Shandong vernacular, then and now

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A week ago, Julie Lee made this interesting comment on Language Log:

…when I studied Yuan dynasty drama and had books from the library, my husband (a physicist) picked them up to read and was amazed at the 13th century dialogue. "That's just the way we spoke at home in Shandong", he exclaimed. He grew up in Tengxian County*, Shandong, and went to school in Qingdao. I couldn't understand his Shandong speech. I too was amazed that Chinese colloquial speech (in Shandong) lasted from the 13th century till the 20th century — 700 years. The dialogue in Yuan drama was popping with lively expressions.

[*Likely the birthplace of the populist, egalitarian, pragmatic, empirical, scientific minded philosopher, Mo Zi / Micius (ca. 470-391 BC.)]

The historical importance of Shandong vernacular is thought to go well beyond Yuan (1271-1368; Mongol period) drama, but it is also said to be evident in the great novels of the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing dynasties (1644-1912), and, above all, in the vernacular writings of Pu Songling (1640-1715), celebrated author of the literary language collection Liáozhāi zhì yì 聊齋誌異 (Strange Tales from Make-do Studio, tr. Denis C. Mair and Victor H. Mair) and a variety of materials (ballads, plays, diaries, etc.) in coarse colloquial, researched in a forthcoming monograph by Zhenzhen Lu, who comments:

That's exciting you're planning to write about Shandong vernacular on Language Log! This reminds me of the work of professor Zhāng Shùzhēng 张树铮 at Shandong University, who is a historical linguist and has worked on the vernacular texts attributed to Pu Songling for a long time – I met him in Jinan (capital of Shandong Province) in the summer of 2015 and he invited me to plums in his office! I have recently been reading the first part of his 2018 Pú Sōnglíng báihuà zuòpǐn yǔyán yánjiū 蒲松龄白话作品语言研究 [VHM:  see the fourth paragraph below for bibliographical details]; the second volume is a 1,000 page dictionary of various terms contained in these texts).  His introduction is quite good and succinct. On pages 17-18 there is a discussion of dìng 腚 ("butt") and pìgu 屁股 ("buttocks") that might be fun to look into in terms of the script; 腚 may be one of the characters that was used first regionally in Shandong and that later became more commonly used.

While any sensitive reader of Yuan drama and Ming-Qing vernacular fiction is likely to detect reverberations between their language and contemporary Shandong colloquial that sets them apart from the literary language of the same historical period (Yuan, Ming, Qing), the linguistic and textual resemblances are complex and require scholarly study for a full and accurate accounting of the nature of their relationship.  Some of the issues that arise in the course of such an investigation are brought out in the following paragraphs, which draw on comments from Wilt Idema, though I (VHM) am responsible for their presentation and interpretation:

As you know, the early editions of zaju [Yuan drama] do not contain dialogues. Most dialogues will either have been added at the Ming imperial court, or by Li Kaixian and his associates in the  middle of the sixteenth century when he published his anthology. Li Kaixian is, of course, a Shandong person, but I doubt whether he tried to reflect Shandong dialect. One would have to know what play in which edition Julie Lee’s husband had been reading. The case of Jinpingmei 金瓶梅 (The Plum in the Golden Vase, tr. David Roy [5 vols., 1994-2016], or The Golden Lotus, tr. Clement Egerton [4 vols., 1939], with the more explicitly erotic passages rendered in Latin) also might serve as a warning: people from quite different places have believed that it reflected their local dialect.

No doubt the dialogues in the presently available editions of Yuan plays are written in a style which is much closer to the language as actually spoken in Northern China than Modern Standard Mandarin, which is very much a modern construct with a highly foreignized grammar and vocabulary. The earliest plays that offer us dialogues possibly written in a specifically local dialect of a specific period in time are the plays of Zhu Youdun (1379-1439) that may reflect the language spoken in Kaifeng [Henan Province] in the early fifteenth century. When I spent time at Berkeley some thirty years ago, I tried to interest the local linguist in the topic, who then had a PhD student do a thesis on the rhymes, so there is still room for someone to do a study of the prose in Zhu Youdun's plays.

Working on the liqu [vernacular ballads and plays] of Pu Songling, I cannot say that I am struck by a strong similarity of his language and that of Yuan drama. I encountered quite a lot of vocabulary that I did not recognize. But we now have quite extensive studies on the Shandong vernacular as encountered in works of the seventeenth century from Shandong. I benefitted especially from Zhāng Shùzhēng 张树铮,Pú Sōnglíng báihuà zuòpǐn yǔyán yánjiū 蒲松龄白话作品语言研究 (Research on the language of the vernacular writings of Pu Songling), 2 vols. (Shandong University Press, 2018), 1,419 pp. From my perspective this really is a superb achievement. Basically every question I had was answered by this work. It starts with a grammatical section of nearly 400 pages, and continues that with a dictionary of more than a thousand pages. I am not enough of a linguist to do full justice to this work, but if you want to draw attention to the importance and richness of Shandong vernacular, you should try to find someone who can highlight the virtues of this magnificent publication in a review.

From the specialists' notes of Zhenzhen Lu and Wilt Idema, it is clear that a full appreciation of the role of Shandong colloquial in the vernacular tradition of fiction, drama, and balladry during the Yuan, Ming, and Qing period requires intensive linguistic and textual research.  Still, I sympathize with the visceral reaction of Julie Lee's physicist husband who sensed a kindredness between the language of Yuan drama and his own native Shandong speech, one that differed markedly from the literary language that most learned Chinese come to believe is the way things were written in premodern times.

