Annals of Wu

a sinotibetoburman linguistics blog

Shanghai Dialect For Foreigners books - learning

I swear I'd already written a review of this on an earlier version of the site back in 2007, but now I can't seem to find it. So this is actually the second time I'm reviewing this book. Let's get right to it.

Shanghai Dialect for Foreigners is a great way to get into Shanghainese if you're comfortable with IPA and don't need too much help with tones.

The following is a quick sample of some of the dialogue to give an idea of the transcription:

    A: 侬好!
    noŋ hɔ!

    B: 侬早!我来撘浓介绍,搿为是王先生。
    noŋ ʦɔ! ŋu le təˀ noŋ ʨia zɔ, gəˀ ɦue zɿ ɦuaŋ ɕi saŋ.

    A: 侬好,王先生,我姓李。
    noŋ hɔ, ɦuaŋ ɕi saŋ, ŋu ɕiŋ li.

    C: 侬好,李先生。
    noŋ hɔ, li ɕi saŋ.

If you're comfortable with that, and with the non-standardness of the IPA, then you'll be fine. The book also comes with a CD of the dialogues, and the audio quality is tolerable. That's a major plus over the many phrasebooks you'll find which lack audio.

But as I mentioned above, you're not going to get much help with tones. This is actually pretty problematic unless you're really out there pounding the pavement talking to people in your daily life. Tone contours are not described, and not provided for vocabulary within a given lesson. This means you basically have to sort it out yourself.

That's not entirely a problem since you do know a few important features from the transcription; entering tone syllables are marked and voicing distinctions are given, and with only 5 tones in Shanghainese, it's not actually impossible to figure out which is which to some degree just based on the pronunciation. And since Shanghainese is basically a pitch-accent system rather than a strictly tonal one, you can get by.

Description of pronunciation is thorough, which is nice for those less comfortable with IPA.

This is actually one of the very first books I picked up on Shanghainese when I started my collection.

As an added bonus, rumour has it you can find a bootleg pdf online if you dig around a little bit, not that I condone that sort of thing.


    Title:Shanghai Dialect For Foreigners
    Author:Xú Ziliàng
    Publisher: Shanghai Haiwen Audio-Video Publishers


    Language Atlas Of China, 2nd Ed. (review) books - academic

    For many years one of the best games in town as far as language maps went was the Language Atlas of China (中国语言地图集) published by the Chinese Academy of Social Science (中国社会科学院). The original 1987 edition was not without its problems, and there was a fair amount that was just left unclear due to insufficient data at the time (the same sort of lack of data that poked a few then-unknown holes in Jerry Norman's 1988 Chinese). But, generally, it was a good atlas representing the combined efforts of a great many scholars.

    For the last couple years we've been talking about picking up the second edition, published in 2012. You can find an article from 2008 floating around online that shows the new classification system of the second edition. From this article I already knew that I wasn't the biggest fan of the new system, but at least in some areas there was huge improvement. It was enough to give me hope for the second edition. Last week I finally picked up a copy. I hate to say it, but I'm really quite disappointed.

    The way the Academy gathers resources — as told to me from their own mouths on a couple visits to their offices this past year — is by essentially outsourcing the data. This makes sense, since there's so much to be addressed. The Academy contacts various researchers throughout China and Taiwan and requests their data to go into the Atlas. This sounds like it would get the best data from the people who know the areas the best. But in talking to a number of regional scholars, I'm by far not the only one upset with the latest version.

    The Wú section

    I don't know where to start with the Wú map. I see so much wrong with it that I think it needs a separate post. Unfortunately Hangzhou is still listed as Wú, but that's not terribly surprising. Changzhou is now grouped with Wuxi — despite some superficial similarities — as well as with Suzhou. That's a bit odd. So I'm actually going to leave Wú out of this post for now beyond what I've already said, and then more fully address it at a later time.

    Taiwan & the Hakka section

    The Taiwan map is pretty atrocious. Look at a city like Hsinchu 新竹. You have Hoiliuk 海陆 dialect/accent spoken in the city and Siyen 四县 dialect/accent spoken to both the north and the south. If you ask any Hakka speaker in the area, scholar or layperson, they will tell you that Hsinchu is clearly a Hoiliuk city.

