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In search of pure Shanghai dialect

ONCE Shanghai dialect was widely understood in the region and known for its rich idiomatic speech, its memorable slang. But now even local Huju Opera has trouble finding speakers of pure and coherent Shanghaihua. Liang Yiwen reports.

In a race against time to rescue fast-fading Shanghai dialect, the city is putting out the call for native speakers whose pure and idiomatic speech will be recorded and used for research, preservation and promotion activities.

The recruitment is part the Shanghai Language Work Committee program and is expected to be completed early next year.

The aim is to record various pronunciations and expressions, to chart the language history and changes, and produce a map locating branches of the dialect.

Shanghai has a few popular Shanghai dialect TV shows like "Old Uncle" (a mediator) and soap operas, and a few radio programs. Famed comedian Zhou Libo performs almost entirely in Shanghainese.

Still, there's no big campaign and no language classes in public schools where Mandarin is mandatory.

In a particularly sad sign, Shanghai's distinctive, topical Huju Opera is having trouble recruiting new actors because of the declining number of young people who can speak pure and coherent Shanghaihua.

Shanghai dialect, Hangzhou dialect and Ningbo dialect, among others, are all considered Wu languages once widely spoken in the region south of the Yangtze River. They are not mutually intelligible with other Chinese dialects, such as standard Mandarin.

"Shanghaihua (Shanghai dialect) varies in different districts, especially in the suburbs," said Zhang Ripei, an official with the language committee.

The committee has set up 12 recruitment sites, two of them downtown and separated by Suzhou Creek, and 10 in suburban areas where the "authentic" dialect is believed to have originated.

A few suburban districts, notably Songjiang District, are believed to be the base of Shanghai dialect, and have launched their own recruitment. Songjiang history goes back a long way; it was a prefecture administering Shanghai under the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) until Shanghai became a city for the first time in 1297.


The committee has set up strict criteria to find speakers of the most authentic Shanghaihua.

Those who are selected must have been born in Shanghai and have lived in his or her birthplace through the age of 12; he or she must not have lived outside Shanghai for more than four years.

Middle school education is acceptable, even desirable.

"People who have higher education are expected to be more influenced by putonghua (Mandarin)," Zhang said.

Locals born in the 1940s and 1970s are both encouraged to participate, to make comparisons over time.

Before the founding of the People's Republic in 1949, people across the country spoke various dialects, making communication very difficult. Mandarin then became the official language taught in schools and used for most television and radio broadcasts.

With the promotion of Mandarin nationwide and an influx of Mandarin-speaking migrant professionals, Shanghaihua is spoken by fewer and fewer people. Those speakers consider it a mark of pride and sometimes exclusivity that "outsiders" find annoying and discourteous.

Some young people can only speak broken Shanghaihua heavily influenced by Mandarin. Shanghainese parents worry their kids can't speak the mother tongue.

"When we talk to our son in Shanghaihua, he responds in Mandarin," said Dai Lin, mother of a 4-year-old boy.

Hao Mingjian, a linguist and the chief editor of a local linguistic journal, said, "The country used to spare no efforts to promote Mandarin and paid little attention to regional languages.

"Only in recent years has the country begun to realize the cultural value and soft power of dialects," he said.

According to a UNESCO report and atlas last year, more than 100 languages spoken by 56 nationalities and ethnic groups face extinction, or are endangered. Shanghai dialect has not made it to the report but it meets the criteria for a "vulnerable" language.

One sign of vulnerability is restriction of language use to the home or particular areas by young people.

"Whether the younger generation speak the language is a key to evaluating the degree of endangerment," said Tang Yiren, a student at the Beijing Foreign Language University.

Last month students at that university were honored for their proposal to the UN on rescuing threatened languages through documentation and revitalizing activities.

The proposal won top honors at the 2010 Youth Innovation Competition on Global Governance involving 100 university students from around the world.

A major designer of the proposal, Tang praised government efforts to document the language, but said that's just a first step.

She recommended elective classes in local schools, more TV and radio programs, Shanghai dialect festivals and other promotional activities.

"Language loss results in an irrecoverable loss of unique knowledge that is based on specific cultural and historical experience," Tang said. "What we preserve are not only languages, but also the knowledge and culture behind them."

It's an uphill battle: anchors of a morning radio program "Music Breakfast" who crack jokes and generally amuse listeners in Shanghai dialect say they have received many complaints from non-locals. Some listeners curse, saying they hate the local language, and demand they speak Mandarin.

Chinese are protective of their dialects, including Cantonese spoken in south China's Guangdong Province. Locals staged a demonstration early last month, urging officials not to add more Mandarin programs or add a new Mandarin channel as proposed.

Shanghai folks don't go that far.

The Shanghai government has introduced language protection programs, though their effectiveness to date is questionable. Some TV programs in dialect, like the popular "Old Uncle" mediator show and soap operas are available. There are also Shanghai dialect dictionaries to help learners and explain the slang.

Some people suggest that special dialect classes could help kids learn.

School officials are adamant, however, that Mandarin is the only language to be used for regular teaching. But they do not object to optional classes or after-school activities promoting Shanghai dialect, if there is interest and if they are practical.


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