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Dialectical Arguments

The top ten difficult Chinese dialects

05·21·2014

Dialectical Arguments

The top ten difficult Chinese dialects

05·21·2014

Whether it’s cockney or hakka, people are proud of their dialects, and so it is that a list of the “Top 10 Most Difficult Chinese Dialects” published on Weibo has caused a bit of a stir. The list includes (in order): Wenzhou dialect, Cantonese, Minnan and Suzhou dialect, as well as the dialects of Shanghai, Shanxi, Changsha, Sichuan, Shandong, Tianjin and Dongbei.

Opinions on the list differ. While it is commonly agreed that the Wenzhou dialect is the most difficult, and that the Cantonese and Minnan dialects should be included in the top three, folk from the north-east disagree that their Dongbei dialect is difficult. ManyFujianese have questioned why, that of the large family of Fujian dialects, only Minnan dialect made the list, claiming that many other Min dialects, such as that of Fuzhou, are far more difficult than Sichuan and Tianjin dialects and should easily make to the top 10 list.

On Ifeng netizen shared a story about the Fuzhou dialect: a foreign teacher at Fuzhou Normal University was eating snacks on the street when he saw a friend and said “see you again”. The owner of the restaurant, not knowing English, replied “again, again”. Apparently the owner said “yeah, salty, salty”, as in the  Fuzhou dialect “see you again” sounds like “the sauce is salty” (酱油会咸).

The list is further questionable for a number of reasons. Some dialects in the list are from different geographical typologies: Wenzhou, Suzhou, Shanghai, Changsha and Tianjin are all cities, while Guangdong, Minnan (southern Fujian), Shanxi, Sichuan, Shandong and Dongbei are either provinces or districts in China. Since in some areas of southern China, such as Fujian Province, the language spoken changes every ten Chinese miles’ distance (十里不同音 shí lǐ bù tóng yīn), it is very vague to use an entire province as a unit of linguistic ranking as there are many dialects in any particular province.

The list does not even cover the 7 largest dialects in China, that is the northern dialect (five dialects on the list, Shanxi, Sichuan, Shandong, Tianjin and Sichuan, belong to this category), Wu dialect (where Shanghai and Suzhou dialects belong), Min dialect, Yue dialect (Cantonese), Hakka dialect, Gan dialect and Xiang dialect (which includes the Changsha dialect. None of the Hakka and Gan dialect family make it onto the list.  So, you can see why the whole thing gets a little bit complicated. What do you think is the most difficult Chinese dialect?

Then, you see why there are controversies towards this Top 10 Most Difficult Chinese Dialects list.

For more reading, you may go to other related articles of  TWOC: “Chongqinghua Starter Kit“, “A Dongbeihua Crash Course“, and “Beijinghua 101“.