    In the Language Atlas, Hsinchu isn't shown as Hakka speaking at all. In fact there are 5 distinct Hakka dialects spoken in Taiwan, but according to the Atlas we're only four, with Rhaoping 饶平 dialect absent. Speaking of Rhaoping, in the mainland city after which the dialect is named, there's also not any Hakka being represented in the Atlas.

    Meanwhile Hoiluk is over-represented outside of Hsinchu as well, but completely absent from Hualien County where it's one of the dominant dialects. In fact no Hakka is shown in Hualien at all.


    Just so that it's not all negative, I will say there's been some good improvement in Manchuria. In the 1987 edition, there were huge gaps where it showed no Mandarin speakers at all, despite there being speakers with their own non-Putonghua dialects. This has been remedied, with towns like New Barag Right Banner (新巴尔虎右旗) now properly represented as speaking a 黑松片 dialect. Big improvement there.

    Sampling methodology issues

    This is a big issue for me in how a lot of dialect work is done in China. It's something we try very hard to avoid with Phonemica. The idea is that you go in and ask around and find the most representative speaker of the dialect in the town. You then talk to him for hours and hours and hours and take him as representative of the whole town. This ignores peripheral dialects. This doesn't show how large the area is of that one person's dialect. And it also obviously ignores ongoing changes in the dialect or small variations. I'm pretty sure that's what's going on with this second edition in most cases.

    On the one hand, dialects are now drawn following county lines rather than random smooth lines throughout the blank map space. Cool, except dialects don't always follow county lines. But if you're only talking to one dude in the middle of the administrative division, then that's what you're going to see. You say "Zhang Dou is representative of Minhang" so all of Minhang gets marked as that dialect, right up to the political boundaries of Minhang. That doesn't work when you have Southern Minhang sounding very different from Northern Minhang (which it does). Grab a guy from Wujing and you're going to get pieces of both North and South dialects, ultimately giving a clean representation of neither.

    It's obvious why it's done this way. It is already time consuming and expensive to do the fieldwork. But now that the work is being done (for example 汪平's multiple speakers from Suzhou for 江苏方言研究丛书 or 徐越's mutlple towns in North Zhejiang, and now that the data is out there, it'd be great to see it being used for such major project as this.


    In biology you have what's called the type species. It's the species that best represents the defining qualities of the group. This happens in dialectology as well. However I think in some cases people are just a little too focused on finding the type species, that they miss all of the other incredibly valuable information on the periphery. This is a bigger issue when less data is used or available. So for that I can only hope that the third edition, if there ever is one, will be a significant improvement over the second.

    It would also be quite nice to see them include more than just the PRC's political claims, since that reflects neither jurisdiction nor linguistic distribution.


      Title:中国语言地图集 第二版
      Language Atlas Of China, 2nd Edition
      Publisher: The Commercial Press


      Shanghai Dialect: An Introduction books - learning

      In Shanghai Dialect — An Introduction to Speaking the Contemporary Language, Lance Eccles gives a very solid introduction for learners of the dialect. While there are a number or errors — in addition to the fact that the book represents a late 1980's variety of the dialect and therefore has a number of things that are no longer considered current — it may soon replace Kiso Karano Shanhaigo as my favourite.

      The reason is simple: He provides every discussion and vocabulary term in four systems: Sinitic characters; pinyin, IPA transcription; English translation. If you don't read IPA, you can go by his pinyin, but if you do then it's right there, and pretty clearly transcribed. There are some anomolies in the transcription, but nothing too significant.

      I think my favourite part of the book is how tones are managed. Having been used to hanyu pinyin with tones represented as dialects, the most bothersome thing of learning Hakka has been the post-syllabic tone marks. This is consistent with zhuyin fuhao so it's understandable why Taiwan's MOE does this. But I really don't like it. For example in transcribed Hakka it's common to see something like

        ngai heˇ rhi` lam
      That's fine, but I don't like it because if I am just reading pinyin (for example if it's unfamiliar vocabulary) then I tend to forget about the tone until the end. It feels like I have to slow down and read the word in my head then go back and say it out loud once I've gotten to the tone.

