What’s the language spoken in Shanghai?
Living in Shanghai as a non-Shanghainese, be it a Laowai or a Chinese, one quickly realizes that mastering Mandarin is not enough to understand everything said in local conversations.
Many local exchanges happen in Shanghainese, which is a language in its own right.
The dialect spoken in Shanghai is a form of Northern Wu, the most common form within this linguistic group. Wu is still spoken in a large part of Zhejiang Province, southern Jiangsu Province, as well as in small parts of Anhui, Jiangxi, and Fujian Provinces. In 1991, more than 87 million speakers were registered, making it the tenth most spoken language in the world. Even with fourteen million people speaking Shanghainese and nearly a hundred million speaking Wu, we still consider it a dialect at the scale of China.
Shanghainese is a well-identified language with only two tones – high and low, unlike Mandarin with four tones, and Cantonese with nine tones. Few foreigners in Shanghai are able to master Shanghainese, as learning Mandarin alone requires enough energy to occupy a few years of a motivated student’s time. However, mastering some basic terms of this “dialect” can greatly simplify many everyday situations and impress any Shanghainese friend.
Some basic words
Hello: nón hô
How are you? Non-hôva?/ I’m good, thank you. Ngû mhehô, jâja.
Please : chîn / thank you: jâja
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? A Guide to Learning Shanghainese:
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.
Unlike Mandarin and Cantonese, Wu distinguishes between aspirated and unaspirated consonants, as well as voiceless and voiced. It maintains the three-way contrast of Middle Chinese stop consonants and affricates, e.g. /p ph b/, /tɕ tɕh dʑ/. Aspirated sounds are pronounced with a puff of air, as in English at the beginning of words. Unaspirated sounds lack the puff, as in English clusters.
Wu has a vertical vowel system composed of high vowels /i y ɯ u/, mid vowels /e ø ə o/, and low vowel /a/. Vowel length is phonemic in Wu.
Wu has two tones – high and low. The tones can change the meaning of a word. For example, /ma1/ means “mother” while /ma2/ means “horse”. The high tone is represented by 1 and pronounced with a higher pitch. The low tone is represented by 2 and pronounced with a lower pitch.
Some Useful Phrases
Here are some useful Shanghainese greetings and phrases to get you started:
Nong hao – Hello
Xie Xie – Thank you
Zai jian – Goodbye
Ni hao ma? – How are you?
Wo mingzi shi… – My name is…
|p||p||span||same as pinyin ‘b’ in Mandarin|
|ph||pʰ||pan||same as pinyin ‘p’ in Mandarin|
|t||t||stan||same as pinyin ‘d’ in Mandarin|
|th||tʰ||tan||same as pinyin ‘t’ in Mandarin|
|ts||ts||cats (unaspirated)||same as pinyin ‘z’ in Mandarin|
|tsh||tsʰ||cats (aspirated)||same as pinyin ‘c’ in Mandarin|
|c||tɕ||cheese (unaspirated)||same as pinyin ‘j’ in Mandarin|
|ch||tɕʰ||cheese||same as pinyin ‘q’ in Mandarin|
|sh||ɕ||sheep||same as pinyin ‘x’ in Mandarin|
|k||k||skin||same as pinyin ‘g’ in Mandarin|
|kh||kʰ||kite||same as pinyin ‘k’ in Mandarin|
|gh||ɦ||behind (Australian / Received Pronunciation)
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.
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.
|a||a||hat (California / Canadian / Modern speakers of Received Pronunciation)
|same as pinyin ‘a’ in Mandarin|
|ao||ɑ||star||usually 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”|
|au||ɔ||not (Australian/New Zealand)
thought (General American)
|e (not before n or q)||e̞||let|
|e (before n or q)||ə||Tina|
|o||ʊ||hook (Australian/Northern English/Welsh/Conservative Received Pronunciation/New Zealand)|
|oe||ɵ||foot (Received Pronunciation)|
|i (not before q)||i||feet||Usually 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)||ɪ||sit|
|ie||ɪ||sit||pronounced longer than “i” in sit in English|
|u||u||boot (General American)|
|eu (Shanghai)||ɤ||long ago (Received pronunciation)||for the same sound in Suzhou, it is pronounced as a diphthong /øʏ/, as listed below|
|ieu (Suzhou)||ʏ||schützen (German)||for the same sound in Shanghai, it is pronounced as a diphthong /iɤ/, just combining i with eu (/ɤ/)|
|same as pinyin ‘ü’ in Mandarin|
|y (not at beginning)||ɿ/z̩||not 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/z̩ʷ||not 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.
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.
|eu (Suzhou)||øʏ||for the same sound in Shanghai, it is pronounced as /ɤ/, as listed above|
Like other varieties of Chinese, Wu is tonal. Tone sandhi (tone changes) is very common in Wu, making it harder to learn than Mandarin. However, unlike Mandarin and Cantonese, Wu distinguishes between voiceless and voiced consonants, as in Middle Chinese.
