An article by Howard W. French in today’s NY Times does a surprisingly good job at describing the complex linguistic situation in China:

DATIAN, China – As a crowd formed around a rare foreign visitor in this town’s open-air market, the conversation turned quickly from the price of dried fish and fresh fruit to how many dialects people here could muster.
Hoisting her cherubic 6-month-old daughter, Lin Jinchun, a 29-year-old dumpling seller, claimed that she could speak two, drawing a quick counterclaim of three from her mother, Lin Guimei.
What was the third dialect? someone asked. “Putonghua,” the mother answered, counting the standard national language of China as if it were just another minor tongue. Meanwhile others, shouting above the din, chimed in that they could speak four, five or even six tongues…

China has 55 ethnic minorities, many of them with cultural roots in neighboring countries. The linguistic diversity among these minorities, however, pales in comparison with the variety of tongues spoken among China’s Han, the ethnic group that makes up more than 90 percent of the population. The Han speak as many 1,500 dialects, with the bulk of those concentrated in the southern half of the country.
The official view here is that all of the tongues spoken by Han are variants of one language, Chinese. But in a country with a traumatic history of civil war and fragmentation, many specialists say this theory may have more to do with politics than with linguistic reality. Many of the Han dialects are almost entirely mutually incomprehensible, more distinct than languages from disparate regions of Europe.
“No one can clearly answer the question how many dialects there are in China,” said Zhang Hongming, a professor of Chinese linguistics at the University of Wisconsin who is in China doing fieldwork. “The degree of difference among dialects is much higher than the degree of difference among European languages. In Europe they call them languages, but in China we share a culture, so the central government would like to consider that one language is shared by many different peoples. It is simply a different definition.”…
Even by the standards of China’s complicated language matrix, Fujian Province stands out for its richness, a dense thicket of tongues laid down by waves of migration over time from central China.
“We have an expression, that if you drive five miles in Fujian the culture changes, and if you drive 10 miles, the language does,” said Zhang Zhenxing, a linguist from Fujian at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing. “In recent years, because of economic growth things have been getting better, but there are still an extraordinary number of dialects in Fujian.”
If Fujian Province can be said to have a Babel, tiny Datian County can stake a pretty solid claim. In this 800 square miles of rural central Fujian, where fields of rice and tobacco grow in the shadow of tall mountains, no fewer than five dialects are spoken in addition to Mandarin.
To drive a few miles down the road from one village to another is indeed to plunge into a new linguistic universe. Things can be as confusing for someone from the next town as they are for the total outsider.
In one village near the county seat, where an old Daoist shrine sits high above the roadside, a man who said he spoke southern Min, one of Fujian’s most widely spoken dialects, tried to exchange words with some boys who said they also spoke southern Min. A few words from each side, however, sufficed to show they were mutually unintelligible.
Chen Wenxian, a shopkeeper in his late 20’s in another village, grimaced with incomprehension when a driver pulled up and inquired about the price of shoes in his glass display case. The two switched into heavily accented but mutually comprehensible Mandarin.
Mr. Chen, slouched in his chair behind his counter, shrugged when asked the name of the village’s language. Consultations with a cluster of family members did not unearth a name either.
“It’s just what we speak here,” he said. Asked if he could understand the language in the next village, a short distance down the road, he said: “I have no idea what they speak. Those people talk too fast.”

Ethnologue says: “Putonghua is inherently intelligible with the Beijing dialect, and other Mandarin varieties in the northeast. Mandarin varieties in the Lower Plateau in Shaanxi are not readily intelligible with Putonghua. Mandarin varieties of Guilin and Kunming are inherently unintelligible to speakers of Putonghua.”
In the same article they mention this interesting form of speech: “Hezhouhoua is spoken in the Linxia Hui Autonomous Prefecture and Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of southern Gansu Province, and in neighboring areas in Qinghai Province. The grammar is basically Altaic or Tibetan, while the vocabulary and phonology is basically Northwestern Mandarin, or a relexified variety of Tibetan.” I don’t know why they don’t include it in their list of mixed languages (see also an earlier LH post on the subject).


  1. “A shprakh iz a diyalekt mit an armey un a flot” [‘A language is a dialect with an army and a navy.’]

