Shanghainese language, also known as the
Shanghai dialect, Hu
language or Hu dialect, is a variety of
Wu Chinese spoken in the
central districts of the
City of Shanghai
City of Shanghai and its surrounding areas.
It is classified as part of the Sino-Tibetan language family.
Shanghainese, like other Wu variants, is mutually unintelligible with
other varieties of Chinese, such as Mandarin.
In English, "Shanghainese" sometimes refers to all Wu languages,
variants and dialects, although they are only partially intelligible
with one another.
Shanghainese proper is a representative language of
Taihu Wu; it contains vocabulary and expressions from the entire Taihu
Wu area of southern
Jiangsu and northern Zhejiang. With nearly 14
Shanghainese is also the largest single form of Wu
Chinese. It serves as the lingua franca of the entire Yangtze River
Shanghainese is rich in vowels [i y ɪ ʏ ei ø ɛ ə ɐ a ɑ ɔ ɤɯ
o ʊ u] (twelve of which are phonemic) and in consonants. Like other
Taihu Wu dialects,
Shanghainese has voiced initials [b d ɡ ɦ z v dʑ
Cantonese nor Mandarin has voiced initial stops or
Shanghainese tonal system is also significantly
different from other Chinese varieties, sharing more similarities with
the Japanese pitch accent, with two level tonal contrasts (high and
Cantonese and Mandarin are typical of contour tonal
2 Intelligibility and Variations
3.3.1 Tone sandhi
4 Common words and phrases in Shanghainese
4.1 Literary and vernacular pronunciations
5 Plural pronouns
7 See also
9 Further reading
10 External links
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Shanghai did not become a regional center of commerce until it was
opened to foreign investment during the late Qing dynasty.
Consequently, languages and dialects spoken around
Shanghai had long
been subordinate to those spoken around
Jiaxing and later Suzhounese.
In the late 19th century, most vocabulary of the
Shanghai area had
been a hybrid between Southern
Jiangsu and Ningbonese. Since the
1850s, owing to the growth of Shanghai's economy,
become one of the fastest-developing languages of the Wu Chinese
subgroup, undergoing rapid changes and quickly replacing
the prestige dialect of the
Yangtze River Delta
Yangtze River Delta region. It underwent
sustained growth that reached a hiatus in the 1930s during the
Republican era, when migrants arrived in
Shanghai and immersed
themselves in the local tongue.
After 1949, the government imposed Mandarin (Putonghua) as the
official language of the whole nation of China. The dominance and
Shanghainese began to wane slightly. Since Chinese
economic reform began in 1978, especially,
Shanghai became home to a
great number of migrants from all over the country. Due to the
national prominence of Mandarin, learning
Shanghainese was no longer
necessary for migrants, because those educated after the 1950s could
generally communicate in Mandarin. However,
Shanghainese remained a
vital part of the city's culture and retained its prestige status
within the local population. In the 1990s, it was still common for
local radio and television broadcasts to be in Shanghainese. In 1995,
the TV series
Sinful Debt featured extensive
when it was broadcast outside
Shanghai (mainly in adjacent Wu-speaking
provinces) Mandarin subtitles were added. The
Shanghainese TV series
Lao Niang Jiu (Old Uncle) was broadcast from 1995 to 2007  and was
Shanghainese programming has
since slowly declined amid regionalist/localist accusations.
From 1992 onward,
Shanghainese use was discouraged in schools, and
many children native to
Shanghai can no longer speak Shanghainese.
In addition, Shanghai's emergence as a cosmopolitan global city
consolidated the status of Mandarin as the standard language of
business and services, at the expense of the local language.
Since 2005, new movements have emerged to protect
fading away. At municipal legislative discussions in 2005, former
Shanghai opera actress Ma Lili moved to "protect" the language,
stating that she was one of the few remaining
Shanghai opera actresses
who still retained authentic classic
Shanghainese pronunciation in
their performances. Shanghai's former party boss Chen Liangyu, a
Shanghainese himself, reportedly supported her proposal.
