Shanghainese, also known as the Shanghai or Hu dialect, is a dialect of Wu Chinese spoken in the central districts of Shanghai and in the surrounding region. It is classified as part of the Sino-Tibetan family of languages. Shanghainese, like other Wu dialects, is largely unintelligible with other varieties of Chinese such as Mandarin.
In English, “Shanghainese” sometimes refers to all Wu dialects, although they are only partially intelligible with one another. Shanghainese proper is a representative dialect of Northern Wu; it contains vocabulary and expressions from the entire Northern Wu area of southern Jiangsu and northern Zhejiang. With nearly 14 million speakers, Shanghainese is also the largest single form of Wu Chinese. It once served as the lingua franca of the entire Yangtze River Delta region.
Shanghainese is rich in monophthongs [i y ɪ e ø ɛ ə ɐ a ɑ ɔ ɤ o ʊ u] (eight of which are phonemic) and in consonants. Like other northern Wu dialects, the Shanghai dialect has voiced initials [b d ɡ ɦ z v dʑ ʑ]. Neither Mandarin nor Cantonese has voiced initial stops or affricates. The Shanghainese tonal system is also significantly different from other Chinese varieties. Shanghainese has two level tonal contrasts (high and low), while Mandarin and Cantonese are typical of contour tonal languages.
Shanghainese is not mutually intelligible with any dialect of Mandarin. It is around 50% intelligible (with 28.9% lexical similarity) with the Mandarin heard in Beijing and Standard Chinese. Modern Shanghainese, however, has been heavily influenced by modern Mandarin. This makes the Shanghainese spoken by young people in the city different from that spoken by the older population, sometimes significantly. It also means that inserting Mandarin into Shanghainese sentences during everyday conversation is very common, at least amongst young people. Like most subdivisions of Chinese, it is easier for a local speaker to understand Mandarin than it is for a Mandarin speaker to understand the local speech.
Shanghainese is part of the larger Wu subgroup of Chinese varieties. It is similar, to a certain degree, to the speech of neighboring Kunshan, Suzhou, and Ningbo. People mingling between these areas do not need to code-switch to Mandarin when they speak to one another. However, there are noticeable tonal and phonological changes which do not impede intelligibility. As the dialect continuum of Wu continues to further distances, however, significant changes occur in phonology and lexicon to the point where it is no longer possible to converse intelligibly. The majority of Shanghainese speakers find that by Wuxi, differences become significant and the Wuxi dialect would take weeks to months for a Shanghainese speaker to fully “pick up.” Similarly, Hangzhou dialect is understood by most Shanghainese speakers, but it is considered “rougher” and does not have as much flow in comparison. The language evolved in and around Taizhou, Zhejiang, by which point it becomes difficult for a Shanghainese speaker to comprehend. Wenzhou dialect, spoken in southern Zhejiang province, although considered part of the Wu subgroup, is not at all intelligible with Shanghainese.
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