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Chinese tower of Babel


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According to your point of view China is either a linguists dream or a linguists nightmare for the sheer diversity of its languages and dialects.

I recently spoke to a girl who had just moved to Yunxiao from Zhao'an -- two towns about 50 kms apart in the south of Fujian Province. She said that while she could understand what people in Yunxiao were saying most of them couldn't understand her. (This is when speaking in Minnan/Hokkien).

Another example is that when I was in Liancheng in West Fujian I was told that 20 different dialects were spoken in the county. Basically each village/town has its own dialect. (The language spoken in this region is Hakka).

I think a lot of it has to do with the mountainous terrain meaning that even villages that are a few kilometres apart are effectively isolated and have little contact with each other.

Does anyone else have any similar examples?

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Pretty much each little village in Guangdong has a slightly different version of Cantonese - in fact so much so, that oftentimes in Guangdong - Standard Cantonese is called "Guangzhou hua" - because some places differ by quite a bit in terms of dialect.

If you're familar with the Chinese dispora - you'll know the majority of Cantonese emmigrants came from two groups of villages - Sam Yup and Say Yup. The Sam Yup villages were wealthier and their dialect was very close to true Guangzhou hua - (Foshan, Nanhai and I forget the third) while the Say Yup villages could really be considered true differing dialects - because hell, I can't understand them

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If you go to the Yunnan province, not only will you hear different *CHINESE* dialects but also languages spoken by numerous ethnic minorities. Good thing that almost everyone I encountered spoke Mandarin. It was fun learning some phrases in these dialects or languages though. However, to clear up some possible misunderstanding, this situation mostly occurs in Southern China where six of the seven Chinese dialect groups are located. Generally in the north, people speak some form of, if not standard, Mandarin as their native language.

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Guangdong has many dialects, as TSkillet said.

My experience is among overseas Chinese ancestral villages in the area west and northwest of Macau. Neigboring villages around Xinhui had slight variations in dialect but once you crossed over the mountains into the Taishan area the difference in dialect became remarkably much more noticeable.

I believe Guangdong and Fujian provinces have the most regional variations in dialect from village to village. The northern provinces have dialect differences that tend to vary little over much greater distances.

It's neat to listen to old tapes of Mao and Deng in order to hear how their Hunan and Sichuan accents affected their Mandarin. I also like Jiang Zemin's heavy Yangzhou (Jiangsu) accent and enjoy trying to mimic his voice.

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I also like Jiang Zemin's heavy Yangzhou (Jiangsu) accent and enjoy trying to mimic his voice.

I was walking past Zhongnanhai the other day, and I'm pretty sure I heard the guards saying that he likes doing impressions of you too.


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  • 2 months later...

I think it's usually a bigger problem to speak to Overseas Chinese instead of local Chinese. Like I've met a Singaporean old man and he couldn't speak any Mandarin, he can speak good Fujianhua but I'm not, so we have to speak in English instead.

But even in some small villagers I found it's quite easy to find somebody to talk to me in Mandarin, with a strong accent though.

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  • 2 months later...

Hello! Cantonese are very few in Mauritius - about 1500-2000 of the Chinese here. The rest are Hakka. Cantonese came from the Sze Yap region and are known as Namshun as they were from Shuntak and Namhoi. There are some differences in the dialects of these two regions, but people can understand each other. However, I heard the Taishan dialect on TV (for the first time) and I could not understand a single word!!!

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