Heavily accented Mandarin

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In "Voice-activated lights" (9/20/23), we saw how difficult it is even for native speakers of Modern Standard Mandarin to understand other varieties, and can be thankful to Zeyao Wu, who comes from the area where the topolect in the film is spoken, for kindly identifying and transcribing it for all of us.

rit malors writes:

You may also want to try how many native speakers of Sinitic languages can identify or understand this speech from the late Head of Macau, Fernando Chui Sai On (Cant. Ceoi1 Sai3 On1; 2009-2019):

His Mandarin is so "famous" that many people are saying he is the real brave man to safeguard Cantonese.

I think Chui / Ceoi1 is trying very hard to speak proper Mandarin and does pretty well with the tones, but not so well with consonants and vowels.

Here's a sample of Chiang Kai-shek's (1887-1975) victory speech in 1945 with heavy Wu topolect accent:

And here is Mao Zedong (1893-1976) with his Hunan accent

As we have noted before, Xi Jinping is the first president of modern China to speak standard Mandarin (never mind the quality of his rhetoric and content):

When students in the 50s and 60s were studying at National Taiwan University, they could barely understand what their professors, who hailed from all over China, were saying in the classroom.  I often heard my wife and her friends joke about how they would doodle or doze during lectures because they didn't understand what they were all about.


Selected readings



  1. Philip Taylor said,

    September 22, 2023 @ 6:10 am

    Re. Chiang Kai-shek’s victory speech in 1945, I cannot help but feel that he did not say "Today, the enemies have been defeated together with our allies", as the sub-title would have us believe.

  2. Huto said,

    September 22, 2023 @ 6:24 am

    Is Hu Jintao's Mandarin not standard enough?

  3. Pamela said,

    September 22, 2023 @ 9:42 am

    Yes we had some hilarious adventures in the very late 70s and early 80s when senior Chinese scholars would come over for exchanges, and talk in their villages dialects, which seemed to be the style among Chinese academics in the 1930s and 1940s. At one point I threw up my hands at hearing Professor Fu Yiling's Fukien-Mandarin whatever it was, and asked my professor Yü Ying-shih how to translate, and he could only wave his glasses and say he had no idea. Professor Yü often said that when attending Qian Mu's lectures at 中文大學, as in this case in Taiwan, nobody could get much out of his Wu-Mandarin mishmash, and they were grateful that once in a while he would write some characters on the board. Xi Jinping sounds like a first rate Mandarin teacher compared to Mao. For some reason Chief Executive Chui's speech seems clear to me. He is speaking very carefully. It does make me curious about Macanese, though, which is on the list of endangered languages. To me it sounds like a Portuguese dialect of some kind, doesn't seem to much input from Cantonese. Amazing culture.

  4. David Marjanović said,

    September 22, 2023 @ 10:29 am

    When students in the 50s and 60s were studying at National Taiwan University, they could barely understand what their professors, who hailed from all over China, were saying in the classroom.

    That's what Standard German was like in the 18th century; scholars from Switzerland and west-central Germany could communicate in writing just fine, but speaking did not work.

    It has narrowed down since then, but still there are very few people you can't pinpoint to an area the size of Taiwan or less from their accents. Only the accent used at upscale theaters is as strictly defined as the CCTV accent – and it's half extremely northern, half deliberately artificial to account for the acoustics of a theater.

  5. katarina said,

    September 22, 2023 @ 10:11 pm

    A standard-Mandarin native speaker here. What a treat to hear

    Chiang, Mao, and Xi speak ! Thank you for posting them, Professor

    Mair !

    I have tried to listen to Chiang Kai-shek's speeches, but could

    understand hardly anything he was saying. I

    told a Chinese friend: "I don't understand Chiang's Ningpo topolect,

    but he is a terrible speaker, always hysterical and screaming,

    haranguing the audience, like Hitler."

    My friend, who is a connoisseur of drama (Peking

    Opera) , speech, and public speaking, said: "No, no ! Chiang is an

    excellent speaker. She went on to tell me what a great speaker

    Chiang was.

    Since I don't know Chiang's native Ningpo topolect and can't

    understand what he is saying in the video posted above, I went to a

    Chinese online video of the same victory speech, with the Chinese

    text shown. Following the speech with the aid of the text, I

    see Chiang was calm and not screaming. I now realize it was his

    Ningpo accent that made his speeches sound shrill to my ears.

  6. katarina said,

    September 22, 2023 @ 10:18 pm

    Forgot to say that following Chiang's speech with the aid of the

    Chinese text, I find that Chiang was actually speaking Mandarin with

    a Ningpo accent.

