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.
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 ? Following are some useful guides for 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 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.
|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 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
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!