There have been talks of re-integrating
pre-kindergarten education, because many children are unable to speak
any Shanghainese. A citywide program was introduced by the city
government's language committee in 2006 to record native speakers of
Shanghainese varieties for archival purposes and, by 2010,
many Shanghainese-language programs were running.
Shanghai government has begun to reverse its course and seek
fluent speakers of authentic Shanghainese, but only two out of
thirteen recruitment stations have found Traditional Shanghainese
speakers; the rest of the 14 million people of
Shanghai speak modern
Shanghainese,[clarification needed] and it has been predicted that
local variants will be wiped out. Professor
Qian Nairong is working on
efforts to save the language. In response to criticism, Qian
reminds people that
Shanghainese was once fashionable, saying, "the
popularization of Mandarin doesn't equal the ban of dialects. It
doesn't make Mandarin a more civilized language either. Promoting
dialects is not a narrow-minded localism, as it has been labeled by
some netizens”. The singer and composer Eheart Chen sings many
of his songs in
Shanghainese instead of Mandarin to preserve the
Since 2006, the Modern Baby Kindergarten in
Shanghai has prohibited
all of its students from speaking anything but
Shanghainese on Fridays
to preserve the language amongst younger speakers. In 2011,
Professor Qian said that the sole remaining speakers of real
Shanghainese are a group of
Shanghainese peoples over the age of 60
and native citizens who have little outside contact, and he strongly
Shanghainese be taught in the regular school system from
kindergarten all the way to elementary, saying it is the only way to
save Shanghainese, and that attempts to introduce it in university
courses and operas are not enough.
Shanghainese speakers had audio recordings made of
Shanghainese on May 31, 2011. They were selected based on accent
purity, way of pronunciation and other factors.
Intelligibility and Variations
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Shanghainese is not mutually intelligible with any language or dialect
of Mandarin. It is around 50% intelligible[dubious – discuss] (with
28.9% lexical similarity) with the Mandarin heard in Beijing. Modern
Shanghainese however, has been heavily influenced by modern Mandarin
and some other Chinese languages, such as Cantonese. This makes the
Shanghainese spoken by young people in the city different from that
spoken by the older population, sometimes significantly. It also means
that inserting Mandarin,
Cantonese or both into
during everyday conversation is very common, at least amongst young
people. Like most subdivisions of Chinese, it is easier for a local
speaker to understand Mandarin than it is for a Mandarin speaker to
understand the local language.
Shanghainese is part of the larger Wu subgroup of Chinese languages.
It is somewhat similar, to a certain degree, to the speech of
neighboring cities of
Ningbo and Suzhou. People mingling between these
areas do not need to code-switch to Mandarin when they speak to one
another. However, there are noticeable tonal and phonological changes
which do not impede intelligibility. As the dialect continuum of Wu
continues to further distances, however, significant changes occur in
phonology and lexicon to the point where it is no longer possible to
converse intelligibly. The majority of
Shanghainese speakers find that
by Wuxi, differences become significant and the
Wuxi dialect would
take weeks to months for a
Shanghainese speaker to fully learn.
Hangzhou dialect is understood by most Shanghainese
speakers, but it is considered "rougher" and does not have as much
glide and flow in comparison. The language evolved in and around
Taizhou, Zhejiang, by which point it becomes difficult for a
Shanghainese speaker to comprehend. Wenzhounese, spoken in the
southernmost part of
Zhejiang province, although considered part of
the Wu group, is not at all intelligible with Shanghainese.
Shanghainese is also mutually unintelligible with Cantonese, Southern
Hokkien or Teochew), or any other language in any different
groups of Chinese.
Following conventions of Chinese syllable structure, Shanghainese
syllables can be divided into initials and finals. The initial
occupies the first part of the syllable. The final occupies the second
part of the syllable and can be divided further into an optional
medial and an obligatory rimes (sometimes spelled rhyme). Tone is also
a feature of the syllable in Shanghainese.:6–16 Syllabic tone,
which is typical to the other Sinitic languages, has largely become
verbal tone in Shanghainese.
