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DIALECTS

Fangyan Friday: The Hybrid Ming Court Dialect of Kunming

'Kunminghua' is a fusion of Ming dynasty official Mandarin and multiple ethnic minority dialects in Yunnan

During the 13th century, Marco Polo called Kunming (which he referred to as Yachi, or “Duck Lake”), “a large and splendid city, where the traders and craftsmen are in plenty.” Nowadays, Kunming, the capital of China's southwestern Yunnan province, thrives as a tourist hotspot and important trading hub between China and the countries of Southeast Asia.

Known as the “City of Eternal Spring” for its year-round pleasant weather and foliage, Kunming is gaining a reputation as an artistic, hipster city with its laid-back atmosphere, artsy communities, and variety of ethnic minority influences.

The languages of ethnic minorities have fused with a centuries old form of Mandarin Chinese to create the unique Kunminghua (昆明话) dialect, which is widely spoken in the city of 6.6 million and across Yunnan. The origins of Kunminghua lie the migration of Han people during Ming dynasty (some of it forced by the Ming court) from eastern China, particularly the then-capital Nanjing, into the southwestern frontier regions. The resulting dialect was a twist on the official language of the imperial court, or Guanhua.

Today, many people in the Yunnan capital flow seamlessly between Kunminghua and their own ethnicity’s dialect in daily life. About 13 percent of Kunming's residents are classified as ethnic minorities, and this proportion has been far higher in the past. Elements of Yi (彝), Bai (白), and other ethnic minority languages have bled into Kunminghua.

The result is a harsh and forceful sounding dialect, regarded as direct and blunt in tone. Many of the dialect's traits remain remnants of the court Mandarin spoken during the Ming dynasty, making Kunminghua an important living memorial to China's imperial past.

Kunming, the capital of Yunnan has many cultural relics and landmarks left over from the different kingdoms that once ruled the region

The Golden Horse and Jade Rooster Archways in Kunming (VCG)

Key Characteristics ofKunminghua

  • The third tone in Mandarin’s four standard tones is often dropped and replaced with the fourth tone. For example, 铁树 (tiěshù, “iron tree,” a common tree in Kunming) will often sound like “tìshù.”
  • Unlike in Mandarin, there is no question particle, “吗 (ma),” in Kunminghua. Instead, “gei (给)” is used at the beginning of a sentence, or “gah (噶)”at the end, to indicate a response is expected from the listener. 噶 is also commonly added at the end of sentences for emphasis.
  • Another notable missing sound is the “ü” vowel in Mandarin. Instead, “u” and “i” sounds are predominantly heard. For example “绿色 (lǜsè, green)” sounds more like “lusi.”
  • The “h” sound often disappears in Kunminghua. For example, 爬山 (páshān, mountain climbing) becomes “pāsān” with both characters taking the first tone. Another example is the character 熟 (shú, familiar) which in Kunminghua becomes “sù.”
  • Instead of 怎么 (zěnme, how), Kunminghua speakers say 咋个 (pronounced "zaw-gah") or 整 (zhěng). For example: “整哪样? (zhěng nǎyàng, What are you doing?),” and “咋个了? (zaw-gah le, What happened?)”
  • The “g” and “q” sounds also change from Mandarin. The sound “ke” replaces “qu” in many situations. For example, “你去哪点?(Nǐ qù nǎdiǎn, Where are you going?)” becomes “你克哪点?(Nǐ kè naw-dian)” Likewise, a “ko” sound often replaces words that begin with a “g” sound. For example: America (美国 Měiguó) is pronounced meiko.

Common Phrases

按?(Án?)

This indicates that you would like someone to repeat what they just said, or that you didn’t understand them.

鬼火绿 (Guǐhuǒ lù)

This phrase, which literally translates to “flaming green ghost,” is used to express extreme displeasure. The character for green (绿) is pronounced “lǜ” in Mandarin, but changes to “lù” Kunminghua.

么么三三 (meme sānsān)

Local Kunming folk use this phrase to express astonishment, similar to “Oh my God!”

太板扎了噶! (Tài bǎn zha le gah)

板扎 expresses a feeling of excitement or cheerful surprise, similar to “awesome!” The remark is usually placed at the end of a sentence followed by (噶 gah) or (莫 mo).

Listen

What are you doing?

Nǐ zài zhěng nà?

你在整哪?

Drink a little less if you can’t handle your drink. If you drink too much, you’ll be sleeping on the floor, and I can’t drag you.

Hē bù dé me sǎo hē xī, hēhē me yī huà shuì cē sàng yī huà shuì dì xī, wǒ tuō bù dòng nǐ.

喝不得么少喝些,喝多了一会睡车上一会睡地下,我拖不动你。

Are you friend who come from afar? I’ll take you guys to the village to eat some cold beef jerky [a traditional snack of the Dai ethnicity].

Sì yuǎncù ne péngyǒu ga, wǒ dài nǐ kè wǒmen ne zàizi sōu, cī sā piē.

是远处呢朋友噶,我带你克我们呢寨子收,吃撒撇。

There are three rules regarding Yunnan mushrooms. One is that you need to know the type of mushroom; second, add extra pig lard to cook the mushrooms well; and third, be familiar with the route to the hospital.

Yúnnán cī jūn yǒu sān sū, jùnzi zǒnglèi nǐ yào sū, duō fàng zūyóu yào chǎo sū, yīyuàn ne lù yě yào sū.

云南吃菌有三熟,菌子种类你要熟,多放猪油要炒熟,医院呢路也要熟。

Have you eaten? Where you going?

Nǐ gěi chīfàn le? Nǐ yào kè nǎdiǎn?

你给吃饭了?你要克哪点?

Our Yunnan scenery is amazing!

Wǒmen Yúnnán ne fēngjǐng shì xiāngdāng de bǎnzha!

我们云南呢风景是相当的板扎!


For over a decade, The World of Chinese has been offering modern Chinese-language instruction from street talk to social phenomena to character tales. With 129 officially recognized dialects (方言), though, we have barely scratched the surface of everything there is to learn.

On select Fridays, TWOC will be presenting a basic lesson on speaking like a native of a certain region of China.

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Anson Zong-Liscum (安森) is a contributing writer at The World of Chinese.

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