Saturday, October 4, 2008


Shanghainese , sometimes referred to as the Shanghai dialect, is a dialect of Wu Chinese spoken in the city of Shanghai, and the surrounding region. It is classified as a language. Shanghainese, like other Wu dialects, is largely not mutually intelligible with other Chinese dialects such as Standard Mandarin , or even other subbranches of the Wu language group.

Shanghainese is the representative dialect of Northern Wu; it contains vocabulary and expressions from the entire Northern Wu area . With nearly 14 million speakers, Shanghainese is also the largest single coherent form of Wu Chinese. But it should be noted that the majority of people in Shanghai who speak Shanghainese are not native shanghainese, having migrated there from other regions speaking different dialects because Shanghai was one of the ports opened by Europeans, and they went there for business. In Western sources, the term "Shanghainese" often refers to all Wu dialects and not specifically the particular Wu dialect spoken in Shanghai. The total number of Wu speakers is over 80 million, the second most widely spoken Chinese language after Mandarin.

Shanghainese is rich in consonants and pure vowels . Like other northern dialects, the Shanghai dialect has voiced initials . Neither Mandarin nor has voiced initials. The Shanghainese tonal system is significantly different from other Chinese languages. Shanghainese is a language with two live tonal contrasts , while Mandarin and Cantonese are .

Language policy

Shanghainese is not encouraged to be spoken in schools and written in newspapers, and the media is strongly discouraged from broadcasting in contemporary Shanghainese. There is a lot of uncertainty between what gets aired in Shanghainese and what becomes censored , thus most producers do not take this risk and only produce in Mandarin. Several television advertisements in Shanghainese have been removed shortly after airing, but there have been some TV series in Shanghainese that have been approved since the mid-1990s. Back in 1995, a TV play series called "Nie Zhai" was in Shanghainese; when it was broadcast in other places in China, mainly in adjacent Wu-speaking provinces, subtitles in Mandarin were added rather than a Mandarin version of the TV series. Another TV comedy programme "Lao Niang Jiu" has been broadcast since 1999, and is still quite popular among Shanghainese residents. In 2004, a cartoon program dubbed with Shanghainese was blocked from broadcasting. Older and more rural forms of Shanghainese are still heard on the radio . However, Shanghainese are encouraged by the government to speak Mandarin and celebrities are put on billboards with slogans like "Be a modern Shanghai person, speak Mandarin."

In August 2005, there was media coverage reporting that Shanghainese would be taught in secondary school. This introduced great controversy. Proponents argued that this would make the students know their hometown better and help preserve local culture. Opponents argued that this would encourage discrimination based on people's origin.

In September 2005, the Shanghai municipal government also launched a campaign to encourage Mandarin speaking in Shanghai. Among other requirements, all service-industry workers in Shanghai will be required to greet customers in Mandarin only, and pass a Mandarin-fluency test by 2010. Those with bad or heavily-accented Mandarin must enroll in remedial Mandarin classes.

Intelligibility and Variations

Shanghainese is not mutually intelligible with any dialect of . It is around 50% intelligible with standard Mandarin. This roughly corresponds to the lexical similarity between German and French. Modern Shanghainese, however, has been significantly influenced by modern Mandarin. This makes the Shanghainese spoken by young people in the city different from those spoken by the older population, sometimes significantly. It also means that inserting Mandarin into Shanghainese sentences during everyday conversation is very common, at least amongst young people. Like most subdivisions of Chinese, it is easier for a local speaker to understand Mandarin than it is for a Mandarin speaker to understand the local speech.

Shanghainese is part of the larger Wu subgroup of Chinese. It is similar, to a certain degree, to the language heard in neighbouring Kunshan, Suzhou, and Ningbo. People mingling between these areas do not need to code-switch to Mandarin when they speak to each other. However, there are noticeable tonal and phonological changes which do not impede intelligibility. As the dialect continuum of Wu continues to further distances, however, significant changes occur in phonology and lexicon to the point where it is no longer possible to converse intelligibly. The majority of Shanghainese speakers find that by Wuxi, differences become significant and the Wuxi dialect would take weeks to months for a Shanghainese speaker to fully "pick up". Similarly, Hangzhou dialect is understood by most Shanghainese speakers, but it is considered "rougher" and does not have as much flow in comparison. The language evolves in and around Taizhou, Zhejiang, by which point it becomes difficult for a Shanghainese speaker to comprehend. Wenzhou dialect, spoken in southern Zhejiang province, although considered part of the Wu subgroup of languages, is not at all intelligible with Shanghainese.


The sounds of Shanghainese are categorized in and . Initial is the first part of syllable, usually a consonant, and rime is the part that follows. Tone is also a phonological feature in Shanghainese. Syllabic tone, which is typical to the other Sinitic languages, has largely become verbal tone in Shanghainese.


Shanghai dialect has a set of "voiced" as well as and stops and affricates. Moreover, there are unvoiced and slack voiced sets of fricatives. Palatalized initials also feature in Shanghai dialect. The consonant is also particular in that there is a slight of the tongue during speech, somewhat similar to the . The sound may be made by lightly placing the tongue on the back of the upper set of teeth. However this flapping is not present when each character is individually pronounced.


The Middle Chinese ending s in Shanghai dialect have merged with , some of which subsequently dropped off. Some Middle Chinese ending rime characters have become rimes with a nasalised ending, . Middle Chinese rimes have become glottal stops .

In certain variants, the is pronounced unrounded .


The Shanghainese tone system is simpler than that of other Wu dialects. However, traditional descriptions use the customary Chinese tone classification, with five named tones in this case:

The term ''yang shu'' represents a conflation of the ''yang'' registers of the historical ''ping, shang,'' and ''qu'' tones. The conditioning factors which led to the ''yin-yang'' split still exist in Shanghainese, as they do in other Wu dialects: ''Yang'' tones are only found with voiced initials , while the ''yin'' tones are only found with voiceless initials. The ''ru'' tones are abrupt, and describe those rimes which end in a glottal stop . That is, both the ''yin-yang'' distinction and the ''ru'' tones are ; the Shanghai dialect has only a two-way phonemic tone contrast, falling ''vs'' rising, and then only in open syllables with voiceless initials. It will be seen next that this tone contrast actually applies to the phonological word, not to the syllable: No matter how many syllables there are in a word, there can only be a two-way contrast, and then only if the first syllable is open and has a voiceless initial.

Tone sandhi and the case for word-level tone

In polysyllabic words or set phrases , all syllables after the first lose their original tone and are pronounced with a high or low tone, depending on the tone of the first syllable, as shown in the table below. The first syllable is also modified , but it does not loose the tonal distinctions it may have.

If the first syllable is open and with a voiceless initial, the word will have a high pitch on either the first or second syllable, depending on whether the first syllable would have had a falling or rising tone when spoken alone. If the first syllable in closed and with a voiced initial, the last syllable of the word will have a high pitch. In all other cases, the second syllable will have a high pitch. The other syllables will have predictable mid or low pitches. That is, there are three tone patters, only two of which are contrastive.

Note: H = relative high pitch; L = relative low pitch.

These patterns are quite similar to Japanese pitch accent. Tone sandhi of polysyllabic compounds in the Shanghai dialect has attracted the interest of many scholars, who had previously given only careful consideration to the tone of the monosyllable while trying to describe the rules of tone sandhi for polysyllabic compounds.

Common words and phrases in Shanghainese

''Note: Chinese characters for Shanghainese are not standardized and are provided for reference only. IPA transcription is for the Middle period of modern Shanghainese , pronunciation of those between 20 and 60 years old.''

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