      With Eccles book, tone marks precede the transcription, as follows:

        `igeq ´zï sameqzï ´a
      I'm possibly imagining it, but it feels like this gives me time to process the contour I'm about to pronounce before I have to start saying it. It feels like I can read it faster. Not a very good sample size, I admit. But there it is.

      The Good
      • Tone is done beautifully. Only what you need to know it marked. Honestly this is one of the most well done books I've seen as far as how tone is dealth with. That alone would make it worth having.

      • Has IPA and romanisation side by side. Makes it easy to learn either the romanisation system or the relevant IPA.

      • Very practical dialogues that use the vocabulary as well as show examples of the more important grammar you'd need without fretting too much on grammar for grammar's sake like many books do.

      The Bad
      • The book is from 1993, and the Shanghainese that's represented in the dialect is that spoken in the 1980s. That's really not much of a strike against the book, however. You can easily adapt from what you learn to what's said. The changes aren't going to be significant enough for most learners to need to worry about.

      If you can track down a copy, I do recommend it. Completely worth it.
      1. Eccles, Lance. Shanghai Dialect: Contemporary Language. Dunwoody 1993


      Title:Shanghai Dialect: An Introduction To Speaking The Contemporary Language
      Author:Lance Eccles
      Publisher: Dunwoody Press


      Shanhaigo Jōyō Dōon Jiten books - learning

      Maybe less exciting than 基礎からの上海語, but still useful: Miyata Ichirō's dictionary of Shanghainese homophones. It's still a bit expensive at 3200 yen, but then maybe Japan just isn't down with cheap books the way the PRC is. I could see this costing 30RMB at Xinhua. But no.

      As the title suggests, 上海語常用同音字典 is essentially a list of syllables with each followed by a list of the individual characters which share that pronunciation. Tones are included in the Chao numerals, and aside from the ubiquitous ᴇ, everything's given in IPA.

      There are a couple nice features that make this worth having. In addition to the index-by-stroke, there is also an index arranged by hanyu pinyin for the Mandarin pronunciation of the characters. So you're not sure how 但 should be pronounced and you're too lazy to go by stroke, you look up "dan" and get page 65, [tᴇ]. What's more, in most cases if a character has different pronunciations in different environments, that's provided as well (e.g. 大家 vs 大夫).

      Tone sandhi is discussed in the first few pages as well, which is nice.

      It's a great quick reference that provides another set of representations alternative to the Qian Nairong dictionaries.

      If I have a break from working on Phonemica this month, I'll get into why that's a good thing to have.


        Title: 上海語常用同音字典
        Shanhaigo Jōyō Dōon Jiten
        Author: 宮田 一郎
        Miyata Ichirō
        ISBN: 9784332800125


        Kiso Karano Shanhaigo books - learning

        I picked up a couple good books in Osaka last month. This is a quick introduction to one of the two.

        This is a fantastic book. This is easily my favourite of all the different books which set out to teach you Shanghainese. It has a few great things going for it, which I'll explain below. First though, it's worth mentioning that this book cost a solid 6000円 (~370RMB, ~NT$1820, US$60). It's not cheap. Still, I was happy to pay it. Here's why:

        1. IPA. The book skips over all the annoying romanisation systems that other similar books use, saving you from having to learn one more way to read Shanghainese. The International Phonetic Alphabet (though with A and E in place of the more standard glyphs) is all you'll see. Of course, you need to be comfortable with IPA in the first place, but honestly learning IPA once is unquestionably better than re-learning multiple unique systems. Having to learn a new romanisation system pretty much kills my desire to use any such book.

        2. Well formatted spaced dialoges where syllables line up between characters and pronunciation. I'm a big span of how white space is used in this text. A lot of similar books are over-designed. Here you don't feel like any space is wasted and it makes the price tag all the more acceptable since the book is dense with good information.

        3. Appropriate vocabulary in an appropriate order. The dialogues follow ones you'd actually hear on the streets of Shanghai. No complaints there.

