So after our discussion of the very ancient origins of Chinese, let’s come back to modern times and talk about varieties of Chinese spoken now. In modern parlance, we usually refer to “dialects” of the “Chinese language”, but today we won’t beThis is because Chinese is so diverse internally that, at least to me as a language learner, it doesn’t seem like one language at all, but rather a subfamily of related languages.
Of course this is all quite subjective, as there is really no strict rule for separating “languages” from “dialects”. Ultimately I think it’s a question of politics. Since China places a strong emphasis on national unity, they’re very eager to think of even highly divergent varieties as “dialects”. Imagine if the Roman Empire had never fallen, and persisted into the 20th century—and to this day half of Europe is governed by its successor state. We would still have languages like Spanish and French, but they might still be considered regional Latin “dialects”, given the history of political unity. Just as a Spaniard and Frenchman may recognize the similarities between their languages, but still find communication difficult, so would the situation be between a Sichuanese and a Hong Konger. So, instead of using the words “language” and “dialect”, let’s just say “variety” instead.
So let’s take a look! There are about ten main varieties of Chinese, give or take. I have exposure to only three of these, and even then I can’t claim to be an expert. But I do think it’s interesting, and would love to spread the word about this cool topic.
Firstly I’d like to talk about what is called in English “Mandarin”. Mandarin is by far the most widely spoken Chinese variety. In common parlance the term “Mandarin” is frequently used as a name for Standard Chinese, which really is only one of many Mandarin sub-varieties. For instance, here in Guiyang locals speak what’s called a Southwest Mandarin variety—but that doesn’t mean it’s the same as Standard Chinese, as any Guiyanger will tell you. Although closer to Standard Chinese than what you’d hear in Hong Kong, Guiyanghua has a southern Chinsese habit of merging its /l/ and /n/ sounds. Northern Mandarin varieties don’t have this habit—instead, they tend to add an /r/ sound after vowels, leading to a popular joke among laowai that Beijing people all talk like pirates.
So let’s compare a simple sentence in Standard Chinese, Guiyanghua, and a northern Mandarin variety:
Zai4 na4 li3
[tsai n̪a n̪i]
It’s over there.
Another cool thing about Guiyanghua does that Standard Chinese doesn’t is merge post-alveolar “hushers” with alveolar “hissers”, such that si4 “four” and shi2 “ten” blend together, at least to my uninitiated ear. This results in endless confusion for poor laowai like me who just want to get their shopping done. In fact this really cool feature is shared with other varieties across southern China.
One of these varieties is Wu, spoken around the mouth of the Yangtze in places like Shanghai and Hangzhou, where I used to live. It shares the hisser-husher merger that we see in Guiyanghua, with another really cool feature: Wu has voiced initials.
Let’s quickly go over what I mean when I say that. When we take apart a Chinese syllable—say 同 tong2 “together” we can break the syllable down into three parts: initial /t/, vowel /o/, and coda /ŋ/ (that is, “ng”). In most modern Chinese varieties there are two main rules concerning the consonants:
talk about Fight Club
The only consonants allowed in the coda are /n/ and /ŋ/.
2. Non-nasal initial consonants are voiceless.
Voiceless means that you’re not making a humming noise in your throat when you make the sounds. You can test whether a sound is voiced or voiceless by putting a finger on your throat and checking for a vibration. Using this method, for example, we can deduce that /b/ is voiced, while /p/ is voiceless. The Mandarin phonemic inventory contains the latter, but not the former.
But wait a minute, isn’t there a B in Beijing?
Although the modern Hanyu Pinyin romanization system uses the letter B, the initial consonant in Beijing is actually an unaspirated /p/, which means that it’s a P sound, but unaccompanied by a puff of air. It’s hard for English speakers to do at the beginning of a word, so it’s romanized to B. This confusion of unaspirated vs. voiced is one of Pinyin’s great shortcomings, which is why I myself greatly prefer the older Wade-Giles romanization system. With this system we have Beijing romanized as “Pei-ch’ing”, which really is much more accurate to the Chinese pronunciation.
In Wu, on the other hand, /b/ actually exists as a distinct sound, along with other voiced consonants that existed in ancient Chinese, but have dropped out of most modern varieties.
Back when I lived in Wuxi and Hangzhou, two Wu-speaking cities, I remember how every day I would get to listen to people using these beautiful, millennia-old voiced initials. I used to close my eyes and imagine that I had traveled back in time to the Tang or Song dynasty—which we do, in a way, when we hear these voiced consonants handed down from long ago. I only know a few words in Wu, but I do remember how to say “Thank you”: [d͡ʒʲa d͡ʒʲa]. Compare with Mandarin xiexie and Old Chinese [*lja:gs] (1). In the Wu version we have not only a voiced initial, but the vowel itself has even retained its ancient pronunciation.
Speaking of retaining ancient pronunciations, let’s take a look at Cantonese. Cantonese is very special because it preserves an important feature that has been lost in most other modern varieties: along with varieties like Hakka and Min-Nan, Cantonese retains the word-final consonants that existed in the Chinese of a thousand years ago.
Take, for instance, the word 越yue4, which historically referred to various kingdoms and tribes in southern China. We can reconstruct it to have been pronounced [*ɦuat̚] in Middle Chinese (my main man Pulleybank) and [*ɢʷa:d] in Old Chinese (Zhengzhang) (2). Amazingly, Cantonese retains this ancient ending in its pronunciation of the word, that is, jyut6.
Can you think of where else we might see this ancient word-final /t/? As I say, the word yue4 refers generally to the ancient peoples and cultures of southern China. It originally referred to peoples living in the area of what is now Shanghai. As Chinese civilization spread southward, the concept of yue4—or as they would’ve said, Gwa:d—gradually came to refer to peoples living farther and farther south, until finally it gave the name to China’s southern neighbor: Vietnam, from Middle Chinese 越南 /* ɦuat̚ nəm/ (Pulleybank) (3).
So that’s it for our discussion of Chinese language varieties. As always, feel free to leave a comment, always great to hear from you guys. Once again, I’m the Brofessor—see you next time.