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…

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