My in-laws were also from Shandong, and I lived together with them in the close proximity of a big household off and on for more than half a century, so I became familiar with Shandong colloquial, though never fluent in it.  To appreciate the mechanics and nuances of different varieties of Sinitic speech in Shandong (and other parts of Chinese as well), let me say that they would speak in different registers according to the situation.  For example, when my mother-in-law taught at the prestigious First Girls School in Taipei, she would speak her version of standard Mandarin (Guóyǔ 國語), but still with a very thick Shandong "accent" and some inescapable Shandong vocabulary.  At home, the family's local speech would become "purer", especially between father and mother and when they were with relatives and friends of the older generation. 

My in-laws hailed from Changyi, 170 km northwest of the great port city of Qingdao (home of the famous German-inspired Tsingtao beer).  There was a difference between the speech patterns of Changyi and other districts in Shandong, and more markedly with the urban speech of Qingdao.  I visited my relatives in Changyi and also in Qingdao.  When they got together in those places and were going full blast, say, in Changyi speech, I could only understand less than half of what they were saying, whereas in Qingdao it might increase to nearly three-quarters comprehension.  In contrast, my usual listening ability for Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM; Guoyu / Putonghua) is close to a hundred per cent.

Things got even trickier when they would sprinkle in some Sichuanese expressions, which they had picked up from having lived in Chengdu for 11 years during World War II.  Strange to say, I don't think I ever heard them say a single word of Taiwanese, even though they lived on Taiwan for three decades, despite the fact that I would goad them a bit by saying come Taiwanese to them myself.  It was as though they were dwelling in an environment where eighty percent of the people spoke Taiwanese, but the Taiwanese language did not exist.

In any event, there is a vast difference from the way native speakers customarily communicate in and perceive / experience their living language and the ways in which linguists and historians describe and analyze the manifestations of languages through time and space.  It's all language, but viewed through different lenses and with different motivations and goals in mind.  Grist for the mill.


From Middle English grist, gryst, from Old English grist, gyrst (“the action of grinding, corn for grinding, gnashing”), from a derivative of Proto-Germanic *gredaną (“to crunch”), from Proto-Indo-European *gʰrew- (“to rub, grind”). Cognate with Old Saxon gristgrimmo (“gnashing of the teeth”), German Griesgram (“a grumbler, a grouch, peevishness, misery”), Old English gristel (“gristle”).



Selected readings



  1. Coby Lubliner said,

    August 1, 2021 @ 11:37 am

    What does Wilt Idema mean by MSM having a "a highly foreignized grammar and vocabulary"?

  2. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 1, 2021 @ 2:19 pm

    Re your "Strange to say," I daresay quite a substantial percentage of L1 Taiwanese-speakers would not find that at all strange, in the sense of statistically unexpected, although the very ubiquity of that lack of curiosity about the local topolect on the part of many of the waishengren helps explain many social/political tensions in post-1949 Taiwan that are perhaps still not fully resolved seven decades down the line.

  3. David Marjanović said,

    August 1, 2021 @ 6:40 pm

    When they got together in those places and were going full blast, say, in Changyi speech, I could only understand less than half of what they were saying

    So… northeastern Mandarin alone is comparable, in this respect, to German and Dutch put together.

  4. Bathrobe said,

    August 2, 2021 @ 3:50 am

    "a highly foreignized grammar and vocabulary"

    The vocabulary part is fairly simple: much of the modern vocabulary related to politics, economics, science, etc. has been borrowed from English, often via Japanese.

    On the grammatical side, modern Mandarin contains considerable foreignised grammar constructions that may have existed before but were reinforced by foreign models. This includes constructions like 最…之一, 在…的同时, 以…为…的, 有V的必要; modification of pronouns by relative clauses (embedded sentences); expressions like 对…来说, 通过, 围绕着, 作为; conjoining two verbs with a single object; the 'A、B和C' construction; A和B的Noun (经济和社会的背景), etc, etc. This is just a small sample. The list of foreignised constructions is quite long.

  5. Bathrobe said,

    August 2, 2021 @ 4:05 am

    much of the modern vocabulary related to politics, economics, science, etc. has been borrowed from English

    This was misleading.

    Much of the modern Chinese vocabulary related to politics, economics, science, etc. has been coined to reflect the vocabulary of English. This involved coining large numbers of new words that might not have meant much to a Chinese speaker of an earlier era. A lot of this word-coinage was done by the Japanese.

    One example: the word 社会 'society'. 社 literally means ‘god of the land’ in an old sense and 'society; group; club; agency' in more modern usage. 会 literally means 'union; group; association'. Putting the two together to mean 'society' is a modern coinage. It's unlikely that a pre-modern Chinese would know what it is talking about.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    August 2, 2021 @ 6:51 am

    From Tsu-Lin Mei:

    Ji Xianlin 季羡林 (the Sanskritist and Tocharian specialist) was from Shandong. I had the pleasure of returning from Hefei to Peking in the same compartment with Ji Xianlin and I remember him getting off the train to buy Shandong pancakes for his fellow occupants. Another occupant was Lü Shuxiang 吕叔湘。Fu Sinian 傅斯年 was also from Shandong. In Shandong dialects velars fail to palatalize. Tianqi 天气 would be tian khi, etc.

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