The dilemma of the disappearing dialects

By Gu Jia Source:Global Times Published: 2011-8-16 8:49:00

On July 23, in a studio at Songjiang Radio Station, a 65-year-old Shanghai native, Zhou Yuanji, put on a pair of headphones and began to speak his mother tongue, Shanghai dialect. He began to sound out vowels, then words, then phrases and finally sentences. At the end of the recording, Zhou retold the Chinese folktale The Cowherd and the Weaving Girl.

This was the trial recording for the nationwide vocal database. Zhou was selected as one of the Shanghai dialect speakers for Puxi, west of the Huangpu River, where the downtown version of the dialect originated.

In March, linguists started to recruit volunteers from 12 districts in Shanghai to record all branches of Shanghai dialect for archival purposes.

"We don't know how our ancestors spoke during the Ming or Qing dynasties (1368–1911). We can only find some expressions from novels or other written records. The vocal database uses modern technology to record voices which can be heard by our descendents," You Rujie, a professor in the Chinese Language and Literature Department of Fudan University, told the Global Times. You is also one of the interviewers for the project.

The database in Shanghai is the third of its kind in China and was designed to better preserve linguistic diversity, according to Xinhua News Agency. Initiated in 2008, similar databases have been set up in Jiangsu and Yunnan provinces.

Sharp contrast

Apart from the Shanghai dialect spoken in downtown areas, each suburban district and county has its own dialect which includes different intonation, pronunciation and phrases. Even in some suburban districts, people who live in the outskirts of the district speak with a different accent from those living in the center.

To ensure the local dialect recorded hasn't been influenced by other pronunciation, the Shanghai Language Work Committee has set rigid guidelines for applicants.

Candidates should be born and raised in the area where the dialect originates and cannot have lived outside the area for a period longer than four years. Senior candidates should be born between 1941 and 1950 while junior candidates should be born between 1971 and 1980. The parents and spouses of the candidate should also be from the same area. The strict criteria has barred most dialect speakers.

According to Zhang Ripei, an official from Shanghai Language Work Committee, it's much harder to find speakers in suburban areas than in downtown. "We want to find the natives who have lived in towns in suburban areas for the majority of their life. However, because of the urbanization, lots of local people have moved to other districts which have better living conditions. Young people who have studied in universities in other districts for more than four years are also disqualified, because it may affect their pronunciation," Zhang said.

To date, very few speakers from Fengxian district, Qingpu district and Chuansha in Pudong New Area have applied for the project.

On the contrary, 457 people representing the dialect spoken in downtown Puxi had applied by the end of April. "All of them meet the requirement," Zhang told the Global Times.

Cultural heritage

Cai Zhiliang is one of the few natives who volunteered to be a Chongming dialect speaker. After he applied in May, the 65-year-old began to prepare for the interview. He wrote a list of words from the Chongming dialect and classified it into several categories, such as animals, plants, textiles and manufacturing. All of them correspond to a word in Putonghua. "Though I can pronounce all these words, I don't know how to write some of the characters, which can't be found in a dictionary, either. I had to replace them with a homonym," Cai said.

Though he served in the army in Liaoning Province for eight years, Cai is still confident about his vocabulary. "I can find out as many as you want," Cai said. He has already categorized about 100 words.

Cai's son speaks good Chongming dialect, but he still can't figure out some words on the list. "My son looks impressed when my wife and I explain to him a word he has never heard before," Cai said, smiling. "Only those over 60 years old in Chongming know the vernacular."

Cai's grandson has studied in downtown Shanghai since he was 6 years old. "He doesn't understand the vernacular. He only speaks Putonghua," Cai said.

Yan Yueqing shares the same concern. Yan is 68 years old and speaks both fluent Putonghua and Jinshan dialect. "I learned Putonghua from my granddaughter when she studied pinyin. However, when I tried to teach her Jinshan dialect, she found it hard to pronounce. Now she is used to speaking Putonghua so I speak that with her," Yan said. "I am worried that the local dialect will die out."

Yan explained that Jinshan dialect is different from Shanghai dialect not only in pronunciation but also in the definitions of different words. For example, the word for "a little" in Shanghai dialect means "so much" in Jinshan dialect while the word for "we" in Jinshan dialect means "you" in Shanghai dialect.

Zhang Ripei told the Global Times, that after the dialects are archived in September, the linguists will create a written record of all the content in the audio database with International Phonetic Symbols. A website is expected to be established where the recordings, scripts and phonetic symbols can be accessed.