  7. Victor Mair said,

    September 23, 2023 @ 7:16 am


    Thank you so much for your many fascinating insights about the appearance of speakers of various languages and topolects versus their actual intent and the true nature of what they are saying. The fact that you mention Hitler speaking German in comparison with Chiang speaking Ningpo is particularly telling.

    Your pointing out the difference between Ningpo topolect and Mandarin with a Ningpo accent is also very important and much appreciated. All students of Sinitic languages, indeed of all languages, should take your profound perceptions to heart.

  8. David Marjanović said,

    September 23, 2023 @ 8:21 am

    I now realize it was his Ningpo accent that made his speeches sound shrill to my ears.

    I really don't think that's it. The microphones were bad at the time, so people had to talk very loud and in a rather high voice for the microphones to work properly. Hitler wasn't much of an outlier in his time in that regard.

  9. Rodger C said,

    September 23, 2023 @ 12:06 pm

    What David said, plus many people then had learned public speaking in a time before microphones.

  10. katarina said,

    September 23, 2023 @ 4:20 pm

    I don't think it was the microphone in Chiang's case. I have heard

    Sun Yat-sen giving a speech in his Cantonese topolect (yes, not

    Mandarin) and it does not sound shrill. And in Sun's day the

    microphone was even less advanced.

    I think Chiang's shrillness (to me) was his Ningpo accent.

    This is because when I was an undergrad at National Taiwan Univ.

    many decades ago, there was a professor of history, Fang Hao, who

    spoke with a Shanghai or Ningpo accent (Shanghainese and

    Ningponese are very close, I'm told). He was a Chinese Catholic

    priest and would give a sermon every Sunday in the Catholic chapel

    near the campus. I'd pass the chapel every Sunday on my walk and

    would hear every now and then a sharp, shrill, staccato "EH !" (in

    Mandarin, AI 愛 "love"). I think he was talking about Jesus's love,

    and ended each sentence with this shrill, staccato "EH !", "love", in

    his Shanghai or Ningpo pronunciation. It made me chuckle to

    myself. EH 愛 was among the very

    few words I understood in Shanghainese/Ningponese. I used to

    think Professor/Father Fang tended to scream in his sermons.

    But now I think it was just his accent.

  11. Cks said,

    September 23, 2023 @ 6:41 pm

    This 60 mins interview with Chiang in 1971 may give us some ideas how CKS speaks when he is not shouting before the mass:


  12. Tom Dawkes said,

    September 24, 2023 @ 9:51 am

    This discussion on non-standard pronunciation reminds me of my experience in attending evening classes in Chinese at Cardiff University. One of Cardiff's twin towns is Xiamen, and Chinese teachers from the region have been working on short-term placements at Cardiff University since the 1980s. I had been studying Chinese in a rather desultory way from books for some years — with invaluable help from a BBC introductory course with accompanying 6" record — and was aware of the distinctions between c/z/s, ch/zh/sh and q/j/x. It became clear that our tutor's grasp of these was very haphazard, and I tried to make my pronunciation as standard as I could mange: the tutor remarked that my pronunciation was in some ways better than hers. (Sadly, my subsequent study has remained desultory, but I much appreciate Language Log's work on Chinese as well as other topics in language.)

  13. Guy_H said,

    September 26, 2023 @ 11:46 pm

    In order of comprehension Chui, Chiang, Mao and Xi, I would say:

    1. Xi is easily understandable & speaks a relatively standard Mandarin. I understood 100% of what he is saying.
    2. Chui has a strong Cantonese accent which affects his pronunciation, but strangely enough the tones are pretty accurate and his rhythm is like a standard Mandarin speaker. I can understand 95% of what he is saying without subtitles but I have to actively listen. Also disclaimer, my family is of southern origin which helps.
    3. Chiang pronounces some words properly (better than Chui) but certain words have a heavy Wu dialect influence (I don't think its shrill, but that nasally Wu sound) and I cannot understand the word he is saying when that happens. I really needed those English subtitles. Maybe 75% comprehension?
    4. I honestly found Mao very difficult to understand. How did any non-Hunanese in the audience understand him? I can just barely make out the words he is saying and I think that is only because of the English subtitles!

  14. David Marjanović said,

    September 28, 2023 @ 1:47 pm

    This 60 mins interview with Chiang in 1971 may give us some ideas how CKS speaks when he is not shouting before the mass:

    Oh, fascinating. He does have a bit of… I think that's what "creaky voice" is. Some kind of constriction in the throat.

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