Language Thursdays: Shanghainese WritingWritten by Julen Madariaga on April 30th, 2010
This week I have little time to do the Language post, partly because I have been busy writing a short story, partly because I have already discussed a good deal about language in other blogs. I take advantage of this to do the post with my final views on Shanghainese after the long discussion we had on the Wu blog.
The discussion started with an unrelated comment on a language learning site. But what really got me heated up is the painful realization that many Shanghainese speakers – or more precisely Wu speakers – not only don’t protect their beautiful language, but they are in fact actively destroying their rich cultural heritage out of pure ignorance.
If you have been reading me for a while, you probably know that I feel very strongly about languages, and particularly about disappearing ones. Perhaps part of the reason is that I come from a culture where we spend a significant amount of our resources to promote a minority language, so small and useless that it has about 1% of the speakers of Shanghainese. Stupid perhaps, but it is our language.
Now, I don’t say that everyone has to do the same. A language belongs to its speakers, and Chinese are free to abandon their languages if they chose to do so. But I can’t avoid feeling upset when not only Wu is abandoned, but also it is deliberately mocked and destroyed by those who say they are “protecting” or “teaching” it.
Wu and Shanghainese
First of all, a very brief introduction to these notions which I am using interchangeably. You can see more on the wikipedia articles, but essentially Shanghainese is one of the dialects of the Wu language . Modern Shanghainese is not the original Wu dialect spoken in Shanghai, but rather a result of the combination of the various Wu dialects from immigrants that came to the city around the end of the 19th century.
In the context of this post I am using the word Shanghainese loosely to refer to the Wu language as a whole, because Shanghainese is today the main standard of the language. Like most languages that haven’t been subject to political unifying pressure, there is significant variance between the different versions of Wu, but that doesn’t make it less of a language.
Wu and Mandarin
For various reasons, mostly involved with “protecting” the language or just for the fun of being different, there is a trend today by Shanghainese netizens to exaggerate the difference between their language and mandarin. They do this, among other ways, by choosing to transcribe Shanghainese in nonsensical Chinese characters based on the mandarin pronunciation. For example, using 它 to represent 太, because in Shanghainese the word sounds similar to the mandarin 它.
The ignorance is so extended even among natives, and some comedians and other “linguists” following this approach have been so successful, that there is an extended notion among many foreigners that Shanghainese is a completely different language from Mandarin.
The fact is that Shanghainese is extremely similar to mandarin, they both derived from the same Middle Chinese language, they evolved most of the time under a single political unit, and the speakers always used the same characters to represent it on paper. It is not unlike the difference between Portuguese and Spanish, both coming from the same original vulgar latin, and becoming deformed over time.
The vocabulary in these two languages is identical in the majority of cases. There are a few differences in grammar, but most of the difference comes in the pronunciation of what are essentially the same words. These are called cognates by linguists because they belong to different languages, but in most cases their meaning is identical; it is simply the same word with a different accent.
It is silly of Shanghainese to feel that their language needs to look “more different” to be really a language. This is not what makes a language strong. An ancient cultural tradition and a knowledge and respect for it, that is what makes the culture – and the language – strong. As I try to explain below, writing Wu incorrectly is just accelerating its destruction.
Chinese Characters and the Writing of Wu
One of the first objections people do to my points is that “anyway, there is no standard spelling rules for Shanghainese, so there is no such a thing as correct or incorrect”.
This is in my opinion absurd, and worthy of incorrigible prescriptivists who need to have an authority stamp a document to see how a language should be written. Writing should be based on established use, and the tradition of Wu languages during all their existence (until the government of modern China decided to dump Wu) is to write in correct Chinese characters.
Indeed, it is a great mistake to consider the characters are “mandarin characters” and foreign to Wu. They are not. The Chinese characters are as Shanghainese as they are Beijinger. Arguably they are more Shanghainese, as the Wu people were already using them long before anyone thought of doing a capital in Beijing. In fact, the speakers in the Wu region were using the characters long before Wu even split from the other Chinese languages.
From the annals of the kingdom of Wu to the famous Kunshan opera, there is a massive corpus of Wu or pre-Wu literature in standardized post-Qin characters.
Obviously a large part of that is in Classic Chinese, so many Wu elements are excluded. But there is also a tradition in vernacular Wu, such as the 19th century 海上花列传, which was translated to mandarin by Eileen Chang. There is more than enough material to constitute a standard, and the only reason why it is not used is the complete ignorance of the subject by native speakers – caused mainly by the education system.
The proper way to write Wu is with the correct Chinese characters for the majority of words that are in common with Chinese, and to use established solutions from tradition for the few cases where there is no correspondence.
Admittedly, the only people using Shanghainese in writing today are the same netizens that I criticize here. Credit should be given to these people for at least using the language, it is obviously not their fault that nobody taught them how to write it. I just hope the government will take more serious action when they say they want to protect Shanghainese, and I hope Wu people are given a bit more of education on their local culture.
Then they can decide to dump it if they want, that is up to them. But at least they should know how and what it is they are abandoning.
- language: whether Shanghainese is really a language or a dialect is another interesting discussion that I will leave aside for today. [↩]