I am a person deprived of a dialect. I speak no dialect fluently other than Mandarin, the official language of today’s China. Possibly because of this, I have been fascinated by the linguistic diversity in my family since a young age. Not only do my parents speak different dialects — my father the Wu tongue common in East China and my mother Xiang, a language native to Hunan province — but the four generations of Hunanese in my mother’s family also don’t speak the same versions of Xiang.
As a child, I had fun imitating my maternal grandparents’ speech. During the few years I lived with them, my cousin and I would secretly mimic our grandparents and laugh at the way the words rolled out of their mouths. “I’ll throw you little devils out of the window,” my grandfather would thunder in his peculiar accent, only making us laugh harder.
The adults referred to my grandparents’ dialect as tuhua — “language of the soil.” As kids we didn’t necessarily know what that meant, only that it must be something related to tu, soil. And there was indeed an earthy quality to it that reminded us of vegetables just picked from our rural relatives’ field — unwashed, unpolished, and low-status.
As I grew older, I became curious about the particular sounds in my grandparents’ speech and how different they were from the equivalent sounds in both Mandarin and my mother’s Xiang dialect. As one out of many examples, when bidding us farewell — zai jian for my mother and me — my grandparents would say zei gin; yet they would pronounce Jinshi, the name of the Hunan city known for its beef rice noodles, as Zensi. Why did the same “j” sound in Mandarin become “g” or “z” in their version of Xiang?
As a linguistics student many years later, I learned that part of what determines a consonant is its place of articulation: The difference between “j,” “g,” and “z” stems from a different interaction between the tongue and the roof of the mouth. My grandparents’ speech is different because it preserves certain ways of articulation that were typical of Middle Chinese, the language spoken in the latter half of the first millennium — characteristics that have since disappeared from Mandarin. In Mandarin, many “g” and “z” sounds have merged into “j,” but in some Xiang dialects, they remain distinct.
The reason my mother speaks differently from my grandparents has to do with more recent changes. My grandparents were born in a village in central Hunan. In 1958, at the start of the industrialization campaign known as the Great Leap Forward, they moved to a nearby town to work at a newly established iron and steel company. Soon, people from across the province and farther afield began arriving there in search of work. My mother and her siblings grew up in the resulting linguistic melting pot, where a new language variety gradually emerged — one more similar to the Xiang spoken in Hunan’s provincial capital of Changsha than my grandparents’ native tongue.
Despite both being Xiang dialects, Changsha Xiang, as one of the northern Hunan varieties, is noticeably different from the Xiang spoken in central Hunan. Contact with Mandarin dialects from north of the province has influenced northern Xiang dialects. In particular, after the An Lushan Rebellion in the eighth century, many Mandarin-speaking refugees from North China crossed the Yangtze River, settled in northeastern Hunan, and reshaped local speech patterns.
Sound change in the past was accelerated by political turmoil; today it is driven by everyday decisions. Since my grandparents left their home village, multiple generations of rural Chinese have moved to cities for work. This has inevitably altered their and their descendants’ native tongues. A few elders in my grandparents’ village told me that their grandchildren growing up in the city are unable to understand them. To adapt, they did the same thing my grandparents once did, learning to say zai jian instead of zei gin and training their tongues to forget.
Education is another factor speeding up the change. Interestingly, many young parents in Hunan today choose to speak to their children in Mandarin. This has resulted in the rise of another language variety: Often called Plastic Mandarin, it’s essentially Mandarin spoken with a heavy Xiang accent. Unlike people of my generation, who spoke Plastic Mandarin only at school, today’s children also speak Plastic Mandarin at home, because that’s what their parents prefer. It is not hard to justify this choice: Mandarin is to other Chinese dialects what English is to other languages around the world — it is the language of power, and it never hurts to get an early start on building power.
The linguist Max Weinreich liked to describe a language as a dialect with an army and navy. In other words, the way we perceive language, or dialect, is influenced by political and social conditions. Language is not always a matter of choice. We utter sounds with our tongue, but whether we touch our palate with our tongue tip or tongue blade can have more to do with the forces driving our society than our decisions.
China’s urbanization and industrialization have not only changed the way we live, but also the way we speak. As hundreds of millions of people continue to migrate for the sake of a better life, as the government continues to advocate the national language, and as each one of us continues to prioritize success over everything else, Mandarin is becoming inescapable.
Most of us do not seem to mind. We change our language just as we change our clothes, though perhaps less consciously, and lay claim to our new identities. But as a language lover, I worry about the loss of our linguistic diversity — that millennia-old dialects are vanishing under the influence of Mandarin. I worry that future generations won’t experience the same joy I had connecting with grandparents whose speech sounds so alien and laughing about it. I worry, above all, that the way my grandparents speak will be forgotten, and what’s being forgotten is more than just a dialect, but a way of being.
Editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: Leigh Wells/Ikon images/People Visual)