"Chinese" well beyond Mandarin

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A topic which I have raised here and elsewhere a number of times is that of Sinitic topolects and languages (www.sino-platonic.org/complete/spp029_chinese_dialect.pdf), and I have also called attention to the increasing domination of Mandarin in education and the media.  Even native speakers within China sometimes don't appreciate quite how varied the Sinitic group of languages can be.  People often say that someone can move from one valley to the next, or one village to the next, and just not be able to make themselves understood.  But until you've been in that situation yourself, it doesn't really hit home.  Before long, I'll post on Shanghainese and will provide audio recordings that will demonstrate clearly just how different it is from Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM).  There are countless other varieties of "Chinese" that are just as different from each other as Shanghainese (or Cantonese or Taiwanese, for that matter) are from MSM.

As I reported some time ago in "The Phasing out of Chinese 'Dialects'", this extraordinary richness is steadily diminishing and the government is gradually removing "dialect" programming from prime-time TV.

A new website called Phonemica, or Xiāngyīn Yuàn 乡音苑 (lit., "garden of local accents / pronunciation"), is part of a project to collect recordings in every variety of spoken Sinitic.  It has 50 recordings from the mainland and Taiwan as of now, mapped and categorized according to the variety of "Chinese" being spoken, and is aiming to have 500 within the next year, including recordings from Chinese-speaking communities outside "Greater China", i.e., throughout the "Sinosphere".

The recordings are all made and transcribed by volunteers, with the goal of getting close friends and relatives to record each other speaking their most casual, unrehearsed, and authentic mother tongue.  Anyone who doubts just how different the so-called dialects of "Chinese" are can click on a map to hear samples of speech from different parts of the country. The homepage is here in English or here in Mandarin.

I believe that Phonemica is a valuable site.  I would urge everyone who is interested in Sinitic dialectology and phonology both to use it and to contribute to it.

[Thanks to Steve Hansen and Kellen Parker]


  1. John F said,

    May 10, 2013 @ 6:48 am

    Would these dialects be analogous to the various English dialects, or like the difference between English, Danish, Scots, Dutch, Frisian, German, etc.?

  2. Victor Mair said,

    May 10, 2013 @ 7:25 am

    @John F

    Good question. One thing is certain: many of them are mutually unintelligible. Another is that many morphemes (often those that are of high frequency) in the dialects / topolects cannot be written in Chinese characters.

  3. John F said,

    May 10, 2013 @ 7:58 am

    @Victor Mair
    Thanks for the reply.

  4. Kellen said,

    May 10, 2013 @ 8:01 am

    @John F

    I liken them to the Romance languages: There are plenty of cognates and in general grammatical structure is similar, so anyone can see they're related, but there's also plenty that's radically different. What's more, much like Europe, there are a number of dialect continuums like we find with Dutch/German. One end of the Mandarin continuum won't be able to understand the other, at all, without all parties involved taking (sometimes drastic) steps to standardise.

  5. malkie said,

    May 10, 2013 @ 11:16 am

    I had always thought that the following story fitted into the "coincidence" category, but perhaps not.

    Many years ago, when my (now ex-) wife was learning Mandarin, I picked up a few words from her teacher.

    Recently a native Mandarin speaker, on hearing me trying to say something in Mandarin, and without any knowledge of how I came to know a few words, commented on my Shanghaiese pronunciation.

    Was it perhaps not just a lucky guess? – my wife's teacher was indeed from Shanghai.

    I expect that if I taught anyone English, they might pick up a bit of a Scottish accent from me, and I shouldn't be surprised at that. But somehow it still strikes me as a little odd that I could have a recognizable accent in a language that I really don't speak at all, at least beyond the level of "Good morning", "I am your friend", "Are you busy?"

  6. Victor Mair said,

    May 10, 2013 @ 3:59 pm


    The phenomenon that you have described is very noticeable. For example, I can usually easily detect whether a student's teacher is from Taiwan because clear traces of so-called Taiwan Guoyu (Mandarin) will be instantly recognizable. Ditto for Shanghai. Etc.

    For Mainland teachers, however, it's harder to detect if they are under about 40 years of age, since regional differences of Modern Standard Mandarin have largely been ironed out. But I can still tell, for example, if someone is from the Northeast just by the way they pronounce YING, and that will transfer down to their students.

  7. Rod Johnson said,

    May 10, 2013 @ 10:30 pm

    Are the differences mainly phonological and lexical, or are there significant syntactic differences? I guess the former would be like varieties of English (although to a greater degree), whereas the later might be like English vs. German.

    Also: are there any reliable maps of Sinitic languages/lects?

  8. Marc Rettig said,

    May 10, 2013 @ 11:41 pm

    I have no idea how reliable they are, but the ethnologue offers a few such maps: http://www.ethnologue.com/country/CN/maps

  9. Victor Mair said,

    May 11, 2013 @ 5:35 am

    @Rod Johnson

    The differences run the gamut. For the dialects within Mandarin, they are mainly phonological and lexical, but for the varieties that are further apart, they can be syntactic, morphological, and so forth.

  10. leoboiko said,

    May 11, 2013 @ 9:42 am

    Related question: Are there significant syntactical differences between spoken Mandarin and Classical Chinese / Literary Sinitic?

  11. Wentao said,

    May 12, 2013 @ 7:56 pm

    @Victor Mair
    Professor Mair, I remember someone saying Chao Yuen Ren once commented that the Chinese fangyan are as different as High and Low German (or Dutch?). Since I know no German or Dutch, I wonder to what extent is this true?
    Also, I feel that Chinese languages are phonetically very "compact". Most words are disyllabic; there are no consonant clusters (which I find distinctive aurally and easy to grasp for learners), very few consonant endings and a lot of words start with similar sounding sounds such as zh/ch/sh/j/q/x.
    The result is that a little bit of alternation in pronunciation (for example messing up the tones) would affect the meaning drastically – at least more so than European languages. That's why I find it much harder to understand a beginner Chinese speaker than, say, a beginner English speaker. Perhaps this fact also contributes to the unintelligibility between fangyan?

    There are. Personally I find the difference between written Putonghua (Standard Modern Mandarin) and written Classical Chinese as great as that between French and Latin.

  12. Victor Mair said,

    May 13, 2013 @ 5:27 am


    Excellent insights!

    I will soon be making posts on Shanghainese and the new Windows 8 ads that will support your intuition.

  13. Victor Mair said,

    January 26, 2014 @ 12:36 pm

    "Awesome interactive map from Phonemica records Chinese dialects"


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