A while back I posted about the English word Shanghainese; now I’m reporting on a site where you can learn the actual language. It’s run by Shanghainese students at the University of Chicago, and they won my heart right on the front page by quoting Max Weinreich (though without naming him, tsk): “A shprakh iz a diyalekt mit an armey un a flot.” The Background page would be worth a post all on its own; along with gorgeous photos, it’s got history:
The name 上海 (Shanghai) first appeared in 1077 AD on the store name of a winery in what is today the Nanshi district of Shanghai. Its name literally meaning ‘on the sea’… The term Wu (吴, variant characters: 吳 or 呉) comes from the historic Kingdom of Wu (吴国) first united by Wu Taibo (吴太伯) as Gouwu (句吴) with its capital just 80km from present day Shanghai during the Autumn and Spring period… Wu today descends from the languages spoken in Eastern Chu and the Wu and Yue kingdoms, along with northern and Han influences later on.
That’s followed by a nice “Map of Chinese topolects” and a discussion of why the so-called “dialects” of Chinese are considered separate languages by most non-Chinese linguists (“topolects” is a neutral term coined to avoid the controversy) and an “Overview of the phonology and grammar”:
Wu dialects have preserved the full Middle Chinese set of voiced initials that do not exist in Mandarin and Cantonese… Like all Wu dialects, Shanghainese has 3-way consonant differentiation (voiced, voiceless unaspirated, and voiceless aspirated), for a large total of 30 consonants (Mandarin has 24, Cantonese 17). No other Chinese topolect has preserved the entire set of Middle Chinese initials. Wu has however been less faithful in its finals, having truncated most diphthongs and triphthongs still found in Cantonese and Mandarin into monophthongs (pure vowels), for a total of 14 pure vowels. This characteristic makes Shanghainese syllables quick and direct; the average Shanghainese syllable is 30% shorter than Mandarin…
And there’s a section on “Cultural identity, conflicts with Putonghua, status, and bans”—all on the one page!
But that’s just the appetizer; the meat of the site is the set of lessons, beginning with consonants and moving on to vowels and tones; there’s an admirably clear account of how tone patterns work: “A polysyllabic Shanghainese word (including its postpositions particles) in general can take on one of 3 pitch accent patterns….” A number of sections are “still in the workings,” but hopefully they’ll keep adding to the site, making it the invaluable resource it deserves to be. Well done, U of Chi students!