Initials of Shanghainese
Shanghainese has a set of tenuis, voiceless aspirated and voiced
plosives and affricates, as well as a set of voiceless and voiced
fricatives. Alveolo-palatal initials are also present in Shanghainese.
Voiced stops are phonetically voiceless with slack voice phonation in
stressed, word initial position. This phonation (often referred to
as murmur) also occurs in zero onset syllables, syllables beginning
with fricatives, and syllables beginning with sonorants. These
consonants are true voiced in intervocalic position.
The table below lists the vowel nuclei of Shanghainese
The following chart lists all possible finals (medial + nucleus +
Shanghainese represented in IPA.:11
Syllabic continuants: [z̩] [m̩] [ŋ̩] [ɚ]
The transcriptions used above are broad and the following points are
of note when pertaining to actual pronunciation:
[u] and [o] are pronounced with similar tongue position, but the
former is pronounced with compressed lip rounding while the latter is
pronounced with protruded lip rounding ([ɯ̽ᵝ] and [ʊ]
The vowel pairs [a, ɐ], [ɛ, ɪ], [ɔ, ʊ] and [ø, ʏ] are each
pronounced nearly identically ([ɐ], [e], [o̞] and [ø] respectively)
despite having different conventional transcriptions.
/j/ is pronounced [ɥ] before rounded vowels.
Middle Chinese [-ŋ] rimes are retained, while [-n] and [-m] are
either retained or have disappeared in Shanghainese. Middle Chinese
[-p -t -k] rimes have become glottal stops, [-ʔ].
Shanghainese has five phonetically distinguishable tones for single
syllables said in isolation. These tones are illustrated below in Chao
tone names. In terms of
Middle Chinese tone designations, the yin tone
category has three tones (yinshang and yinqu tones have merged into
one tone), while the yang category has two tones (the yangping,
yangshang, and yangqu have merged into one tone).:17
Shanghainese Citation Tones
Middle Chinese Classifications
The conditioning factors which led to the yin–yang split still exist
in Shanghainese, as they do in other Wu dialects: yang tones are only
found with voiced initials [b d ɡ z v dʑ ʑ m n ɲ ŋ l ɦ], while
the yin tones are only found with voiceless initials.
The ru tones are abrupt, and describe those rimes which end in a
glottal stop /ʔ/. That is, both the yin–yang distinction and the ru
tones are allophonic (dependent on syllabic structure). Shanghainese
has only a two-way phonemic tone contrast, falling vs rising, and
then only in open syllables with voiceless initials.
Tone sandhi is a process whereby adjacent tones undergo dramatic
alteration in connected speech. Similar to other Northern Wu dialects,
Shanghainese is characterized by two forms of tone sandhi: a word tone
sandhi and a phrasal tone sandhi.
Word tone sandhi in
Shanghainese can be described as left-prominent
and is characterized by a dominance of the first syllable over the
contour of the entire tone domain. As a result, the underlying tones
of syllables other than the leftmost syllable, have no effect on the
tone contour of the domain. The pattern is generally described as tone
spreading (T1-4) or tone shifting (T5, except for 4- and 5-syllable
compounds, which can undergo spreading or shifting). The table below
illustrates possible tone combinations.
Sandhi Tone Values
55 44 22
55 44 33 22
55 44 33 33 22
33 44 22
33 44 33 22
33 44 33 33 22
11 44 11
11 44 33 11
11 44 33 22 11
33 44 22
33 44 33 22
33 44 33 22 22
11 11 24
11 22 22 24
22 44 33 11
11 11 11 11 24
22 44 33 22 11
As an example, in isolation, the two syllables of the word for China
are pronounced with T1 and T4: /tsʊŋ52/ and /kwəʔ44/. However,
when pronounced in combination, T1 from /tsʊŋ/ spreads over the
compound resulting in the following pattern /tsʊŋ55kwəʔ22/.
