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!

(Via Plep.)


  1. Fascinating! Quite a site.

  2. Great site. We discussed it a bit in your THE CHINESE BABEL entry of July 10, 2005. (click my name below for link)

  3. John Emerson says

    George Kennedy triangulated the various dialects with what it known of T’ang Chinese, and found that the closest match was a dialect which he called Tangsic, which I believe was close to Shanghainese.
    Kennedy #1
    Kennedy #2
    I recommend Kennedy’s “ZH Guide” as a supplement for students of Classical Chinese, and his pieces on word classes and “allegro” condensed forms are good too.

  4. John Emerson says

    is a link to the site where I found my Kennedy bio. There are links to bios of other Sinologists.
    Here is the Paul Pelliot bio. Pelliot is one of my heroes, and the bio is unnecessarily negative.

  5. It is a truism that Wu preserves the ancient initial consonants best, Cantonese the finals, and Mandarin the medial glides.

  6. Thanks for the great links on the Sinologists John.
    The unfortunate fact remains that human life is too short, and second-language acquisition as an adult too taxing, for most aspiring scholars to obtain a complete grasp of a region as linguistically and culturally heterogenous as Inner Asia.

  7. Hi there, I came here via your metafilter contact page. I’m a big fan of languages, and I happen to speak Shanghainese. Thanks for the great article!

  8. So does this mean that this article – – from the People’s Daily Online which is entitled “Li dialect in southern China threatened with extinction” is referring to what some would define as a language rather than a dialect? I found the usage confusing in the original article, and this may explain a lot.

  9. Li is in the same family as Thai. (in fact the words Li and Thai are cognates)

  10. The Languages of China by S. Robert Ramsey (an excellent book) says on p. 247:

    There are an extimated 818,000 of these aboriginal people living on Hainan today. To the Chinese they are all known as “Li,” which is the Chinese rendering of the native name “Lhai.” But only some of the groups use that name (or dialect variants such as Tlhai, Dai, Tsai, or T’ai); others call themselves (among other names) Ha, Gei, Mo:ifau, Hyi:n, or Zi:n. And in truth, the Li are not a unified people. They are organized into a number of separate groups.

    The Li “language” is really more like a collection of related languages, or so it would seem from the data that have been made available. Chinese sources inform us that there are five different groups of Li “dialects,” and that may mean that there are about five different Li languages.

    The genetic status of Li has not been definitely established. The languages certainly seem to be Tai, at least in the broad sense of the word. But how closely they are related to the other Tai languages is a matter of some speculation…

  11. Alas, the URL was taken over by a commercial site sometime in early 2007; March 5 is the last archived snapshot of the original site.

  12. David Marjanović says

    The Languages of China by S. Robert Ramsey (an excellent book) says on p. 247:

    “The Hlai languages (Chinese: 黎语; pinyin: Líyǔ) are a primary branch of the Kra–Dai language family spoken in the mountains of central and south-central Hainan […]”

  13. There are an extimated 818,000 of these aboriginal people living on Hainan today. … (sic) [quoted from Ramsey]

    So the situation is something like Taiwan: the two islands are roughly comparable in area, Taiwan has roughly double the population; of which 2.3% are indigenous [wp]. Again the indigenous speakers are mostly located in the mountains, or on the (mountainous) East coast.

    the original homeland of the Hlai languages was the Leizhou Peninsula, and estimate that the Hlai had migrated across the Hainan Strait to Hainan island about 4,000 years before present. [wp]

    Whereas estimated time-depth for indigenous migration into Taiwan is 20,000~30,000 years.

    A quarter of Hlai speakers are monolingual. [wp]

    Now that’s a surprise.

  14. David Marjanović says

    Whereas estimated time-depth for indigenous migration into Taiwan is 20,000~30,000 years.

    That’s not likely to be what brought the Austronesian languages from there, though. Proto-Austro-Tai seems to have been spoken after agriculture was invented, if I’m not mixing things up.

  15. When I lived in Hainan I knew a Li (Hlai) girl who was happy to speak Mandarin as the “national language” but rejected Hainanese, which is a language brought by fishermen colonists from Fujian.

    Several of us visited her village one time and stayed the night, but she was asked to take us out the next day. The Li are notoriously clannish and not very open to outsiders.

    One other thing I noted: when in Haikou we were visiting a public amenity or business of some kind (it might have been a hospital but I can’t recall) and she was speaking Li with her sister. The person we were dealing with asked what language they were speaking. Han Chinese do not appear to be closely familiar with the linguistic variety in their province.

  16. John Cowan says

    Ramsey is also quite good for Shanghainese (regard being had to its date, which is 1975). The first half of the book is about the Sinitic languages; the second half is about non-Sinitic languages of China.

    In addition to Hainanese (a variety of Southern Min) there is also Jiamao, which is ancestrally Austronesian, there being no less than six identifiable strata of vocabulary:

    1. Austroasiatic (an unknown branch that has parallels with eastern branches such as Vietic, Katuic, and Bahnaric)

    2. Tibeto-Burman (an unknown Burmo-Qiangic / Eastern Tibeto-Burman branch or branches)

    3. Central Tai

    4. Pre-Hlai (derived from internal reconstruction)

    5. Late Hlai

    6. Hainanese (Min Chinese) [Norquest 2007]

  17. You might also look at the well-known Lingao-hua, also known as Be or Ong Be, which is (according to Wikipedia) a Kra–Dai language, “but its precise relationship to other branches within the Kra-Dai family has yet not been conclusively determined. Hansell (1988)[2] considers Be to be a sister of the Tai branch based on shared vocabulary, and proposes a Be–Tai grouping.”

  18. John Cowan says

    The Li are notoriously clannish and not very open to outsiders. […] Han Chinese do not appear to be closely familiar with the linguistic variety in their province.

    These two facts are surely closely connected. How many Anglo Americans are familiar with the linguistic variety in their own state (when there is any)?

  19. PlasticPaddy says

    I just assumed the villagers were worried bathrobe et. al. would find their stills…

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