A citywide project hopes to preserve Shanghai's dying languages

Putonghua or dialects?

Zhao Minyong, 39, was chosen to be the representative for the Songjiang dialect. Shanghai dialect is the daughter language of the Songjiang dialect and the dialect boasts over 700 years of history. Zhao's parents and grandparents were both born and raised in Songjiang, also known as "the root of Shanghai."

Unlike many of Zhao's former classmates, who moved to other districts, Zhao has remained in Songjiang. Zhao even completed his bachelor's degree by correspondence. Now he works as vice director of a neighborhood committee in Songjiang district.

Though Zhao has never left Songjiang for an extended period of time, he admits that his dialect doesn't sound as authentic as his parents'. "I speak Songjiang dialect when I have meetings with the local people, but some words escape me occasionally when I am reading the script. Many vivid expressions in local dialect have been replaced by Putonghua," he said.  Zhao talks with his parents in Songjiang dialect. But when he's with his daughter or colleagues, he speaks Putonghua.

Zhao said that he has focused on his daughter's English learning and does not care much about whether she can speak his native dialect. "After my daughter heard that I was elected as the representative of Songjiang dialect, she asked me to teach her the dialect," Zhao said.

Fewer people speak Songjiang dialect now, especially those living in the town, Professor You Rujie said. Because two-thirds of Songjiang's population is not local, most people communicate with each other in Putonghua.

Psychological barrier

Because suburban dialects are not the dominant dialects in Shanghai, people tend to hide their suburban accents. "The inferiority complex of suburban people means that their dialects are at greater risk of dying than dialects in downtown areas," You said.

Zhao Mingyong still remembers in the early 1990s, when he went shopping in a big department store on Nanjing Road East, a shop assistant, after hearing him speak in Songjiang dialect, referred to him as a "rural person" as he walked away from the register.

"When I ask about a bus route with a Songjiang accent, the conductor appears impatient to answer," Zhao recalled. To make his day-to-day work easier, Zhao has learned to speak Shanghai dialect. "But my pronunciation is not perfect," Zhao said.

Wu Xuejiao, 22, has also tried to learn Shanghai dialect, but failed. "I can't help speaking Pudong dialect after I talk a bit of Shanghai dialect," Wu said. Both Wu's parents are from Pudong New Area and she has spoken the dialect since childhood. "My grandmother speaks authentic Pudong dialect, but I don't understand some of her words. Some parts of the dialect have been lost in our generation. What a pity!" Wu said.

Wu is currently in her final year at East China Normal University. Though she loves her dialect, she rarely speaks it on campus. Because students of the school come from different parts of the country, Wu thinks that speaking Putonghua shows respect to everyone.

Even when she talks with students from downtown Shanghai, Wu uses Putonghua. "Though both of us can understand each other's dialect, it sounds strange because of our different accents," Wu explained. "I think it's more suitable to use Putonghua. That's our common language."

The destiny of dialect

By comparing the pronunciation of the older speakers and the younger speakers in the database, experts for the project discovered that many syllables in Shanghai dialect have disappeared. Young people can no longer distinguish the subtle differences between the pronunciations of some characters and the pronunciation of suburban dialects is becoming similar to downtown dialects.

"The dialect is no longer active now. Many vivid expressions are used less frequently. New words are no longer being coined," Qian Nairong, a Shanghai linguist who has studied Shanghai dialect for nearly 50 years, said.

Professor You said, "Dialect develops with social, economic and technological changes. We can't expect a dialect 100 years from now to be the same as it is today. However, our society should 'care' more about the dialect."

In Shanghai it is still common to see banners that state "Speak Putonghua" and all classes are taught in Putonghua. You Rujie pointed out that it doesn't mean speaking Shanghai dialect is crude or uncivil.

"Some people think Putonghua is a superior language while dialects are inferior. In fact, there are no privileged languages. Languages are equal. In public situations, Putonghua is more formal while in private situations, dialects help express emotions," You said.

Some elementary schools have started teaching Shanghai dialect in recent years. "I don't think these classes should be necessary for native children. Shanghai dialect is their mother tongue, which means they should be able to master it through talking with their parents," Qian said. "They need to learn Putonghua. That's their second language. But now the situation is the opposite."

Many in the city fear that Shanghai dialect is being overwhelmed by Putonghua. "Don't forbid children to speak the dialect after class. Inheritance of dialect is a natural process," Qian said.

You added that a harmonious linguistic environment requires balance between dialects. You advocates a bilingual society, where residents can speak both Putonghua and their own dialects.

Posted in: Metro Shanghai

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