What About Chinese Dialects? — Part I: Introduction & History

Dialects of Chinese intrigue children. We have heard many students, with ages as young as five, asking “What’s Cantonese? What’s Mandarin? What are their differences?” Our typical answer — “Cantonese is a Chinese dialect. Mandarin is another Chinese dialect. We teach Mandarin in our program.” — still leaves their wondering eyes wide open.

At the same time, Chinese dialects and their associated “accent” issues are daunting to children. They hear their parents talking about whether their teachers or nannies speak Mandarin with an accent, and whether this may affect them. All the same while, these children struggle to reduce their Mandarin accent influenced by English, their dominant language. 

In this series of three essays, I hope to make the following case clear: Chinese dialects, a seemingly overwhelming subject to children, is a window to the fascinating history of Chinese language and culture, as well as the current language affairs in China. Further, this is a rich topic, worthy of the exploration by children and adults alike.

So, here goes the first essay, with some basics about Chinese dialects.  

Who are speaking what dialects and where?

Chinese dialects are roughly divided into seven kinds — the Seven Major Dialects (七大方言). If you go deeper, each major dialect can then further branch into smaller “sub-dialects,” leading to a total of several thousands of Chinese dialects.

Speakers of different dialects live in different regions of China. In the old times with limited mass-transportation and media, a person could spend his entire lifetime hearing and speaking only his/her local dialect. These days, convenient and pervasive mass-transportation and media enable people to be exposed to many different Chinese dialects.

Interestingly, the Chinatowns overseas are the most congregated places of Chinese dialect speakers. Once when running a research project on Chinese immigrant children’s bilingual language development, I needed to collect Chinese dialect samples. So, I headed into Flushing, Queens, a Chinese community in NYC. A simple advertisement in a Chinese newspaper helped recruit a complete set of speakers of Chinese dialects in just 24 hours. This is simply harder to achieve in one location if I was in China.  


How are the dialects different from each other?  

I speak Mandarin and the Shandong dialect, which is a sub-dialect of Mandarin. Both Mandarin and the Shandong dialects are Northern Chinese dialects. When hearing people speak a Southern Chinese dialects, such as Cantonese and the Min dialect (also called "Fujianese"), I can’t understand them at all. I used to think that speakers of Southern Chinese dialects can understand each other. Not so. A colleague of of mine who speaks Cantonese recently told me that she can’t understand the Min dialect either.

The main difference among Chinese dialects lies in the pronunciation. Linguists have developed chart after chart with detailed contrasts of the sound systems within the dialects. Let's be spared of that now. Rather, I’ll pick a few examples to illustrate some differences in how dialects sound.

Dialects sound different because they use different repertoires of sounds.

Example 1: On my college campus in Beijing, there lived students from all over China. Some of us jokingly addressed each other as "lǎo (old) + last name" just as Chinese adults would do with each other. One of my classmate had the last name "Liu," so she was "lao liu" (Old Liu). But a girl from Hunan who spoke Mandarin accented with her Hunan dialect always called that classmate "nao niu", which sounded like "Frustrated Cow." In the Hunan dialect (officially called the "Gan Dialect"), the "i" sound tends to be replaced by the "n" sound.

Example 2: Individuals speaking the Wu dialect (living in Shanghai and its vicinity) tend to pronounce 水 (shuǐ) as "sui", 吃 (chī) as "cī," and 纸 (zhǐ) as "zǐ." In the Wu dialect, the "h" sound in "sh-", "ch-", "zh-" is absent, leading to these replacements in Mandarin pronunciation.

Dialects also sound different because they may use a different number of tones. Mandarin has the famous four tones, whereas the Sichuan dialect has three tones, and Cantonese about eight tones.   

Are there differences in the choice of words and grammar among the dialects? Yes, but in comparison to the sound systems, these are less prominent.

Some words are used differently in dialects. For example, “spoon” in Mandarin is 勺子 (sháo zi), while in some Southern dialects it is 调羹 (tiáo gēng) or 匙羹 (chí gēng).  “Small” in Mandarin is 小 (xiǎo), while in Cantonese it is often 细 (xì).

Here is an example of grammatical differences.  “You go first” in Mandarin is 你先来 (nǐ xiān lái), literally translated into “You first go.” In some Southern dialects such as Cantonese, it is 你来先 (nǐ lái xiān) — literally translates into “You go first.” The Cantonese word order in this case parallels that of English.  


How have these dialects come about?

If we remember two things, we would appreciate a lot about the origin of Chinese dialects. First, languages are spoken by people, thus, languages move around with people. Second, people care about the languages they speak because languages are part of who they are.

