Chinese Dialects and Accents

Distribution of the varieties of Chinese.

English Speaker: Have a look, what is this?
Mandarin Speaker: 你看,这是什么? (ni kan, zhe shi shen me?)
Shanghainese Speaker: 侬看看这是什么子? (non kui kui zui sai sa me zi?)
Cantonese Speaker: 你睇睇,呢個係乜嘢嚟? (nei tai tai, ni go hai mat ye lei?)

China has not one but a family of related languages. Because pan-Chinese nationalism has long sought to reduce the differences between the Chinese nations, these languages were called 'dialects' as a way of implying that they were all varieties of a single language - rather than different languages in their own right (which they are). Chinese 'dialects' are not mere accents like, say, Midwestern or West Country dialects are in English; they are languages in their own right and are as different (and near-impossible to comprehend without specific training) as English-Dutch-German (though a closer comparison might be Spanish-French-Italian). They have however used just one system of written word (i.e. when written down every dialect uses the same words, which are written in the same way) for more than a millenia now, which lends some credence to the "dialect" definition. The 'dialect' vs 'language' debate is not helped by the fact that the Chinese themselves always call the dialect of every province/nation a language, regardless of whether that province/nation actually has a distinct dialect, or the fact that the Chinese word that we translate into dialect (方言 fāngyn) actually means something slightly different.

The dialect promoted by the scholars of the Ming Empire (six hundred years ago, for use in the examination system, poetry recitals, etcetc)note . First Republic, and later Communist Republic (since most literate people and businessmen knew at least a little) is Mandarin Chinese, spoken on the northern North China Plain including Beijing. Thanks to six decades of ruthless promotion and huge population growth it now has close to 1 billion speakers and is the basis for Pinyin, the transcription system we're using on this page. Others variants include Cantonese (in Guangdong-Guangxi and Hong Kong), Xiāng and Gan (spoken in Hunan on the mid-Yangzi), W (spoken about the Lower Yangzi delta including around Shanghai), Hakka (dispersed around Guangdong and southern China) and Mǐn (Fujian and Taiwan).

While we said earlier that the dialects all use the one writing system, that's not quite true - there's a split between areas/countries (it's complicated) that use the old and new writing systems. In the Imperial era (everything before about 1912), Literary Chinese (a very archaic form of the language, based on the Late Old Chinese spoken during the Han Empire 2000 years ago) was the standard written language due to the needs of bureaucracy and administration and other factors. After the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty both the Nationalists and, later, the Communists used the Beijing dialect (Mandarin, if you can believe the coincidence) as the basis of a standard national language, and modern written Chinese reflects that. Certain places and countries (Hong Kong, Macau and the ROC) still use classical character forms (繁體字 fn tǐ z) for historical/political reasons, but most of mainland China and indeed Japan use versions of hte characters that were aggressively (and somewhat politically) simplified by the CCP in the 1950s-'60s (简体字 jin tǐ z).

While Mandarin is the official language of the country and taught in all the schools, people will still use the local language among family and friends. A traveler who is not obviously foreign (i.e. anyone from East or Southeast Asia, or of East or Southeast Asian descent)note  may need to frequently explain that he or she only speaks Mandarin. Fortunately, only the oldest generations lack knowledge of Mandarin, though not knowing the local language puts a traveler at a distinct disadvantage, whether it be in understanding locals (elements of local dialects will creep into the Mandarin spoken in a given region; this is such an issue that most local news broadcasts will subtitle interviews in Standard Mandarin for the benefit of non-locals) or in reading printed matter (a lot of places other than Beijing have dialects with grammar that vastly differ from Mandarin, such that writing down what is said in Chinese characters will leave non-locals confused). This 2005 New York Times article gives some idea of the challenges involved in the linguistic unification of China.

The existence and mutual incompatibility of these dialects plays a role in Chinese humour, usually as a result of what happens when a word has completely different meanings in two dialects. Lennier might be referencing this when he mentions a word, N'kai, that appears in every Minbari dialect and subtongue but never means the same thing twice. Possible meanings include sand, father, and boot. In a real world example, some Mandarin dialects refers to shoes as hai-zi, which sounds remarkably similar or identical to child in Standard Mandarin.