Similarly, the syllables in a common expression for foolish have the
following underlying phonemic and tonal representations: /zəʔ24/
(T5), /sɛ52/ (T1), and /ti34/ (T2). However, the syllables in
combination exhibit the T5 shifting pattern where the first-syllable
T5 shifts to the last syllable in the domain:
Phrasal tone sandhi in
Shanghainese can be described as
right-prominent and is characterized by a right syllable retaining its
underlying tone and a left syllable receiving a mid-level tone based
on the underlying tone's register. The table below indicates possible
left syllable tones in right-prominent compounds.:46–47
Possible Left Syllable Tone Values in Right-Prominent Sandhi
For instance, when combined, /ma14/ and /tɕjɤɯ34/ become
/ma33tɕjɤɯ34/ (buy wine).
Sometimes meaning can change based on whether left-prominent or
right-prominent sandhi is used. For example, /tsʰɔ34/ and /mi14/
when pronounced /tsʰɔ33mi44/ (i.e., with left-prominent sandhi)
means fried noodles. When pronounced /tsʰɔ44mi14/ (i.e., with
right-prominent sandhi), it means to fry noodles.:35
Common words and phrases in Shanghainese
Note: Chinese characters for
Shanghainese are not standardized and are
provided for reference only. IPA transcription is for the Middle
period of modern
Shanghainese (中派上海话), pronunciation of
those between 20 and 60 years old.
Chinese character Transliteration
上海闲话 or 上海言话（上海閒話 or 上海言話）
we or I
渠（佢, 伊, 其）
倷 (modern Mandarin-based approximation: 㑚)
[ʑja.ja.nʊŋ] or [ʑja.ʑja.nʊŋ]
埃只, 伊只（埃隻, 伊隻）
to exist, here, present
what time is it?
[ɦi.zɛ tɕi.ti tsʊŋ]
[sa.ɲɪɲ] or [ɦa.li.ɦwei]
哪能 （哪恁）, 哪能介 （哪恁介）
[m̩], [vəʔ.z̩], [m̩.məʔ], [vjɔ]
呒, 勿是, 呒没, 覅(嘸, 勿是, 嘸沒, 覅)
Come to our house and play.
[tɔ ɐʔ.la ʊʔ.li.ɕjɑ̃ lɛ bəʔ.ɕjɐ̃]
Where's the restroom?
[da.sɤɯ.kɛ ləʔ.ləʔ ɦa.li.ta]
Have you eaten dinner?
[ɦja.vɛ tɕʰɪʔ.ku.ləʔ va]
I don't know
Do you speak English?
[nʊŋ ɪɲ.vən kɑ̃.təʔ.lɛ va]
I adore you
[ŋu ɛ.mu nʊŋ]
I like you a lot
[ŋu lɔ hwø.ɕi nʊŋ əʔ]
How are you?
[nʊŋ hɔ va]
Literary and vernacular pronunciations
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The first-person pronoun is suffixed with 伲 [ɲi˨˧] as in "我伲"
[ŋu˨˨.ɲi˦˦], and third-person with 拉 [la˥˧]), but the
second-person plural is a separate root, 㑚 [nʌ˨˧].
A table of
Shanghai Phonetic Symbols by Rev. J. A. Silsby
Chinese characters are used to write Shanghainese.
Shanghainese was first developed by
Protestant English and American
Christian missionaries in the 19th century, including Joseph
Edkins. Usage of this romanization system was mainly confined to
translated Bibles for use by native Shanghainese, or
Shanghainese dictionaries, some of which also contained
characters, for foreign missionaries to learn Shanghainese.
Shanghainese is sometimes written informally using homophones: "lemon"
(ningmeng), written 檸檬 in Standard Chinese, may be written 人門
(person-door) in Shanghainese; and "yellow" (huang黄) may be written
王 (king) rather than standard 黃. These are not homophones in
Mandarin, but are homophones in Shanghainese. There are also some
homophones in Mandarin which are not homophonic in Shanghainese, e.g.
做, 作 and 坐.
Protestant missionaries in the 1800s created the
Symbols to write
Shanghainese phonetically. The symbols are a
syllabary similar to the Japanese
Kana system. The system has not been
used and is only seen in a few historical books.
