China 101: City Speak



Chinese. Living here, we’re steeped in it daily. We’ve delved into some of the differences in previous posts, and even tried to teach you some words. But now, I’m going to drop some linguistics on you.


Nearly 80% of the world’s population speaks 1% of existent languages (see National Geographic’s project here). That’s a huge disparity. China, though it seems to be one massive Eastern hegemon sometimes, is actually made up of an incalculable number of subgroups that are riffs on the same theme. What is known globally as the Chinese language–Mandarin (普通话, Pǔtōnghuà)–is one distinct coloration of what it means to be a Chinese speaker.


Chinese languages have always had dialects. Think of them as differences based on prestige, like we have in America. Someone from South Central LA isn’t going to speak the same English as someone from upper-class Boston. What’s unique about Chinese, however, is that people in China decided as early as the 12th century that there would be an official pronunciation of words. People from different regions were sent to the capital in Beijing to represent their home provinces and the emperor was sick of not being able to understand his court. Everybody made sure they were on the same page by looking at the same scrolls: the text, though pronounced differently, used the same characters. A speaker from Szechuan (四川, Sìchuān) may not be able to talk with someone from Guangzhou (广州, Guǎngzhōu), but they could write to one another.


Many people speak Mandarin–right now the estimate is 955 million native speakers–but not everyone. For example, Davi has confided in me that his grandparents only know a little bit of Mandarin, enough to get by if they go to a major city.

There’s another major language here that deserves some credit: Cantonese. Cantonese is primarily spoken in Hong Kong, Macau, and Guangdong province. There is little to no mutual intelligibility between Mandarin and Cantonese. Here’s the cool part, though: Cantonese uses Traditional Chinese characters. Traditional Chinese is highly ornamented, with many strokes per character. On the other hand, Mandarin–because it has to cater to so many different speakers–uses Simplified Chinese, which was pioneered when the PRC was first founded. Simplified Chinese brought literacy to scads of people, and–as China became more interconnected and more influential–helps it communicate.



Fluency in Mandarin vs. a local dialect is like fluency in any closely-related language. There’s some level of mutual intelligibility, but it’s really just random what sticks and what doesn’t. Slang pervades in local dialects. Ours drops a tone (thankfully, the hardest for English speakers to produce), and truncates a lot of phrases with respect to prepositions.


Jian’ou’s dialect, though it mostly shares oral intelligibility with Mandarin, still shows some of the baggage of that forced changeover. There are still many historical relics, signs, and so on that are written in Traditional Chinese. Less strokes means less mistakes means everyone can read what your thoughts are, but there’s a whole generation that didn’t grow up with that writing system. That means that if Davi’s grandparents went on holiday in Hong Kong, they wouldn’t be able to ask where the nearest restaurant is, but they could read the street signs and order off the menu once they got there. Just another curious part of living where we do.


Getting back to the main idea of the post: have you ever head of Chinglish? People might use that term in the US as a disparaging thing to make fun of people from Asia that are trying their damnedest to learn one of the most illogical, rule-breaking, counter-intuitive languages on the planet (English, dummy!). However, here in rural China, it’s something to be celebrated. Rather than a foolhardy, poor attempt at translation, it’s a panacea for the problem of globalization.

How do you connect several disparate cultures with little/no shared history? You mix the languages together. See Afrikaans. ( Sometimes silly things happen, but they happen based on the silliness of both languages, not just one. Chinglish is a pidgin language that takes two forms: instrumental (conveying an idea for an English speaker) and ornamental (flowery prose, because English is the language of global cool). Some people even think that a Mandarin-English hybrid might be the language of the globe in the future.

Let’s take a look at some of the signs around our city.



First, when Chinese people take a non-native word in Chinese, they really take it. They convert the syllables to something actually vocalizable using Chinese phonemes. Sometimes, that renders words really well, and sometimes not. Kevin becomes (凯文, Kǎi wén), Valerie becomes (瓦莱丽, Wǎ lái lì), and Boston becomes (波士顿, Bōshìdùn). Sometimes they don’t. Despite that the government made it illegal to use romanized characters in any official media (, you’ll still see familiar names of products like iPhone5 peppering the shop signs.



The added bonus of converting a word to Mandarin is that almost each syllable has its own distinct meaning. For example, England (英国, Yīngguó) means ‘brave land,’ while America (美国, Měiguó) means ‘beautiful land.’ This property of Chinese can be both a blessing and a curse, and is the main aspect that leads to Chinglish. Sometimes, when people adapt words to English, they focus on directly translating each Chinese character, rather than taking them in the chunks that would normally produce the right word (V and I call this ‘Google Translate Syndrome’). Silly translation abounds, like “connected by the same flesh and blood” for “connective tissue.”

Another property of English that doesn’t happen in Chinese is conjugation. If you want to say that you are performing an action, or a state of being, you simply use the verb. This is definitely an aspect that leads to Chinglish, and one that we frequently see in our lazy students’ homework assignment (“After cracking the eggs into the bowl, stirring the eggs strongly until they blending together.”). You don’t have to modify the verb or anything, just throw the infinitive in there and designate temporality right after the subject of your sentence.


Now, I’m only an amateur linguist, but the syncretic aspects of both English and Chinese definitely have some merits from my point of view. Only time will tell which one wins the global struggle, but my money is on some mix of the two of them, even if it means that the bleak universe of Blade Runner comes closer to being realistic.



Check out all this language that surrounds us!

Can’t wait to be literate again soon.

<3, K (&V)

2 thoughts on “China 101: City Speak

  1. myhongkonghusband says:

    Cantonese from HK and Macau use traditional signs, the one from Mainland China from Canton area use simplified. And actually simplified was used to make people more stupid and easier to control, not to help them. Traditional value that could be found in old poems can be read only with knowledge of traditional signs (and to make it funny rhyme only in Cantonese dialect), since people didn’t know how to read those they couldn’t read about the traditional values. From the point of view of a person who studies it simplified signs are much easier but… it’s just not it. It’s made up, it’s fine speaking Mandarin but I always say ‘follow Taiwan – write traditional’ 🙂 My husband can also speak Shanghainese and writing is the same but pronunciation is not close to anything, at least for me – somehow he can ‘find’ similarities to Mandarin haha.
    Opposite to Chinglish article you should make next time ‘foreigners and their chinese tattoos’ 😀 I love the literal translations of the names – I’m shopping and I get a text ‘get a big white veggie’ haha 🙂

  2. himheradventure says:

    I totally agree with your points (w/r/t the thought restrictions of Simplified Chinese vs. Traditional), but I censored myself a little bit in case our students find their way to the blog. If I were learning Chinese for real, I would be doing it HK or Taiwanese-style, like you. 🙂 When we were in Harbin and Beijing, we observed the tonal differences of the accent. It was distinct to the point of parody almost- those Beijing ‘rr’s’ make everyone sound like pirates! Even in Shanghai, which is fairly close to us, there were definite differences. It’s for it’s own thing going on. If I ever see an approachable Westerner with a Chinese tattoo, you can bet I’ll be taking a picture!

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