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What language spoken in Shanghai?

Shanghai Language

What’s the language spoken in Shanghai?

Any non-Shanghainese living in Shanghai, Laowai or Chinese, quickly realizes that mastering Mandarin is not enough to understand everything that is said in local conversations, whether in the street or office … a lot of local exchanges often happening in Shanghainese.

A language in its own right …

The dialect spoken in Shanghai is a form of northern Wu , and it is the most common form within this linguistic group. If we consider the Wu language as a whole, it should be noted that it is still spoken in a large part of Zhejiang Province, southern Jiangsu Province, as well as in small parts of the Anhui Provinces, from Jiangxi and Fujian. In 1991, more than 87 million speakers were registered, placing this language as the tenth spoken language in the world! At the scale of China, even with fourteen million people speaking Shanghain and nearly a hundred million speaking Wu, we still speak dialect!

The Shanghainese is therefore a well-identified language, and has only two tones – high and low, unlike Mandarin – four tones, and Cantonese – nine tones …
In Shanghai few foreigners are able to master the Shanghainese, the Learning Mandarin alone requires enough energy to occupy a few years the motivated student – as is my case for example … But the mastery of some basic terms of this “dialect” can greatly simplify many everyday situations and will impress any Shanghainese friend.

Some basic words

Hello: nón hô
How are you? Non-hôva?/ I’m good, thank you. Ngû mhehô, jâja.
Goodbye: tzêwe
Please : chîn / thank you: jâja
Sorry: têveqchi
This one: êtzaq
Here: êtaq / There: êmitaq
What: sâ / How much ?: Cîdi?
Yes: ê / no: véqzy, mmeq or vio
Where is the toilet? : tsŷsuke leqla ralitaq?
I do not know: tgû veq-xioteq
English: inven / Do you speak English? : nón Ínven wêteq kân vá?
I love you: ngû ê-nón.

1 iq / 2 liân / 3 se / 4 sŷ / 5 nĝ / 6 loq / 7 chiq / 8 paq / 9 cioê / 10 zeq / 20 gniê / 30 sezeq / 40 sŷzeq / 100 iqpaq.

Want to know more ? Following are some useful guides for learning Shanghainese:

Pronunciation guide

Unlike Mandarin, there is no widely-used Romanization system for Wu, and there is even no standardized Romanization system like Jyutping developed by Linguistic Society of Hong Kong for Cantonese, though some scholars did create several systems to Romanize Wu. Since native speakers almost have no idea about those, Chinese characters are what you should stick to for written communication.

This is partly due to the fact that, because standard written Chinese is based on Mandarin, many words in Wu are written with characters of the same meaning in standard written Chinese.

Here one of the Romanization system created by scholars is used. Some adjustments are made to allow non-native speakers to understand more easily.

Consonants

Unlike Mandarin and Cantonese, Wu not only distinguish between aspirated and unaspirated consonants, but also between voiceless and voiced, thus maintaining the three-way contrast of Middle Chinese stop consonants and affricates, /p pʰ b/, /tɕ tɕʰ dʑ/, etc. Aspirated sounds are pronounced with a distinctive puff of air as they are pronounced in English when at the beginning of a word, while unaspirated sounds are pronounced without the puff, as in English when found in clusters.

LetterIPAEnglish exampleNotes
ppspansame as pinyin ‘b’ in Mandarin
phpansame as pinyin ‘p’ in Mandarin
bbban
mmman
fffan
vvvan
ttstansame as pinyin ‘d’ in Mandarin
thtansame as pinyin ‘t’ in Mandarin
dddog
tstscats (unaspirated)same as pinyin ‘z’ in Mandarin
tshtsʰcats (aspirated)same as pinyin ‘c’ in Mandarin
sssit
zzzip
nnnot
lllet
ccheese (unaspirated)same as pinyin ‘j’ in Mandarin
chtɕʰcheesesame as pinyin ‘q’ in Mandarin
jdzjeep
shɕsheepsame as pinyin ‘x’ in Mandarin
zhʑpleasure
gnȵcanyon
kkskinsame as pinyin ‘g’ in Mandarin
khkitesame as pinyin ‘k’ in Mandarin
ggget
ngŋsinger
hhhat
ghɦbehind (Australian / Received Pronunciation)
haat (Dutch)

Consonants m, n or ng alone can form a syllable without any extra vowels.

