Language Thursdays: Shanghainese Writing

Written 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 [1]. 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.

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  1. language: whether Shanghainese is really a language or a dialect is another interesting discussion that I will leave aside for today. []

Comments so far ↓

  1. Apr

    I’m trying to learn Shanghainese. It really is a hard to understand dialect. In the language book I’m using, they put the Chinese character in how it is pronounced. But I think that’s all right so that people are guided on how to pronounce the words.

    However, when they write down what they say-it’s a different story then. So far, I haven’t encountered anything like this.

    [Reply to this comment]

  2. May

    When it comes to learning a dialect, I would say it’s probably easier to bypass the characters, at least in the beginning, but that wasn’t your point. I’m curious about the large corpus of Wu material you described. Is there any place in Shanghai you can buy works written in Wu? I might head down for the Expo some time in May or June, so that would be a great time to stock up.

    [Reply to this comment]

  3. May
    Julen Madariaga

    Hi Wukailong.

    About learning Shanghainese I made the point in the Wu blog that the proper mandarin characters (accompanied by some sort of “pinyin” script to indicate their pronunciations)is the best way to learn it. I think I gave strong reasons to support this. Now the problem is I don’t know there are many good methods out there, check Sinosplice for this, he has a very good post reviewing different Shanghainese learning books.

    Regarding the corpus, the only thing I can recommend you is the link to 海上花列传 you see in the post. For older things, bear in mind most of it is in 古文, which has the virtue of eliminating the main differences among dialects (ie. 古文 written by Cantonese, Shanghainese and Northern Chinese looks more or less the same), as it was essentially a dead language.

    It is a bit similar to Medieval monks from England, France and Spain all writing in Latin, and pronouncing it each in their own national accent. I am sure if you analyze these writings there are many quirks that can give you a clue as to the origin of the monk, but you would have a hard time to analyze their vernacular language from it.

    Regarding the Kunshan opera, you should really check it out, it is more ancient than the Beijing Opera, and usually it is credited for having inspired it. They still do shows in Shanghai and other places. I have to say I don’t understand a word, but my Wu speaking Shanghainese friends do recognize some expressions. I have no idea where you can buy material but I would guess it is available in many libraries.

    [Reply to this comment]

  4. May

    Thanks for the links. I can vouch for the fact that there’s a big lack of consensus among those various materials.

    I think I understand your position in principle. The problem is that it becomes very difficult to maintain in practice when you come to the particulars.

    To give just two basic examples (and so that I understand your position better), how would you propose that we write “we” and “you (plural)” in Shanghainese using characters?

    [Reply to this comment]

  5. May
    Julen Madariaga

    @John - Precisely I was speaking to Catherine about this the other day. I agree that, from a practical point of view, it makes sense for a teaching method to just go with the flow. After all, the objective of the method is not to change the World, but rather to teach foreigners (or waidiren) how the language is used today.

    But my complaint is more general than that, and it is not addressed to any study method in particular but rather to the Shanghai authorities and to the education system over the years. IMO, if Shanghainese is going to survive beyond some juvenile internet boards, it can only go one of two ways: either with a proper use of characters, or else dump the characters altogether and come up with an alphabetic way to write it, like Vietnamese. Being a character freak, I obviously support option 1, but I admit option 2 is not without advantages.

    Now looking at the practical aspect, and to answer your question, I think it wouldn’t be so difficult to write Shanghainese properly, following a similar way as Cantonese:

    - For cognates, use the proper character.
    - For the rest, rescue old characters used in Wu baihua writing, or else (perhaps easier) just use commonly accepted combinations, such as 啊拉, 伊拉. I wouldn’t advocate inventing new characters like the Cantonese seem to do.

    Now the key here is in the numbers: most people don’t realize just how many cognates there are between SH and Mandarin. Most of them are not even proper “cognates”, but rather the exact same word with the exact same meaning.

    The large difference in pronunciation between Wu and Mandarin makes it seem like they are very different, but in vocabulary and grammar they are not so much. Things like “jidi” to say “how much” are nothing but an archaic 几钿, etc. I is really interesting to explore the origin of Shanghainese expressions, and very often you see they are just keeping older Chinese words that were lost in the Northern dialects. In many ways, the Wu is “more Chinese” than mandarin.

    Most of the differences between the two languages come at the very basic level of speech, things like pronouns, demonstratives, popular turns of phrases, etc. Most of these things already have commonly accepted characters to write them, and beyond that level, the words and grammar structures are overwhelmingly the same as in mandarin.

    [Reply to this comment]

    John Reply:

    @Julen Madariaga,

    You mention that you could “just use commonly accepted combinations, such as 啊拉, 伊拉.” This is where the difficulty lies. What constitutes “commonly accepted combination”? Where does one draw the line between convenience and bastardization? It’s subjective.

    It’s one of these things that seems fairly straightforward until you actually try to apply it.

    [Reply to this comment]

  6. May
    Julen Madariaga

    Yes, I agree, I never said it was easy! :)

    But precisely the ones who should be working on that are doing nothing. And I think it is not mainly because of technical difficulties, but rather just because they couldn’t care less.

    In fact, if they tried I don’t think it is so hard. Sure, some arbitrary decisions need to be taken (that’s why you need authorities in the process) and some degree of bastardization will have to be part of it, there is no point in recreating a pure 19th century Wu.

    But that is not a big deal, these things have happened in all living languages. If I am not wrong, even the mandarin demonstratives 那 and 这 are nothing but an arbitrarily chosen old character re-used to represent a baihua sound: ie. the same case as shanghainese 啊拉 and 伊拉!

    So yes, there are grey areas, and for some words it will be difficult to decide. But that is no excuse for deliberately misspelling the rest of the >90% of the words which are cognates!

    The government should commission some proper linguists and get some work done on this, instead of just doing vague empty statements in favour of Shanghainese.

    [Reply to this comment]

  7. Nov

    That “they both derived from the same Middle Chinese language, evolved most of the time under a single political unit, and the speakers always used the same characters to represent it on paper” doesn’t make them “extremely similar”.

    And actually lexical and phonological differences which are the strongest, make the language barely sound like mandarin.

    using the same character as to render a single cognate is somewhat misleading because it looks like its the same while it can have a totally different pronunciation. and that when written down the sentence is intelligible to mandarin speakers, whereas when it is solely pronounced it becomes a totally alien language to them.

    as a native speaker of shanghainese, i could understand little of cantonese when it is written with hanzi, but not a single word in romanized cantonese, because it is rendered according to sounds and phonology and not upon sense and cognate.

    [Reply to this comment]

  8. Nov
    Julen Madariaga

    I agree with you that phonological differences are very big, lexical not so much IMO.

    But I don’t get why you say then that using the proper characters would be misleading. The character system is always phonetically misleading nowadays, even in standard mandarin. For example, when you see 涌, you would expect it to sound like tong, etc.

    If you advocate a fully phonetic script for shanghainese, then I admit you have a point, but then you should do that with latin letters or other phonetic signs. To try to represent the shanghainese sounds using random Chinese characters phonetically (like 几滴 for 几钿, etc.) is not only misleading, it is absurd and it shows a terrible lack of culture.

    That kind of writing might be fun for juvenile internet argot, but other than that it is not useful at all. Apart from the reasons above, because technically it is impossible to represent Shanghainese tones and sounds using mandarin phonemes.

    [Reply to this comment]

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