  2. Interesting the notes on Mandarin dialects from Ethnologue. I was under the impression that most Mandarin dialects were basically mutually intelligible. I’m fairly sure that, at least in the north and far west and southwest, where colonialization spread Mandarin speakers across the country, the linguistic situation is fairly homogenous. I’ve recently been reading a book called “The Languages of China” (S. Robert Ramsey), which seems rather well-informed, with a good mix of anecdote and generalization (the NYT article seemed heavy on the anecdotes, and also focused on Fujian, known for its linguistic diversity). FWIW, I put up a little article on the topic (at

  3. Dan is quoting Max Weinreich.
    Russell’s post is here; nice blog, by the way!

  4. Very informative article and observation there. Thanks 🙂
    In fact I always remind my students that they are learning the Mandarin Chinese language from me, instead of the Chinese language. They always find it puzzling until I explain to them that that Cantonese, Hakka, Foochow, Hainan, Teochew, Hokkien, etc. “dialects” can all be classified as Chinese language. Whereas the “official” Chinese language that is now spoken by Chinese all over the world especially in China, Taiwan and Singapore is actually Mandarin … which used to be a Northern China dialect. That’s why many overseas Chinese in Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, US, UK, etc. can actually speak Chinese but cannot speak Mandarin … hehe 🙂

  5. In recent years, because of economic growth things have been getting better, but there are still an extraordinary number of dialects in Fujian
    Interesting that even the ‘linguist’ quoted here thinks that less linguistic diversity is ‘better.’

  6. Ah, but perhaps the reporter is leaving out some intervening material, Adam. For example, but in the past Fujian was known for poor transportation (due to the economic situation) and many languages. “In recent years, because of economic growth things have been getting better, but there are still an extraordinary number of dialects in Fujian”–that is, that despite economic growth and the pressures that that might bring on linguistic diversity, it prevails.
    Or perhaps the linguist is speaking from the point of view of the officials. Or, perhaps, the linguist does think that linguistic diversity has some drawbacks. (Which it does, but a field work linguist would be unlikely to wish too fervently for a reduction in his area of study. Unless it was a particularly trying day.)
    Problem is that “things” without the complete context, could be misinterpreted, or so I think. We don’t have an antecedent, but a ‘postcedent’, and we the readers are stuck with extrapolating from there.

  7. Until not too many years ago, I had the impression that a person from, say, northern China and one from the South couldn’t carry out a conversation, but that they could easily communicate in writing.
    Now I parallell that view to us in Europe. A farmer from northern Finland might find it difficult to have a conversation with an Italian farmer, but they could communicate if — both knew how to write in English.

  8. ken teoh says

    No offence Anders, but that’s not a very apposite analogy, since Finnish and Italian are two completely unrelated languages (Finnish is Uralic, not Indo-European).
    In my experience, a very high level of affinity seems to persist between the different Chinese “dialects”, even though many do not pass the test of mutual intelligiblity. Northerners who move to Shanghai experience little difficulty learning the Shanghaignese dialect. Although many Shanghaignese – especially the elderly, and often, much to my tremendous frustration, taxi-drivers – speak Putonghua with a thick Shanghaignese accent.
    Does anyone have any information on the influence of any of the pre-existing indigenous languages of Southern China upon the extant dialects of the region? I’d be curious to know if any of the Malayo-Polynesian languages spoken by the original inhabitants of Fujian have influenced Hokkien or the other dialects.

  9. ken, you say “Northerners who move to Shanghai experience little difficulty learning the Shanghaignese dialect,” but with all due respect that’s pretty unconvincing. Which northerners, how many of them, how much difficulty? Without statistics, it’s pure hand-waving. When I was in Taiwan, I observed that very few “mainlanders” even tried to learn the local Min dialect, and I didn’t get the impression it was particularly easy for those who did. That too is purely anecdotal, of course, but it makes me suspicious of your claim.
    I too would love to know about the influence of the pre-existing indigenous languages of Southern China; does anybody know of any work that’s been done on this?

  10. That post made me look again (after many years) at Maurice Coyaud‘s Les langues dans le monde chinois, where he describes, samples and compares briefly various languages of China, but there doesn’t seem to be anything like what you request.

