NPR logo Understanding the Sichuan Dialect

Andrea Hsu

Understanding the Sichuan Dialect

sichuan dialect symbols

We've had lots of fun sharing photos of Chengdu with you through this blog, but today, something for the ears.

As any student of Mandarin Chinese will know, China can be a maddening place. You can practice your four tones to no end, wildly waving one arm in the air while drawing invisible tone marks, or bobbing your head up and down and side to side until you're dizzy. And then, you get to China, and you can't understand a thing people are saying.

That's what happened to me when I landed in Chengdu six weeks ago.

WIKI IS WACKY

My Chinese friends are always quick to point out that Sichuan dialect, or Sichuanhua, is not so different from Mandarin. Wikipedia describes it as a "southwestern Mandarin dialect" spoken by 120 million people, and goes on to say, "It is typically not difficult for one who knows standard Mandarin to understand a Sichuanese speaker."

That entry must have been written by a native Chinese speaker.

A DIFFERENT SOUND

I'm more inclined to agree with the Chengdu-based blogger Kevin Morris, who describes Sichuanhua as sounding "very different from putonghua [Mandarin], with numerous consonants, vowels, and diphthongs changed, as well as a few irregularities in pronunciation and just general strangeness—even asking 'what' and 'how' are different." That's from Morris's awesome primer on Sichuanhua, which you linguists can read here.

Morris goes on to describe the changes in tones, which involve a new tone that does not exist in Mandarin, as well as an almost complete reversal of the four tones that do exist in Mandarin.

WORDS THAT CONFUSE

Actually, one of the most comical conversations I've had to date involved a mix-up over tones. I was trying to ask one of our interviewees — over the phone — how old his parents are. He told me they were both born in 1938. One was born in April — in Chinese, the 4th month.

The other was born in October — the 10th month.

Unfortunately, "four" and "ten" are especially confusing, as Sichuanhua for "four" sounds almost exactly like Mandarin for "ten," and vice versa. So we went back and forth, back and forth, until we were both laughing so hard we could barely finish the conversation. Finally, I asked, "Ok, four as in four-five-six, or ten as in eight-nine-ten?" I think I got it right in the end.

Want to hear the differences for yourself? Here, our very talented Chengdu-based assistant Rebecca demonstrates Sichuanhua vs Mandarin:

Four and ten, in Sichuanhua

Four and ten, in Mandarin

One of my favorite words in Sichuanhua is 'shua' — to have fun. In Mandarin, people usually use the word "wan'r".

"Where should we go tonight for fun?" in Sichuanhua

"Where should we go tonight for fun?" in Mandarin

Non-native speakers of Chinese, see if you can figure these next ones out!

Hint: This is something I heard Rebecca say on the phone to a taxi driver.

Hint: This one has to do with food.

(EDITOR'S NOTE: Watch this blog for the answers to these audio puzzles)

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