List of varieties of Chinese
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Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck
Institute for the Science of Human History.
^ Encyclopedia Britannica – Chinese languages
^ a b c
China Newsweek Archived March 14, 2008, at the Wayback
^ Chinese page of Lao Niang Jiu 老娘舅, .
^ Yin Yeping (July 31, 2011). "60 years of Putonghua and English drown
out local tongues". Global Times. Archived from the original on May
^ Zat Liu (August 20, 2010). "Is Shanghai's local dialect, and
culture, in crisis?".
CNN GO. Retrieved June 5, 2011.
^ "Call goes out: Language, please".
Shanghai Daily. April 6, 2010.
Archived from the original on June 7, 2011.
Shanghai struggles to save disappearing dialect".
CNN GO. November
22, 2010. Retrieved January 18, 2011.
^ Tiffany Ap (November 18, 2010). "That ain't
speaking". shanghaiist. Retrieved September 30, 2011.
^ Tracy You (June 3, 2010). "Word wizard: The man bringing
Shanghainese back to the people".
CNN GO. Retrieved January 18,
^ Tracy You (July 26, 2010). "Eheart Chen: Shanghai's modern rocker
with a nostalgic soul".
CNN GO. Retrieved January 18, 2011.
^ Ni Dandan (May 16, 2011). "Dialect faces death threat". Global
Times. Archived from the original on May 21, 2011. Retrieved June 5,
2011. we arranged
Shanghai Day on Fridays to promote the language and
^ Jia Feishang (May 13, 2011). "Stopping the local dialect becoming
Shanghai Daily. Retrieved February 11, 2017.
^ Miranda Shek (February 2, 2011). "Local dialect in danger of
vanishing". Global Times. Archived from the original on November 6,
2011. Retrieved December 1, 2016.
^ Liang Yiwen (May 30, 2011). "14
Shanghainese selected for dialect
Shanghai Daily. Retrieved September 30,
2011. [permanent dead link]
^ a b c d e f Zhu, Xiaonong (2006). A Grammar of
^ Ladefoged, Peter, Maddieson, Ian. The Sounds of the World's
Languages. Wiley-Blackwell, 1996, p. 64-66.
^ Zhu, Xiaonong S.
Shanghai Tonetics. Lincom Europa, 1999, p. 12.
^ a b Chen & Gussenhoven (2015)
^ Zhu, Xiaonong S.
Shanghai Tonetics. Lincom Europa, 1999, p. 14-17.
^ Svantesson, Jan-Olof. "
Shanghai Vowels," Lund University, Department
of Linguistics, Working Papers, 35:191-202
^ Chen, Zhongmin. Studies in Dialects in the
Shanghai Area. Lincom
Europa, 2003, p. 74.
^ Introduction to Shanghainese. Pronunciation (Part 3 - Tones and
^ Graham Thurgood, Randy J. LaPolla (2003). Graham Thurgood, Randy J.
LaPolla, ed. The Sino-Tibetan languages. Volume 3 of Routledge
language family series (illustrated ed.). Psychology Press.
p. 86. ISBN 0-7007-1129-5. Retrieved March 10, 2012.
^ Edkins, Joseph (1853). Grammar of the
^ Wm. V. Hannas (1997). Asia's orthographic dilemma. University of
Hawaii Press. p. 20. ISBN 0-8248-1892-X. Retrieved December
8, 2011. Non-Mandarin speakers take their own shortcuts, such as 王
(Shanghai) wang "king" for 黃 wang "yellow" (pronounced Huáng in
Mandarin) or 人門 (Shanghai) ningmeng (lit.) "person" and "door" for
檸檬 ningmeng "lemon," not to mention hundreds of unique forms and
usages devised popularly that have no application to Mandarin at all.
There is nothing new about this phenomenon. For at least two
millennia, there have been two orthographies in China: the one
formally sanctioned by lexicographers and the state, and a popular
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Wu edition of, the free encyclopedia
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