        4. Tones done in a non-stupid manner. Lots of these kinds of books either skip tone entirely or give you too much information, either showing the underlying tone for every syllable or, even worse, showing the underlying and post-sandhi tones for each syllable. That's great for a dictionary. Terrible for this kind of self-study textbook.

        The (not quite) bad:

        1. It's in Japanese. But actually, even if you don't read Japanese, that's not much of an issue if you have any background in Chinese languages because you can still easily tell what's going on on each page.

        2. Lots of information. This is also not really bad. This is the kind of book that I feel can be useful beyond the time it'd take to go through the lessons. There's lots of information on the underlying goings-on of the language and it doesn't shy away from linguistics. Really this means it's a steeper learning curve than a book like "Shanghai Dialect for Foreigners" that you might find in the subway bookshop. But in the end I think that's a good thing.

        Well worth the 6000 yen.


          Kiso Karano Shanhaigo
          Go Etsu


          Zìxué Shànghǎihuà books

          Published by 上海大学出版社, written by Yuàn Hénghuī 院恒辉 and coming with yet another diminutive audio CD which can't be played on my slot-loading CD drive, "自学上海话" is a little red book of 184 pages long. I picked it up at the bookstore across the street from Cloud Nine mall. I figured my curiosity was worth 15元.

          - close to standard use of IPA in the beginning pages1
          - detailed info on the tones and basics of tone sandhi
          - useful phrases
          - tones, thank God.

          - abandonment of IPA after the introduction in favour of yet another janky pinyin system.

          The abandonment of IPA is such a grave offence here simply for with that which it has been replaced. Their pinyin needs some explanation. I can't really type it out here in Unicode with any hope that it will show up even close to correctly on other systems, so instead visualise a series of dots and carons below some of the syllables. Bilabial plosives are written as b or p, but then since Shanghainese has voiced (e.g. [b]) as well as voiceless un-aspirated (e.g. [p]) initials in addition to the voiceless aspirated initials (e.g. [pʰ]), distinction must be made. So [pʰ] is written p, [p] as b as in pinyin, and [b] as b but with a black dot below the letter/character.

          Open dots (e.g. 。) are drawn below words/characters that end in a glottal stop [ʔ], though this is redundant since they're also written with a final -k, much like you see in Cantonese.

          Finally a caron appears below two characters that are to be read as one with heavy elision. One of the first instances of this is 好 which is written here as 合噢, linked with a caron below. That 合噢 is their glyphic interpretation of [hɔ].2.

          The audio content on the CD is still unknown as I've packed away my one external CD drive and can't quite remember where it's ended up. When I can find it, I'll post a clip.

          Bear in mind it's Mandarin only, in case the title hadn't made that clear, so if you're not comfortable with characters you may want to skip it. Otherwise if you're trying to learn Shanghainese anyway and already have a handful of books, what's 15 kuai to you? At the very least it offers a few different sentence patterns than books you may already own.

          - - -
          1. The book includes ɿ which I can let slide, but also includes E and A, both of which are unforgivable in 2009 when it was published.
          2. The other common example of this in other books is [ŋu] 我 written as linked 嗯无

            Zìxué Shànghǎi Huà
            Yuàn Hénghuī


            Biāozhǔn Sūzhōu Yīn Shǒucè books

            Or "Handbook of Standard Suzhou Pronunciation" written by Wàng Píng 汪平. I found this in the half shelf that calls itself the Dialect Studies section of my local library. The books they have are great; they just don't have very many of them.

            The book gives some brief information on the dialect but then jumps right in. IPA is used only on a single page, a key to the authors own transliteration system. Words ending in -an, for example, correspond to IPA [ã] while -ang corresponds to [ɑ̃]. The book is organised in this manner. For each syllable (san, sang etc) a list of characters is given that take that pronunciation. An index at the end is organised according to pinyin. It also includes the literary pronunciation in a few cases, which is nice.

            Allegedly the book also comes with an audio CD that covers the majority of the content, though not the copy I was reading.

            As mentioned above, like plenty of other books, they use their own transcription system, which in this case is extra ridiculous since their own is more complex than IPA and they start the book with a chart showing the IPA for their system. So, first you look up the character you want in the index, then follow the page number, get the Romanization and then jump back to the front few pages to figure out how it's actually pronounced.

