying "zài Hǎinán dǎo 在海南岛" ("on Hainan Island") (the Cantonese for "over there" is heard by Ma as something like hai2 ni1dou6 呢度, which actually means "over here").  After they get their bikes parked, they go into the market where the wife tries to buy an old hen, but the person working there keeps giving her roosters.  Frustrated at not being able to explain that she wants a hen, not a rooster, she shouts that what she wants is a chicken that is "the same as me".

The skit ends with a rapid stream of Cantonese that only leaves the audience thoroughly confused and convulsed with laughter.


"'National Language' in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region" (12/14/19)

"Multilingualism in Philadelphia's Chinatown" (12/14/19)

"A Chinese analog to English you know'" (11/22/19)

"'Rondle it!'" (2/25/19)

[Thanks to Diana Shuheng Zhang]


  1. Toby said,

    December 16, 2019 @ 3:34 pm

    Strangely this comes across as Putonghua chauvinism and distinctly unfunny.

  2. Bathrobe said,

    December 16, 2019 @ 3:58 pm

    Putonghua, indeed. They're not speaking putonghua themselves; they're speaking Beijing-accented putonghua. While he's making fun of Cantonese for saying 'Hainandao', he himself uses the Beijing-ism nàhar in place of putonghua nàr 'there'.

  3. liuyao said,

    December 16, 2019 @ 4:41 pm

    A favorite topic in xiangsheng, from Hou Baolin (1917-1993) to Dashan (Mark Rowswell).

  4. liuyao said,

    December 16, 2019 @ 4:52 pm

    sorry the first link should be replaced by this

  5. Calvin said,

    December 17, 2019 @ 10:13 pm

    Within Guangdong province, Cantonese is commonly called 廣州話 as Guangdong has other topolects that are almost mutually intelligible with Cantonese: 潮州話, 客家話(Hakka), 台山話 (Taishanese), etc.

    台山話 (Taishanese) was commonly spoken in early Chinatowns in North America (San Francisco, Vancouver, Toronto, etc.) as majority of the Chinese immigrants in the 19th century (before the Chinese Exclusion Act) were from around the Taishan region of Guangdong.

    Even though Taishan is less than 100 miles from Guangzhou (Canton), Taishanese is quite different from Cantonese. You can hear the 相声 skits from the same two performers using the two topolets with the same theme:

    In Taishanese:
    In Cantonese:

  6. Su-Chong Lim said,

    December 21, 2019 @ 12:16 pm

    In Singapore when I was growing up, all the various Chinese dialect/topolect groups more or less rubbed along harmoniously side by side, sort of understanding each other and occasionally trying to communicate in the other.

    But it was well known how badly any one group's attempt to speak the other worked out. This difficulty was common fodder for dialogue jokes that you wouldn’t get unless you were familiar with both dialects, but could be hilarious. There was one that stands out in my mind after all these years: So there’s this Hokkien (Fujian) guy dancing with this Cantonese girl, and trying to make polite small talk. She’s got high heels on, and he says in Cantonese (or tries to) “Your shoes are so high it’s hard to dance”; but because he’s so bad at Cantonese he gets the “shoes” wrong and it comes out “hai1” 閪 (female genitalia) and “dance" comes out as “diu2” (fuck). OK, explaining it takes a lot of steam out of the joke, but when you're there hearing it, it’s a real thigh slapper.

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