What Is Shanghainese?

September 20, 2016 |

By Sarah-Claire Jordan

what-is-shanghainese-photoShanghainese, also known as the Hu language as well as the Shanghai language, is actually a dialect of Wu Chinese spoken in Shanghai and neighboring areas. Sometimes, when discussing the Shanghai language in English, it is used to mean ALL Wu dialects, but linguistically this isn’t the case. It is, to be even more specific, a dialect of Northern Wu Chinese, and does have the most speakers of all the Wu dialects, with almost 14 million of them.

So what makes it so different from, say Mandarin? First of all, Mandarin is still spoken widely in Shanghai, as it is part of the People’s Republic of China where Mandarin is the official language. Still, it is interesting that two languages can coexist when they only share about 30% of the same vocabulary. Mandarin has four different tones that are used, while it has five. Shanghainese also implements voiced initials in many words, where in Mandarin this does not happen. One last example of differences is the fact that tones affect only words in Mandarin, whereas in the Shanghai language entire phrases are affected as well.

The Shanghai language is still written using Chinese characters, though sometimes this is a bit confusing for Mandarin speakers in particular. The reason is that sometimes it is written in an informal manner that uses many homophones that only exist in Shanghainese. If a Mandarin speaker were to read them, they would make no sense at all, but otherwise, the written language is not that different from written Mandarin, for example. It does help quite a bit to have been immersed in the cultural aspects of Shanghainese, however.

The regional language of Shanghai started to lose prominence around 1949, when the Chinese government began to promote Mandarin as the national language. It wasn’t until 1992, however, that schools began to actively discourage the use and teaching of it. This lasted until around 2005, when movements to revive the language and teach it again to the younger generations were started. Now, thanks to these movements, it is no longer a language relegated to older generations who grew up learning and speaking it in school.

To speak Shanghainese nowadays is to wear a badge of cultural and regional pride. The movements that ended the discouragement of it in schools also showed the younger generation the importance of preserving a language that is so deeply entrenched in their cultural identities. The government of Shanghai is now seeking to preserve and revive the language through education and documentation of native speakers. So far, only about 14 recordings have been made, but this alone should be very helpful for those who are learning and teaching the language to others.

The case of the language of Shanghai and how it was almost eclipsed by the official language of the country it is native to is, unfortunately, not unique. This kind of situation has happened, and still happens, all over the world, where a sense of national unity through speaking the same language is seen as more important than preserving the unique identities and cultures that make up a country. Thankfully, in this case and many others, many governments are realizing how important it is for everyone to be able to listen to, speak, read, and write in the language they most identify with.

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Category: Foreign Language

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