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January 5, 2011

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Save our slang

A new dictionary of obsolete Beijing words and slang raises the issue of saving idioms, dialects and patois around the country as Standard Mandarin absorbs quaint old sayings. Yao Yuan and Bai Yu listen to the tones of home.

When you hear an old Beijinger say that someone "listens to the song of lalagu," it doesn't mean the guy is a fan of a famous singer named lalagu.

In fact, it is a humorous and euphemistic way of saying "to die" in the Beijing dialect. Thus, someone who listens to the song of lalagu is dying.

However, the expression was unintelligible to 21-year-old Yuan Hui.

"I don't even know what lalagu is," said the Internet-savvy Beijing native, who preferred slang like gua ("to kick the bucket" in English) when she joked with friends in online chat rooms.

As someone who could not distinguish ploughs from hoes, Yuan could be pardoned for not knowing about lalagu, or mole cricket, a notorious pest that damaged crops and burrowed in the ground. Their chirping, in the old language, came to mean those who "bite the dust."

Such idioms, charmingly archaic, have been compiled into a dictionary, which was published last month. The author, Dong Shuren, a retired professor of linguistics at Beijing Language and Cultural University, has spent over 10 years collecting old Beijing words and phrases.

"Slang words are the fossils of history; I try to record them so that later generations can better understand life in old Beijing," says Dong.

The New Beijing Dialect Dictionary, which includes 10,200 entries of ordinary words and slang, is the first of its kind published in recent years, after Xu Shirong's Beijing Local Dialect Dictionary (1990).

But Dong said the tremendous changes in Beijing dialect in recent years have outpaced China's limited efforts to document it.

"China is changing so fast, and so is the Beijing dialect - new slang keeps popping up while old words are quickly disappearing," said Dong. "But the efforts to collect this obsolete slang still lag behind."

Dong say many slang words and expressions are rooted in customs and culture that once were widespread in Beijing. Their lifespan, from emergence to extinction, bespeaks the changes in the city.

"For example, the popularity of cricket fighting in Beijing's hutongs brought about the slang term 'to return with antennas and tail' to describe a person who is 'safe and sound' after a dangerous event," says Dong.

"Beijing families used to ask quankouren, or 'complete-family women' to help in wedding preparations, viewing them as auspicious and a blessing to the marriage, and one standard of quankouren is having at least one son and one daughter," said Dong.

But this term, along with the custom, has faded since few women now qualify as quankouren, following implementation of the "one child policy."

"It's difficult to preserve them in real life since the social phenomena they're linked to have disappeared," says Dong. "But a comprehensive recording will benefit future interpretations of literary works of our times."

The Beijing dialect is the phonological basis of Standard Mandarin, and its status as the tone of the Chinese capital also makes it popular in literature and pop culture. The novels of Lao She and comedy films by Feng Xiaogang all feature vivid Beijing-flavored language.

Due to the influx of immigrants as well as the promotion of Standard Mandarin, or putonghua, in China's education, the demographic basis of the Beijing dialect is quickly shrinking.

Usually the more education a Beijing native receives, the less dialect he or she speaks, says Dong.

Linguists and sociologists say dialects across China and around the globe are also fading.

"Many local dialects are slowly dying because fast economic growth results in the unification of communication forms," says Xiang Daohua, who teaches linguistics at China Foreign Affairs University.

Liu Tieliang, professor of Chinese folklore at Beijing Normal University, also sees this as inevitable.

"Patois is widespread for a relatively closed region, but as local people interact more with the outside world, local dialects will be absorbed into a common language," said Liu.

But to Liu Yun, who was born and lived in Beijing for 20 years before moving to the southern Chinese city of Xiamen, the retroflex-rich Beijing dialect was never lost, even though she now speaks accent-free Mandarin most of the time.

"Old accents come back to me whenever I chat with someone from Beijing, and we feel so close with that common tone," said Liu. "The familiar tone also reminds me of the hutongs, the poplars, and my life in old Beijing."

Liu's nostalgia is shared by many young Chinese, who are now brainstorming for new ways to promote "the tone of home" to cherish the memory of their hometown or to demonstrate pride in their identity.

On China's Internet, many dialects have opened postbars or forums, where popular posts try to combat "dialect illiteracy" or mock the "Grade Six Test" - the most difficult English language test for China's university students. Netizens also collect and share ballads and riddles from different dialects.

In China's economic hub Shanghai, old slang has been listed in the middle school literature textbook so students can better understand the history of the city through its language.

Also, it has become a trend in recent years for film characters to speak in dialect. A new Sichuan dialect version of the latest blockbuster, "Let the Bullets Fly," has just hit the screen.

On China's video platform, the American animation Tom and Jerry has at least 15 dialect versions, spontaneously dubbed by enthusiastic netizens.

"It's a shame that many children can no longer understand," commented one netizen who speaks Fuzhou dialect and dubbed a Doraemon episode. "It's a fun experience exclusively for people who speak Fuzhou dialect."


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