Topolects of The9

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The9 is a Chinese girl group hailing from different parts of the PRC.  Here they are playing the telephone / Chinese whispers game with their own topolects*, which they refer to as fāngyán 方言, almost universally mistranslated into English as "dialect".

*See The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, q.v.

Alex Baumans comments:

My own knowledge of any variety of Chinese more or less ends with 'Ni hao', so I have to rely fully on the subtitles, and no doubt a lot escapes me. I do like the 'is this Korean?'* reactions.

*Korean girl bands / groups are very popular in China, and indeed around the world.

In this version of the telephone / Chinese whispers game, the difficulty of transmitting the original sentence from the first speaker to the ninth is greatly magnified by the fact that, from one speaker to the next, not only is there repetition, there is also translation from one lect to another.


Selected readings


  1. John Rohsenow said,

    September 12, 2020 @ 5:32 pm

    Not directly to the point, but many, many years ago in a "Chinese linguistics" class at U MIchigan, one rumor was that Chinese couldn't
    be whispered b/c tones can't be whispered. Our prof. Jim Dew had several native speakers whisper a message he had written out from ear to ear like the "telephone" game we used to play as children. It came out just fine at the end, so so much for THAT theory!

  2. Michael Watts said,

    September 12, 2020 @ 5:40 pm

    Well, the theory that tones can't be whispered survives that experiment. The theory that a lack of tones would prevent Chinese from being whispered was always nonsense, regardless of the effects of whispering. Compare Chinese being sung, or Chinese being written in pinyin or zhuyin without tone markings.

  3. Tore said,

    September 12, 2020 @ 6:00 pm

    They are not translating, only trans-enunciating. Is the first girl speaking a southern dialect? It sounds slightly Cantonese.

  4. Y said,

    September 12, 2020 @ 7:42 pm

    What are the topolects in the video?

    P.S. There has been quite a bit of recent research on whispered Mandarin Chinese. Tonal distinctions are reflected in duration, intensity profiles and formant shifts in whispered speech, though it is not yet clear which of those cues are the most significant for tone identification.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    September 12, 2020 @ 9:39 pm

    From Diana Shuheng Zhang:

    I quickly went through this short video. I think it's the easiest to know what the topolects are by searching the personal information of each girl who spoke. They are all idols, so their personal information (at least their hometown) is public. The idol group is called "THE NINE". Wiki page here:

    If you scroll down to the bottom (or click on the link "4.1 前9名排名") you'll see a table consisting of the names and the hometowns of all the nine girls.

    In the first part, each girl speaks in her topolect "Tàiyáng gōnggōng chūláile, wǒ hǎo pà bèi shài hēi a 太陽公公出來了,我好怕被曬黑啊" ("Old Man Sol has come out; I'm so afraid of getting sunburned").

    According to the chronological order they spoke, the six girls are from:

    1 上海市
    2 貴州省(she is Manchu 滿族人)
    3 浙江省台州市
    4 四川省
    5 江蘇省南京市
    6 重慶市
    — some of them only have provinces on their page. no city information provided.

    Then, in the "word chain" part, chronologically the girls who spoke are from:

    1 speaker from 浙江台州 >> listener from 貴州
    —— The listener's response: “是韓語?實在聽不懂!” (Was that Korean? I really couldn't get it!)

    2 speaker from 貴州 >> listener from 上海
    —— The listener's response: "英語嗎?聽不懂啊!" (Was that English? Can't understand!)

    3 speaker from 上海 >> the first listener from 北京
    —— The listener's response: "什麼?!你再說一遍?" ("What? Say it again!" [with extremely perplexed face])

    4 speaker from 北京 >> listener form 重慶
    —— The listener seemed to smile confidently. (but I'm not sure; I'm bad at reading faces)

    5 speaker from 重慶 >> listener from 湖北省潜江市

    6 speaker from 湖北潜江>> listener from 江蘇南京
    —— The listener's response: “什麼什麼什麼,你在說韓語啊?” ("What what what were you speaking Korean?")

    7 speaker from 江蘇南京 >> a second listener from 北京
    —— The listener was confused. Conversation between her and the person who spoke to her:
    Speaker: "不知道,她就是這麼跟我說的。" ("I don't know; that was what she [the 湖北潛江 person] told me.")
    Listener: "這是你的家鄉話嗎?" ("Is this your hometown's topolect?")
    Speaker: "不是。我要用我的家鄉話啊?我都沒有聽懂。" ("No. Do I have to use my own topolect? I couldn't even understand (what she said)!")
    Listener: "那你就繼續用她的吧。" ("Fine, then you keep using hers.")
    (speaker repeated the sentence mechanically. Listener laughed, confused.)

    8 speaker from 北京 >> listener from 四川
    —— The listener was totally confused. She is the final reporter of the sentence.

    The 四川 reporter (the last listener): [trying very hard to repeat the sounds, ending up in a sequence of unintelligible sounds]

    Then she tried to guess its meaning and reported the sentence in her own topolect.

    The first speaker (from 浙江台州) exposes the original sentence, the final answer:

    "沒事沒事,我們怎麼這麼厲害啊!" ("Don't worry, don't worry; how can we be so great!")


    As for what this implies…. I can only say that this transcription tells us all. ;)

  6. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    September 13, 2020 @ 4:28 am

    Do linguists differentiate between topolect and regionalect?

  7. David Marjanović said,

    September 13, 2020 @ 5:13 am

    …I haven't heard any tone language whispered, but of course intonation and at least contour tones can be whispered. It may require an exaggerated effort, but it's far from impossible. Just try it yourself.

  8. Francois Lang said,

    September 13, 2020 @ 7:38 am

    Could someone more linguistically erudite than I explain the differences among dialect, topolect, and regionalect? I Googled, and did not find anything that sounded authoritative.

    I thank all readers in advance for enlightening me!

  9. Victor Mair said,

    September 13, 2020 @ 7:57 am

    We have explained the differences among dialect, topolect, and regionalect endlessly on LLog and elsewhere. See the "Selected Readings" at the end of this post; some of them (the first seven and the last three) specifically and directly address this matter. Also reread the o.p. carefully.

  10. Michael Watts said,

    September 13, 2020 @ 12:41 pm

    "Tàiyáng gōnggōng chūláile, wǒ hǎo pà bèi shài hēi a 太陽公公出來了,我好怕被曬黑啊" ("Old Man Sol has come out; I'm so afraid of getting sunburned")

    Wait, are they afraid of getting sunburned, or of getting tanned?

  11. Ben said,

    September 13, 2020 @ 11:01 pm

    I don't know much about the Taizhou topolect of the original sentence, but to me it doesn't really sound like a reflex of the mandarin translation. That is, it would seem there are different lexical items at play in addition to pronunciation differences.

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