             阴平  44 ¯ 阳平  223 ´
             上声  51 `
             阴去  523 ˇ 阳去  231 ˆ
             阴入  43 -k/-t 阳入  23 -g/-d

            入声 is marked with finals, though in each case they correspond to the glottal stop /ʔ/.

            The following is the transcription system which will come in to play in a minute for the example paragraph given in the introduction.

            ii - ẓ/ɿi - ian - ã
            a - ɑia - iɑen - ən
            o - oio - ioang - ɑ̃
            e - ɛie - ɪong - oŋ
            ao - æiao - iæat/ad - aʔ
            oe - øioe - oøak/ag - ɑʔ
            ou - øʏiou - ʏek/eg - əʔ
            y - ẓʷ/ʮ ok/og - oʔ
            ian - iãin - in
            iang - iɑ̃iong - ioŋuek/ueg - uəʔ
            iat - iaʔuan - uã
            iak/iag - iɑʔuen - uənün - yn
            ik/ig - iəʔuang - uɑ̃üad - yaʔ
            iok/iog - ioʔuat/uad - uaʔüek/üeg - yəʔ

            I've left out the initials. They're pretty self-explanatory. The following is from the preface.


            nê hào a, piě ngu at shǐi? nê sek zoě qi liánse'gek ngeg weg, segdǎozii gūxik jiānjian lé! at shǐi liánse'gek ngeg jia, zekpò yôu liánse nié ze. ngû jiao niángyi dao séfhangli koězii ne jìdha, sekshǐi fēn lě, ngû é sǐnfekgu, gatbik gokhǎobhu ad lé koě ne, dāo sekdhao fek lékek ze. nêzak zỳ atshǐi fāngpi, seklagdo éo at yòu yikjù zǔdao. bek ngū dāo jīhao ladli nê zē fek lé meg, saksǐn datnê sângyikshang, sy sy koe meg zè!*

            In addition to the myriad substitution characters, the author gets bonus points for including 覅 in his book for 不要.

            The ISBN is 978-7-533-1847-5, published September 2007. It's around 14 and I'm ordering my own copy this afternoon.

            - - -
            * 晼 actually ought to have the 口 radical, not 日. The first "sy" should be 阴去 but again, unicode doesn't support a caron over a lowercase y.

              Title: 标准苏州音手册
              Author: 汪平 Wàng Píng


              Shànghǎihuà Dà Cídiǎn books

              As mentioned in the last post, I bought a Shanghainese dictionary. It's pretty much awesome.

              The entries seem to be evenly split between having simply the IPA transcription in the case of words or phrases that are the same as in MSM (Modern Standard Mandarin), and those entries which include explanations. Below are examples of each kind as they appear in the book itself.

              早饭 tsɔ33vᴇ44

              … meaning "breakfast" and …

              夹生饭 kᴀ3355vᴇ21 (名)煮成的半生半熟的饭。

              … which is a rice dish of which half the components are cooked and half are raw. In Mandarin it can also mean a half-finished job that is difficult to complete because it wasn't done right in the first place. My assumption is that 夹生饭 (MSM: jiā shēng fàn) is a fairly Shanghainese food that hasn't gained wide popularity outside the delta. But I digress. My Chongming Dao driver certainly knew it well enough, thought I can't recall having encountered the dish. This is also the 夹 entry I mentioned in the last post for which the driver gave a distinctly different pronunciation. But again, I digress.

              Another nice feature of the dictionary is the category-based organisation. WIthin each category the order breaks down pretty immediately, for example the "教" section starting with "文化" followed by "新闻" and soon progressing into "笔画" and "书".

              Speaking of 笔画, the index at the end is done in the typical Chinese dictionary searching by radical, but then for each radical it's broken down not by number of additional strokes as is usually the case, but by the strokes themselves as though you were typing them using the wubi input on your phone. It's not something I've seen before and will take a little while to get used to.

