Tuesday, December 09, 2014


"They're saying 'cha' with the wrong tone," I commented.
She listened and affirmed that I was right. It isn't that remarkable in Chinese dialects to have regional variance in tones, but it was pleasing to notice it with the naked ear that there was a difference.

That was Hangzhou, listening to Mandarin spoken by Wu accented speakers. They have their own dialect, and they have their own accented mandarin traits. As a learner of Chinese and a teacher of phonology, my senses have become accustomed to noticing differences. I was travelling with my in-laws at the time and heard more of their dialect than the locals' speech, and suddenly I noticed a new consonant. And then another. Two consonant sounds that presumably they've been using for all four years I've known them, and only in September this year did I notice.

In actual fact they're allophones in Cantonese. If you say the two different sounds to a native they don't see them as different. It's similar to The two ways you can say "tree": you could say t'ree or ch'ree and to most it's the same. What I heard in their accent was a variation of two sounds, the w in "Wu" and y in "Yi". The w sounded more like a v. In English, we make a v by touching our top teeth to our bottom lip, say "very" and you'd feel it. But their w was like an English w, but with tightened lips. It became a voiced sound akin to a v, a sound I hadn't 'heard' before. 

Then I heard the Qingyuan Waangho "yi" sound. Again it was similar but different. Try saying "yee" but as the y is produced bring your tongue as close as you can to the roof of your mouth. It loses its y sound for a buzzy  hum. 

I have to say Qingyuan Waangho, because some sounds aren't present in other towns. My in-laws are from Waangho; Incredibly 5km down the road in Daaiyau, they have the English z standing in for yi. No other dialect of Chinese as far as I know has the English z sound, yet it does. Oddly yi is pronounced there without a noticeable vowel. It's just zzzz. This non-vowel is quite similar to Mandarin, rather than Cantonese.

There are so many little consonant and vowel differences between cities and villages. Where do these sounds come from? I explain them as one of ancient distinctions, shifts or idiosyncrasies. As mentioned in previous blogs, some differences may go back to Middle Chinese, but others maybe just a shift of sounds. English had had this too: look up Grimms' Law. This is when all sounds spontaneously evolve in a particular direction. When I first heard the Daaiyau z I thought it might be an ancient distinction and created lots of language tests, choosing one yi which should be z and another that should stay y... And it didn't work: they said z in both cases regardless. It was part of a general spontaneous phonological shift without much connection to any previous form.

I enjoy these investigations even though admittedly they distract from the more important quest: to actually understand what they're saying.

In some ways, the new year village hopping tradition breeds the environment for lingual comparisons. I hope I can learn more this coming year.

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