Chinese people originated in the North, in the Yellow River region. Throughout history, the Chinese people had to move in waves from the North to the South in order to avoid wars and famine.  The largest migration waves numbered in half a million to millions of people each time, and took place mostly between the Jin dynasty (265-420) and the Song dynasty (960-1280).

These people — former inhabitants of the Imperial Courts or vendors from the streets in the capital cities of the North — brought with them the standard language in China of their time. When they reached the South, they settled down, and passed on their languages to one generation after another (there was some, but limited, amount of influence from the indigenous languages in the South). 

At the same time, those Chinese who survived in the North, intermingled with or sometimes became dominated by the “invading” Nomadic people. As a result, their Chinese took more dramatic turns, taking on features that came from those foreign languages. For example, the distinctive “er” (儿) sound in Mandarin is said to have come from the Manchurian language (an Altaic language) used by the ruling ethnicity of the Manchurians (non-Han Chinese) during the Qing dynasty (1644-1912).

If we want to know how the ancient Chinese dressed themselves or played music, we can look into excavated paintings and sculptures, or read second-hand descriptions from books. However, if we want to know how people in the capital cities spoke 1,000 to 2,000 years ago, we can tune to the Southern dialects, such as Hakka, Cantonese, and Min (Fujianese), for the essential traces.

Here are a few examples with vocabulary: 

In Mandarin, we teach students that the modern form of “walk” is 走 (zǒu), and its ancient form is 行 (xíng). Well, in Cantonese, people still use 行 (xíng) instead of 走 (zǒu).  So, in Cantonese, for “walk,” people use 行路 (xíng lù) instead of 走路 (zǒu lù); for “go away,” people use 行开 (xíng kāi) instead of 走开 (zǒu kāi).

In Mandarin, for the three meals of the day, we say 早饭 (zǎo fàn), 午饭 (fàn) and 晚饭 (wǎn fàn). In Hakka, people use 食朝 (shí zhāo), 食昼 (shí zhòu), 食暗 (shí àn). To Mandarin speakers, 食 (shí) is the ancient word for “to eat,” 朝 (zhāo) is the ancient word for “morning,” 昼 (zhòu) is the ancient word for “day time”, and 暗 (àn) is the ancient word for “dark.” In Mandarin, chopsticks is 筷子(kuài zi), but in the Min dialect, it is 箸 (zhù), known only to highly educated Mandarin speakers as the ancient word for chopsticks.

You may say that the Southern Chinese dialects are more ancient. Note that the word “ancient” here is only defined from the perspective of Mandarin — a dialect emerged relatively late in Chinese history, taking its form about 1,000 years later than these southern Chinese dialects. For speakers of the Southern dialects, they simply are speaking their mother tongues that have enjoyed a continuous presence in the world. The Southern dialects are in all senses live languages and thus are fully up to date!

Of course the survival of these Southern dialects did not come about easily. The ancestors of the current speakers made persistent efforts to pass down their languages.

The Hakka people are known for teaching their children that "宁卖祖宗田不忘祖宗言 (níng mài zǔ zōng tián bù wàng zǔ zōng yán)" — One would rather sell his ancestral land than to forget his ancestral language. You can only appreciate the value these people attach to their language if you know how important it is for Chinese people to hold onto their ancestral lands. Lands are lives, and thus languages are more important than lives. It is an amazing thought.

When you look at the Chinese dialect map, curiously, in Sichuan province (mid-west, in-land China), there are many small Hakka speaking regions scattered and disconnected from each other, further being thousands of miles away from the large Hakka region in Guangdong province (southeast coast of China). Hakka people in these small areas, for hundreds of years, have successfully held onto their ancestral languages while being surrounded by other dialects.

In historical records, there are cases of Cantonese-speaking families banning family members from attending clan ceremonies if they did not speak Cantonese. Among Min speakers, mothers made sure their daughters spoke fluent Min language before marrying them off.

Zooming back to NYC, I recently met a Chinese-American mother who grew up with Cantonese as her home language. Now with her bi-racial children, she sends them to both Cantonese and Mandarin classes.

I see the effort like hers as something that makes up the history of the Chinese language and people. Also recently, at CCBG, I was speaking with two American parents (neither is ethnic Chinese) who also send their children to learn Chinese. After a chat about certain uncertainties of the future of China, the father looked at our Chinese history wall mural and said, “In any event, the Chinese people will survive. The Chinese language will survive.”

I marvel at how much this father (who speaks not one sentence of Chinese) understands Chinese people. To me, he wants his children to study Chinese for the coolest reason ever!