The tones of a syllable beginning with a voiceless consonant (“yin” tones) usually sound higher than those with a voiced consonant (“yang” tones). When these rules are followed, native speakers can likely 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.
Since there is no standardized symbol for Wu tones, numbers are used here according to Middle Chinese, as most scholars do:1. High level tone – Sounding higher in pitch. Represented by
1. For example, /ma1/ means “mother”.
2. Low falling tone – Sounding lower in pitch and falling. Represented by 2. For example, /ma2/ means “horse”.
3. Low rising tone – Sounding lower in pitch and rising. Represented by 3. For example, /ma3/ means “hemp”.
4. High falling tone – Sounding higher in pitch and falling. Represented by 4. For example, /ma4/ means “scold”.
5. Neutral tone – A light tone with a short sound. Represented by 5. Used for grammatical words.
- Tones in Suzhou
Number Name Pitch Notes 1 Yinping ˦˦ (44) For syllables beginning with a voiceless consonant and NOT ending with “q” 2 Yangping ˨˧ (23) For syllables beginning with a voiced consonant and NOT ending with “q” 3 Yinshang ˥˩ (51) For syllables beginning with a voiceless consonant and NOT ending with “q” 4 Yangshang ˧˩ (31) For syllables beginning with a voiced consonant and NOT ending with “q” 5 Yinqu ˦˩˨ (412) For syllables beginning with a voiceless consonant and NOT ending with “q” 7 Yinru ˥ʔ (5) For syllables beginning with a voiceless consonant and ending with “q” 8 Yangru ˧ʔ (3) For syllables beginning with a voiced consonant and ending with “q”
Tone sandhi in Suzhou
|First syllable＼Second syllable||T1
|˥˥ ˨˩ (55 21)||˥˥ ˨ (55 2)|
|˩˧ ˧˧ (13 33)||˩˧ ˨ (13 2)|
|˥˩ ˧˧ (51 33)||˥˩ ˨˩ (51 21)||˥˩ ˨˩ (51 21)||˥˩ ˨ (51 2)|
|˥˩ ˧˧ (51 33)|
|˩˧ ˧˧ (13 33)||˩˧ ˨ (13 2)|
|˧˩ ˨˩ (31 21)||˧˩ ˨ (31 2)|
|˥˥ ˨˩ (55 21)||˥˥ ˨ (55 2)|
|˥˩ ˧˧ (51 33)||˥˩ ˧˧ (51 33)||˥˩ ˨ (51 2)|
|˥˩ ˨˩ (51 21)|
|No change||No change||No change|
|˥ʔ ˧˩˧ (5 313)|
|˧ʔ ˨˩ (3 21)||No change|
- Tones in Shanghai
Number Name Pitch Notes 1 Yinping 52 For syllables beginning with a voiceless consonant and NOT ending with “q” 5 Yinqu 34 For syllables beginning with a voiceless consonant and NOT ending with “q” 6 Yangqu 23 For syllables beginning with a voiced consonant and NOT ending with “q” 7 Yinru 44 For syllables beginning with a voiceless consonant and ending with “q” 8 Yangru 24 For syllables beginning with a voiced consonant and ending with “q”
Tone sandhi in Shanghai
|Tone||One syllable||Two syllables||Three syllables||Four syllables||Five syllables|
|T1||52||55 22||55 44 22||55 44 33 22||55 44 33 33 22|
|T5||34||33 44||33 44 22||33 44 33 22||33 44 33 33 22|
|T6||14||11 44||11 44 11||11 44 33 11||11 44 33 22 11|
|T7||44||33 44||33 44 22||33 44 33 22||33 44 33 22 22|
|T8||24||11 24||11 11 24||11 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
|consonants and vowels||ao (not before n or q)||a (not before n or q)|
|aoq||aq||may be further merged with eq by younger generations of Shanghai|
|ou||u||“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)|
|ts/tsh/s/z + eu||ts/tsh/s/z + eu|
|c/ch/sh/zh + ieu|
|Vocabulary and grammar||你 ne4||儂 nong6||meaning “you” (singular)|
|唔篤 ng4 toq7||㑚 na6||meaning “you” (plural)|
|俚 li1||伊 yi6||meaning “he/she/it”|
|俚篤 li1 toq7||伊拉 yi6 laq8||meaning “they”|
|哉 tse1||勒 leq8||meaning some action was did or has been done|
|弗 feq7||弗 veq8||meaning “not”|
|覅 fiae5||弗 viau6||meaning “do not want” or “(please) do not”|
|無不 m2 peq7||無沒 m6 meq8||meaning “do not have/own” or “there is no”|
|朆 fen1||meaning “did not do / have not done”|
|啊___？ aq7 __?||___𠲎？ __ vaq8?||yes-no questions|
Enjoy learning Shanghainese, Tzêwe!