Note: when gh is followed by i, u and iu (/y/, listed in vowels below), it sounds like “y” in yard or “w” in way to English speakers. The spelling is changed to “y” or “w” accordingly:

  • gh + i = yi
  • gh + ieu = yeu
  • gh + iu = yu
  • gh + uan = wan
  • gh + u = wu

It should be noticed that “y” and “yu” represents two other sounds if not at the beginning of a syllable (as listed in vowels below), different from this case where “y” or “yu” is at the beginning.

Vowels

Wu is rich in vowels. Do not worry if some of them are difficult for you. Speak a little slowly and native speakers will probably understand you even when you make a mistake.

A “q” after a vowel represents a glottal stop (ʔ), and in this case, the vowel should be short in time, and ends suddenly. Otherwise the vowel should be relatively long. When “n” follows “a” or “ao”, it means the vowel is nasalized.

LetterIPAEnglish exampleNotes
aahat (California / Canadian / Modern speakers of Received Pronunciation)
las (Spanish)
same as pinyin ‘a’ in Mandarin
aoɑstarusually merged with “a” in Shanghai on all occasions, and in Suzhou when followed by “q”; younger generation of Shanghai may further merge “aq” with “eq”
aeæhat
auɔnot (Australian/New Zealand)
thought (General American)
e (not before n or q)let
e (before n or q)əTina
oʊhook (Australian/Northern English/Welsh/Conservative Received Pronunciation/New Zealand)
oeɵfoot (Received Pronunciation)
i (not before q)ifeetUsually the tongue is high enough to touch the palate and make an additional sound of friction. The friction is rather important to distinguish “i” sound from “ie” (/ɪ/) sound. However in Shanghai this is not so important as people merge the two sounds.
i (before q)ɪsit
ieɪsitpronounced longer than “i” in sit in English
uuboot (General American)
eu (Shanghai)ɤlong ago (Received pronunciation)for the same sound in Suzhou, it is pronounced as a diphthong /øʏ/, as listed below
ieu (Suzhou)ʏschützen (German)for the same sound in Shanghai, it is pronounced as a diphthong /iɤ/, just combining i with eu (/ɤ/)
iuylune (French)
grün (German)
same as pinyin ‘ü’ in Mandarin
y (not at beginning)ɿ/z̩not really a vowel, only appears after the consonants ts, tsh, s and z, pronounced as the consonant is stretched out, same as pinyin ‘i’ in ‘zi’, ‘ci’ and ‘si’ in Mandarin
yu (not at beginning)ʮ/z̩ʷnot really a vowel, only appears after the consonants ts, tsh, s and z, labialized “y” /ɿ/ (pronouncing /ɿ/ while labialized), not used in Shanghai where it is merged with “y” (/ɿ/)

Attention that y/yu at the beginning of a syllable means gh + i/iu, as mentioned above in consonants.

Common diphthongs

Most diphthongs in Wu starts with i, u or iu (/y/) and ends with another vowel in the list above. The exceptions are as below.

LetterIPAEnglish exampleNotes
eu (Suzhou)øʏfor the same sound in Shanghai, it is pronounced as /ɤ/, as listed above
ouou

Tones

Like other varieties of Chinese, Wu is tonal. Tone sandhi is very common in Wu, which makes it a little harder to learn than Mandarin. However, unlike Mandarin and Cantonese, voiceless and voiced consonants are still distinguished in Wu, as in Middle Chinese. The tones of a syllable beginning with a voiceless consonant (“yin” tones) usually sounds higher than those with a voiced consonant (“yang” tones). When these rules are observed, it is easy for native speakers to understand you even when you make a mistake.

Since there is no standardized symbol to represent tones in Wu, here numbers are used according to Middle Chinese, as is used by most scholars.

Tones in Suzhou
NumberNamePitchNotes
1Yinping˦˦ (44)For syllables beginning with a voiceless consonant and NOT ending with “q”
2Yangping˨˧ (23)For syllables beginning with a voiced consonant and NOT ending with “q”
3Yinshang˥˩ (51)For syllables beginning with a voiceless consonant and NOT ending with “q”
4Yangshang˧˩ (31)For syllables beginning with a voiced consonant and NOT ending with “q”
5Yinqu˦˩˨ (412)For syllables beginning with a voiceless consonant and NOT ending with “q”
7Yinru˥ʔ (5)For syllables beginning with a voiceless consonant and ending with “q”
8Yangru˧ʔ (3)For syllables beginning with a voiced consonant and ending with “q”

