The Difficulty of Dialects

I know that one of the few things I learned in middle school about China was that the Chinese language has many “dialects.”

I had never been clear on what a dialect really was, often people say that it’s like an accent, and for a few of them that’s correct. In many cases though “dialects” are completely different languages that are based on the same written system.

That means even if you couldn’t understand what the person was saying you could read what they wrote.

This is most likely the result of China’s vast lands and difficult terrain that made travel rare. This limited direct communication and made writing invaluable.

In this video my former students count from 1-10, first Mandarin (the official language), then Gui-Liu (the dialect of northern Guangxi), then Zhuang (a minority language), and then Baihua (a “dialect” of the “dialect” Cantonese, spoken around the Southern coast), wrapping up with a language you’ll hopefully understand.

I think from time to time it’s good to be reminded that in this country, there is far more diversity than we might expect at first glance.

12 responses to “The Difficulty of Dialects”

  1. Sara says:

    Good post Tom! Yesterday I got a reminding that because I’m living in Guangzhou I should learn a little bit Cantonese.

    I took the last metro to university island and there were no busses anymore so I wanted to take a motorcycle back home. The first guy I asked said it’s 8 yuan. I told him that before it was 6 and I don’t want to pay more. He just said it’s 8 now. Then one Chinese guy came, they spoke in Cantonese and I started thinking in my mind what were the numbers in Cantonese. I can count from one to ten so I understood that the boy got his ride for 6 yuan. I wasn’t sure that if he was going somewhere closer than me, but when the next motorbike driver drove me home for the old 6 yuan, I knew that the first one just wanted little bit extra from me.

    I also think that in other bargaining situations it would be useful to understand what other people are saying so I get the same price too! One hald Swedish half Finnish guy also told me that I gain respect here if I can speak some Cantonese.

    Besides Cantonese I could learn some Yangjianghua too because that’s my boyfriend’s native language. If we have children in the future it would be nice to understand if my kids are swearing at me in yangjianghua 🙂

  2. […] I know that one of the few things I learned in middle school about China was that the Chinese language has many “dialects.” I had never been clear on what a dialect really was, often people say that it’s like … Continue reading → […]

  3. Pete Nelson says:

    Tell me if I am wrong Tom, but her Mandarin doesn’t sound quite standard to me, especially 5 (wu3). She says something like “oo.” I have heard that some girls say it like that because they think it sounds cute – am I at all right about that?

    • Tom says:

      I’m not sure about the cute factor of it.
      For this student, it’s just a Gui-Liu accent on her Mandarin. It’s a fairly common pronunciation for people living in Southern China who don’t speak Mandarin as their first language. So you are correct that her Mandarin is anything but standard, but I thought it nicely illustrated my point on the diversity found in China.

  4. jixiang says:

    “This is most likely the result of China’s vast lands and difficult terrain that made travel rare. This limited direct communication and made writing invaluable.”

    Let’s be clear: all countries have numerous dialects, or had them until recently, except for countries with a very young history like the US or Argentina. Big European countries all have or had mutually unintelligible dialects until fairly recently. There is nothing special about China’s linguistic diversity, given its size.

    • Tom says:

      That’s correct, all countries have had numerous dialects because of the difficulty of travel between their lands. In Europe though areas around the sea were much more easily traversed, where as China is a very large land mass. Also in the past travel was discouraged both legally and culturally in China, which is quite different from the merchants of Europe.

  5. Samuel says:

    Sorry for interrupt you guys for I don’t have VPN and comment before listening to the sounds in this log. Actually I speaks fluent Hakka, Cantonese, Putonghua thus probably I understand what some of you are confused. As some discussions say, Putonghua, which have simply 4 tones, came to us since Manchu invaded from the North, where they learned to pronounce by following dwellers from Ming area. And what called dialects to Putonghua today, really had many tones. I think it is encouraging that Mark Rowswell speaks excellent Putonghua, but Cantonese is really a challenge for foreigners, and other dialects as well, for there are few words don’t exist in modern Chinese anymore. Whaterver, this is an interesting topic.

  6. Vic says:

    Hi Tom! thumbs up for the article and video. They are going to be my conversation reference. They definitely will help my friends to understand the language diversity more easily.

    Every so often, I will try to explain to my non-Chinese friends about the language diversity in China (they usually ask me first out of curiosity) and making sure that they understand what Chinese actually means is the written language. I will need to explain the differences between the relationships between Beijing Hua and Cantonese and that of Boston and Texas accents, linguistically, historically and politically.

    But I found it even more difficult to explain the situation to Chinese people, who are all too familiar with the concept “dialect”. Even after four years of anthropology classes, I could still hear classmates refuse to learn Cantonese because it is merely a “dialect” when I was in university. Successful propaganda education? Maybe.

    And FYI, I know about your blog from Yizhe group. They translated your article “Systemic Problems that Keep China’s Farmers Poor”.

    • Tom says:

      Thanks for your support. Also it’s great to know how people end up at my blog, I had seen the translation, and was quite surprised that anyone had bothered translating my work. I hope you’ll keep reading.

  7. […] When a vendor decides just how high to set the price, place is often an important factor. Obviously when it comes to foreigners they don’t usually have to ask, generally speaking vendors see white tourists as the richest, and their clothing often betrays the extent of how true this stereotype is (I once saw a man enter a tourist mall in Beijing wearing an expensive suit and Rolex, it was like bees to honey). When it comes to their fellow Chinese customers though, they only need to exchange a few words before they can establish where the other person is from. This is because nearly every province and city has a slightly different accent that betrays the speaker’s origin. […]

  8. 外八蛋 says:


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