In general, the speech of southeastern China exhibits the greatest diversity, as it is home to the Wu, Cantonese, Gan, Min, Xiang, Hakka, and Yue major dialects/languages. Some of these are further divided: for instance, Min is divided into Northern, Southern, Eastern, Central, and Puxian forms, all of which are just as unintelligible to each other as Cantonese is to Mandarin. You see, Min branched off Old Chinese whereas all other varieties are descendants of Middle Chinese—at least 500 years of separation. The reason for the Southeast's high diversity is related to its age, geography, and distance from traditional centers of Imperial power—the south is one of the oldest parts of Chinese civilization, but for geographic reasons the north (the cradle of Mandarin) was easier to hold together as a united state, while the south tended to fracture whenever the dynasties were in decline, a process exacerbated by the fact that the imperial capital was almost always in the north. The southwest and northwest speak Mandarin on account of giant and fairly recent (Ming Dynasty and later in the Southwest, late Qing and Republican in the northwest) floods of immigration from the north-central and northeast regions, where Mandarin is spoken. As a result, their dialects are less divergent than the tongues of the southeast, although Southwestern Mandarin is rather difficult for speakers of other Mandarin dialects to understand—it reflects Ming and early Qing Dynasty usage, and thus preserves some archaic features we won't get into now.

    Yue Dialects (Cantonese, Taishanese, ...) 

The Yue dialects are native to the coastal parts of the province of Guangdong and eastern Guangxi Zhuang AR, including Hong Kong and Macao, concentrated on the Pearl River Delta as well upriver of its many inflowing rivers. They are widely spoken among Overseas Chinese communities around the world because for historical reasons, Chinese immigrants overwhelmingly came from this region.

Cantonese, a Yue dialect spoken in Guangdong Province, Hong Kong and Macau, is probably the best-known dialect outside of China. Hong Kong's status as a point of contact with the English-speaking world has resulted in several Cantonese phrases passing into English, such as dim sum. English even uses the a translated version of the Cantonese name to refer to the city itself (In true Cantonese it would be "Heung Gong")note . In Mandarin it is written the same (香港), but pronounced Xinggǎng.

The Cantonese dialect is generally not accepted as a written language, even in Hong Kong. It is seen as slang/spoken language, and the public exams require you to write basically in "Mandarin" vocabulary (and grammar). Despite this, it is also the only Chinese dialect with an actively used written form, even it's only used in the colloquial. Interestingly, vocabulary unique to Cantonese can be divided into two types. The first kind is your normal type, with words basically deviating and changing over time in pronunciation and meaning. These words basically have no written form, although they have kind of been "invented" or taken from homophones which is common enough for you to recognize. The second type is that the slang is actually an archaic way of saying something. These actually have a written form, but the characters are so obscure that only Chinese majors know them. They are still treated as casual/spoken form, and can't be written in formal settings. In terms of spoken language, a problem nowadays is pronunciation drift (laan yam, literally "lazy sounds"). Some common examples are saying l- instead of n- and mixing up the ending sounds -n and -ng, which is why there are oral tests in the public exam syllabus that is particularly asinine about this.

It should be noted that Cantonese itself carries a semi-nationalistic pride among its speakers, to the level that the language, by itself, caused an extremely thorny controversy in 2010. Nevertheless, Cantonese is only the third-largest variety of Chinese: Wu Chinese, spoken around Shanghai in Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces, has about six million more speakers (77 million vs. 71 million).

    Wu Dialects (Shanghainese, Ningbo, Hangzhou...) 

The Wu dialects are spoken around the Yangtze River Delta, in and around Shanghai and the neighboring provinces of Jiangsu, Zhejiang, and northern Fujian.

Wu is rather interesting in itself, as it has the most reduced tone system of all the Chinese varieties. In Shanghai itself, the tone system has atrophied down to just two tones, bordering on a system of pitch accent more like what exists in Japanese and Swedish than the other forms of Chinese.

    Min Dialects (Taiwanese Hokkien, Hokkien, Teochew, ...) 

The Min dialects are mainly spoken in coastal southeast China, from southern Zhejiang province, much of coastal Fujian, and into eastern Guangdong, as well as on the tropical island of Hainan. The first ethnic Chinese to migrate to the island of Taiwan mainly came from these regions, which is why their distinct, non-Mandarin dialect is closer to those spoken in Xiamen or Quanzhou. They are also spoken among Overseas Chinese communities, mainly in Southeast Asia (Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia) as well as in Australia, Europe, and North America. The Min dialects reflect the greatest amount of diversity and the greatest degree of mutual unintelligibility, as they had branched off from Old Chinese while all the other Chinese dialects diverged from Middle Chinese.