              Perhaps the best thing of all is that tones are dealt with in a manner that's both comprehensive and practical. When the sandhi changes the tone, it's reflected in the entry, for example in the two entries above where 饭 is first rendered as vᴇ44 and then as vᴇ21. There's a sandhi chart at the end of the book which explains the rules, but the work is mostly done for you in the way each entry is given.

              There's also a good collection of 成语 at the end. Not a master of chengyu myself, I can't say if any of them are Shanghai-specific or if they're just renderings of common phrases. Either way it's appreciated. The only drawback, if it is a drawback, is that you have to understand enough Mandarin to read the definitions. I don't personally have much of a problem using a dictionary in order to read a dictionary, especially since it probably helps solidify some of the Mandarin.

              In the end I wouldn't recommend the book for someone looking to learn Wu without learning Mandarin, if there is anyone with such an impractical esoteric approach to life. Though if there is, email me. We should hang out. Otherwise, I'd say this should be a required text for anyone learning Shanghainese.

              A quick note on the transcriptions above: The system being used is not standard IPA but rather includes a number of obsolete symbols. "ᴇ" should be rendered as "e̞" in the current standard, though ᴇ is pretty widely accepted for Sinitic, and "ᴀ" is an open central vowel. Not really a complaint since everyone uses ᴇ and ᴀ anyway. The most common one and the only one I think really should have really been left alone is "ɿ" which is now instead "ẓ", making 子 rendered as "zẓ" whereas in older texts you'll find "zɿ". Again, a non-issue since everyone still uses Kalgren's ɿ.

                Shànghǎihuà Dà Cídiǎn
                Qián Nǎiróng


                Chángzhōu Fāngyán books

                Just got back from the local Xinhua and picked up a copy of Chángzhōu Fāngyán (常州方言, "Changzhou Dialect") by Zhōu Xiǎo Fēng (周晓锋), Xú Yì Fēng (徐益锋) and Fàn Yán Péi (范炎培). At 48RMB it was well within my budget for individual book purchases, though according to one site, I paid too much.

                It's mostly vocabulary, though there were other books at Xinhua that were truly only vocabulary. More nerdy than practical, it doesn't include any IPA or transcription to speak of. Instead everything is done with characters. Which means first you must know the obscure characters with which Wu is sometimes written and then you must know the pronunciation of that character in the dialect. I had mentioned this problem on the transcription page.

                But I knew that and still bought it. The reason being that it comes with a CD with numerous samples of phrases spoken in 常州话 and then 普通话. Below is a transcription of the first three parts.

                [iɑu b̥z̩ deɪ̯], 叠被子。
                [iɑu b̥z̩ deɪ̯], dié bèizi.
                [iɑu b̥z̩ deɪ̯], fold the blanket.

                [iɑu z̥ou lɑɪ̯], 把物体 折弯过来。
                [iɑu z̥ou lɑɪ̯], bǎ wùtǐ zhé wān guòlai.
                [iɑu z̥ou lɑɪ̯], fold the blanket towards you.

                [iɑu ɡ̊u qɤ], 把物体 折过去。
                [iɑu ɡ̊u qɤ], bǎ wùtǐ zhé guòqù.
                [iɑu ɡ̊u qɤ], fold it away from you.

                There was another book that also got my interest and as I think about it now, I may need to make another bookstore run on my lunch break tomorrow. Though mostly characters, it had a few pages with a handful of obscure characters with the corresponding 常州话 pronunciation in a modified IPA.

                Anyway, here's an article (Chinese) about 《常州方言》 and one of its authors, Fàn Yán Péi. I'll get some more clips up in the next few days.

                  Chángzhōu Fāngyán



                  A semi-academic linguistics blog about Sinotibetan, previously focused primarily on Wú, a Sinitic language spoken in the Yangtze Delta region. Topics now include historical linguistics, documentation, language rights, sociolinguistics and learning materials, as well as acting as the dev blog for Phonemica from time to time.

                  I'm a linguist based in Asia, working on documentation and historical development of Sinotibetan. In addition to academic research, I'm heavily involved in Phonemica, an organisation that promotes crowd-sourced preservation of local languages.

                  I'm currently in the field, so getting in touch isn't easy. However you can try to email me at the following address and I'll respond as soon as I'm able:

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