  11. Michael Farris says

    I seem to recall that the previously mentioned Languages of China talks about this. IIRC before the 20th century, there was no real effort expended in propogating any specific form of speech, official language was writing (classical Chinese not modern written Chinese) and that was that. People who moved to new speech areas (were) expected to ‘pick up’ the local variety.
    Things are very different now, some form of Mandarin is pretty widely disseminated and I would assume that native Mandarin speakers (who speak anything roughly resembling Putonghua) don’t have much motivation or encouragement to learn anything else. A number of my students have spent academic years in China, often in non-traditionally Mandarin speaking areas (including Fujian and Shanghai). They all say that in the large cities (where they’re sent) they hear more Mandarin on the street than anything else and they don’t encounter people that don’t know Mandarin.
    A far more interesting question (to me) would be the case of someone who’s a native speaker of Shanghainese who moves to Canton, would they try to learn Cantonese or be expected to? (and if so, how?) or expect to be able to use Mandarin?

  12. caffeind says

    Canton perhaps, Hong Kong more likely. Cantonese is the only non-Mandarin dialect with this status. I have seen estimates that 25% of the HK population have roots in Chaozhou (a Min dialect area in eastern Guangdong), and some proportion is of Hakka origin, but everyone uses Cantonese.
    See for discussion of the status of Shanghainese. That site suggests a Tai substratum, which I’ve also seen suggested for Cantonese, but I haven’t seen any more detailed discussion of either substratum hypothesis. I think an Austro-Asiatic substratum has been suggested for Min.
    A fun book for Cantonese is Colloquial Cantonese & Putonghua equivalents 廣州話普通話口語詞對譯手冊 by Zeng Zifan 曾子凡著 – Joint publis. Co. 三聯書店 -HK 1986- IPA system/Chinese char. 150 pages of often rude expressions that are different in each dialect.

  13. ken teoh says

    Thanks for the pertinent link Caffeind.
    LH, as regards my assertion that Northerners experience little difficulty learning Shanghaignese – you are right that it is based solely on personal observation and experience. But I am currently a resident of Shanghai, and I have encountered a very surprising number of people from Shandong, Hebei, or Jilin, who tell me that after living in Shanghai for half a year or so, they are able to understand Shanghaignese to a reasonable degree. In fact, I make a point of always asking people from other provinces if they can understand Shanghaignese – most of the time the answer is yes.
    Language aptitude is multi-facted, as we all realise, so a high-level of listening comprehension does not necessarily entail a commensurate level of speaking ability. But still, the fact that I encounter so many people from northern provinces who can understand a Wu dialect, after having lived here for a relatively brief period of time, must be significant of something.

  14. OK, I give your assertion much more weight now that you’ve explained the background. It does sound as if it’s easier to learn another Chinese language than an unrelated one, which makes sense.

  15. xiaolongnu says

    As a non-native but fluent speaker of Mandarin, I have to say that I found it much easier to learn a second dialect (Shanghainese) than it was to “break into” Chinese to begin with. I became reasonably competent within a year of living in Shanghai. I don’t speak any of the languages of continental Europe, so I can’t make reliable analogies, but I imagine it’s something like the (relative) ease with which a Spanish speaker learns Italian, or something like that. However, now that I no longer live in Shanghai, I have had absolutely no cause to use my Shanghai hua, and over the intervening twelve or thirteen years it has totally vanished.
    It would be more interesting to me to read an account of the *reasons* why native speakers of Mandarin would choose to learn a regional dialect. For instance, it’s my understanding that in certain business contexts in Hong Kong and Shanghai, knowing the local language is a virtual necessity. There are certainly social contexts in which “code-switching” is called for. And I have heard a speaker of heavy Beijing hua (i.e. Beijing street dialect, not formal Mandarin) publicly ridiculed on a bus in Shanghai for his patterns of speech. I’m also aware that it’s not common in Taiwan for a native speaker of Mandarin to go to the trouble of learning the Minnan dialect; but I wonder if that has less to do with the difficulty of the task and more to do with the cultural and political implications of doing so. The parents of one of my friends are native Minnan speakers, and though they are able to speak Mandarin, they would rather speak *Japanese*, because they see the KMT mainlanders of 1949 as unwelcome colonizers.

  16. caffeind says

    Migrants from the interior come to seek work from the more prosperous coastal people, so it’s not surprising many of them learn some of the local dialect. Compare Andalusian immigrants to Catalonia, especially second and later generation.
    Shenzhen is a Mandarin island, but the exception that proves the rule. It was a planned community started by a mass plantation of elite graduates from all over China.

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