The dialect generally referred to as Taiwanese is closely related to Southern Min, spoken across the strait in Fujian. And that province is itself noteworthy for having almost a dozen dialects associated with it. Taiwan itself is home to 26 languages, none of which are related to the Chinese languages; they instead form all but one of the branches of the Austronesian language family. The last branch? Malayo-Polynesian: Malay, Indonesian, Filipino/Tagalog, Maori, Tongan, Samoan, Hawaiian.... The peoples who spoke these 26 "Formosan" languages are not ethnic Chinese, but most have long lost their ancestral tongues and speak Taiwanese Southern Min or Mandarin.

Going further south, Hokkiennote  is the most commonly spoken dialect in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, and among the working class, the odds are higher than a given person can speak Hokkien than Mandarin Chinese. Hokkien has one benefit over other dialects in that it is an excellent tongue to swear in, particularly in its lewd terms referring to human anatomy.

    Hakka Dialects 

The Hakka dialects are scattered all over Southern China, reflecting their historic migration patterns from Northern China. Although of Chinese extraction, the Hakka peoples have preserved enough of their distinct customs and identity that often times they clashed with locals.

More to come

    Gan Dialects 

The Gan dialects are spoken mainly in Jiangxi province.

More to come

    Xiang Dialects 

The Xiang dialects are spoken mainly in the province of Hunan, where Mao Zedong is from.

More to come

    Other Distinct Dialects 

Jin Pinghua Huizhou

More to come

Regional accents are nearly impossible to describe in writing, but here's an example. The people of Beijing are known for adding an '-er' sound to the end of phrases. This is not done by saying 'er,' but rather by twisting the pitch of the last word up just a bit; sounds a bit like the way a Valley girl ends each sentence with a question. Another example: in Shanghai the local dialect is missing a sound that exists in Mandarin; locals will often drop this sound from their spoken Mandarin, thus conflating some sounds. Sichuanese Mandarin changes "zh", "ch", and "sh" (which sound like the "-dge" in "fudge", the "ch" in "chug", and the "sh" in "shore", respectively) to "z", "c", and "s" ("c" in Mandarin is roughly "ts"); this can make for all sorts of confusion for someone unfamiliar with the dialect, especially with regard to numbers (if you're not listening to tones carefully when talking to someone from Sichuan, the words for 4 and 10 can sound almost identical).


Just for fun:

A freight carrier active in China and/or Taiwan once aired a commercial showing one of its competitors trying to tell an old lady that he had a package for her. She did not understand the message in Mandarin, so the hapless delivery guy is forced to stand there repeating the message a few dozen times, each time in a different dialect. The company that made the commercial naturally has their delivery guy walk right up and use the right dialect. Watch it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9UNbrQGpWJk

Hu Jintao (Paramount Leader 2003-2013) is actually the first leader of the PRC to speak "normal" Mandarin as his birth tongue. Mao Zedong's Mandarin had such a thick Hunanese Xiang accent that some don't think it should count as Mandarin— despite the government wanting you to believe so, as non-Mandarin-speaking leaders are now Banned in China.

A Chinese joke: once a teacher walked into the classroom and asked the boy, who was on duty that day, how many pupils there were. The problem was that the teacher and the boy spoke different dialects. So, when the boy reported that there were 31 pupil in the class, the teacher heard that there was 1 pupil killed in the class.

It should be noted that China is a vast country with many indigenous ethnic groupsnote  besides the overwhelming majority Han Chinese who speak their own languages that are unrelated to Chinese and are from a diverse range of language families: Sino-Tibetan (Tibetan, Achang) , Tai-Kadai (Zhuang), Hmong-Mien (Hmong), Mon-Khmer (Vietnamese, Blang), Turkic (Uyghur, Kazakh, Uzbek), Mongolic (Mongolian), Tungusic (Manchu), Korean, Indo-European (Russian and Tajik), and Austronesian (Taiwanese Aboriginal languages). Of course, due to the dominance of the central government and the Standard Mandarin dialect necessary for economic migration, not many people retain their minority languages, and many are on the verge of extinction due to assimilation (e.g. the Manchu language is virtually gone because the Qing Dynasty emperors, though a ruling Manchu minority over the Han Chinese majority, ended up assimilating into Han Chinese culture and governance).