Tone sandhi in Suzhou

First syllableSecond syllableT1
˥˥ 55
T2
˩˧ 13
T3
˥˩ 51
T4
˧˩ 31
T5
˥˩˧ 513
T7
˥ʔ 5
T8
˧ʔ 3
T1
˥˥ 55
˥˥ ˨˩ (55 21)˥˥ ˨ (55 2)
T2
˩˧ 13
˩˧ ˧˧ (13 33)˩˧ ˨ (13 2)
T3
˥˩ 51
˥˩ ˧˧ (51 33)˥˩ ˨˩ (51 21)˥˩ ˨˩ (51 21)˥˩ ˨ (51 2)
˥˩ ˧˧ (51 33)
T4
˧˩ 31
˩˧ ˧˧ (13 33)˩˧ ˨ (13 2)
˧˩ ˨˩ (31 21)˧˩ ˨ (31 2)
T5
˥˩˧ 513
˥˥ ˨˩ (55 21)˥˥ ˨ (55 2)
˥˩ ˧˧ (51 33)˥˩ ˧˧ (51 33)˥˩ ˨ (51 2)
˥˩ ˨˩ (51 21)
T7
˥ʔ 5
No changeNo changeNo change
˥ʔ ˧˩˧ (5 313)
T8
˧ʔ 3
˧ʔ ˨˩ (3 21)No change
Tones in Shanghai
NumberNamePitchNotes
1Yinping52For syllables beginning with a voiceless consonant and NOT ending with “q”
5Yinqu34For syllables beginning with a voiceless consonant and NOT ending with “q”
6Yangqu23For syllables beginning with a voiced consonant and NOT ending with “q”
7Yinru44For syllables beginning with a voiceless consonant and ending with “q”
8Yangru24For syllables beginning with a voiced consonant and ending with “q”

Tone sandhi in Shanghai

ToneOne syllableTwo syllablesThree syllablesFour syllablesFive syllables
T15255 2255 44 2255 44 33 2255 44 33 33 22
T53433 4433 44 2233 44 33 2233 44 33 33 22
T61411 4411 44 1111 44 33 1111 44 33 22 11
T74433 4433 44 2233 44 33 2233 44 33 22 22
T82411 2411 11 2411 22 22 24
22 44 33 11
11 11 11 11 24
22 44 33 22 11

Usually among young generations in Shanghai who speak Mandarin more often, tones have become pitch accent, only appear in falling and rising, similar to Japanese.

General correspondence between Suzhou and Shanghai

SuzhouShanghaiNote
consonants and vowelsao (not before n or q)a (not before n or q)
aoqaqmay be further merged with eq by younger generations of Shanghai
aq
ii
ie
aeau
ouu“ou” never appears after labial consonants (p, ph, b, m, f, v) in Suzhou
u“u” (not followed by another vowel) only appears after labial consonants (p, ph, b, m, f, v) in Suzhou
eu /øʏ/eu /ɤ/attention the spelling is the same, as mentioned above
ieu /ʏ/ieu /iɤ/attention the spelling is the same, as mentioned above
y (not at beginning)y (not at beginning)
yu (not at beginning)
tsici
ci
tshichi
chi
sishi
shi
zizhi
ts/tsh/s/z + euts/tsh/s/z + eu
c/ch/sh/zh + ieu
TonesT1T1
T3T5
T5
T2T6
T4
T7T7
T8T8
Vocabulary and grammar你 ne4儂 nong6meaning “you” (singular)
唔篤 ng4 toq7㑚 na6meaning “you” (plural)
俚 li1伊 yi6meaning “he/she/it”
俚篤 li1 toq7伊拉 yi6 laq8meaning “they”
哉 tse1勒 leq8meaning some action was did or has been done
弗 feq7弗 veq8meaning “not”
覅 fiae5弗 viau6meaning “do not want” or “(please) do not”
無不 m2 peq7無沒 m6 meq8meaning “do not have/own” or “there is no”
朆 fen1meaning “did not do / have not done”
啊___? aq7 __?___𠲎? __ vaq8?yes-no questions

Enjoy learning Shanghainese, Tzêwe!

What language spoken in Shanghai?
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Camille L.

Passionate about foreign languages, cooking and writing. I wish to share with you the places, the meetings and the gastronomic discoveries which gave relief to my travels.

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