What does your Chinese accent say about you? Assuming you’ve gotten past the stage so your accent doesn’t scream out “laowai!” anymore, what kind of an image are you projecting via your speech? Should you have gone to Beijing for those Mandarin lessons after all? ChinesePod writer Jenny Zhu shares her insights. For instance, did you know the way your taxi driver pronounces Hengshan Lu as “Hensan Lu” used to be the signifier of glamour and sexiness? Yeah, not so much now, eh?
1.The Beijing accent, a.k.a. the showbiz accent:
The sound: Don’t feel depressed if you don’t understand what the Beijngers are saying. Even the Chinese have trouble deciphering the rhapsodic composition of sentences each seeming to end in “er”.
The people: it’s hard to find a single person in China’s showbiz who does not speak with a Beijing accent. After all, the city is China’s unquestioned cultural capital, making the Beijing accent the official language of the country’s entertainment business. It’s arguably the sexiest accent in China thanks to its glamorous association. Listen to how these non-Beijing celebrities talk.
The verdict: sport the accent if you are in showbiz or a literati, but be careful that overdoing it might make you sound like a Beijing 痞子/pǐzi/an eloquent thug.
2. The Dongbei accent, a.k.a. the comedian’s accent:
The sound: unpolished, earthy, the “peasants’ version of Putonghua”. Watch this comedy skit featuring Zhao Benshan, China’s most famous comedian and a native of Dongbei.
The people: thanks to Zhao Benshan, the Dongbei accent has been elevated to national prominence. Dongbei comedians now reign China’s comedy circle. The aforementioned skit is the most well known piece of comedy in 2011.
The verdict: elements of the Dongbei accent popularized by Zhao Benshan’s skits have changed the way Chinese speak. People across China throw in a Dongbei buzzword or two (e.g. 忽悠/hūyou/to cheat) to their speech when attempting at humor. It is also a safe bet for foreigners to show cultural and media savviness in Chinese.
3. The Fujian accent, a.k.a the con artist’s accent:
The sound: lots of “haù” at the end of the speech. Listen to the lady in this video clip.
The people: unfortunately Fujian province has become a hotbed for phone and internet scams in China. Con artists from Fujian have pushed the envelope in “scam innovation”, making the Fujian accent almost synonymous with swindling.
The verdict: most Chinese have grown wary of the Fujian accent especially when it is over the phone. A very unfortunate stereotype.
4. The Guangdong accent, a.k.a. the Karaoke accent:
The sound: “unintuitive” initials like “Ng”; “n” converts into “l”; flamboyant rhythm.
The people: the Guangdong accent was glamorized by Hongkong pop stars in the 90′s. It was the symbol of coolness and cosmopolitanism. Back then, many young people would deliberately distort their Mandarin in order to sound like a celebrity. This clip contains interview with several HK pop stars.
The verdict: although the Guangdong accent has rendered its “It” status to the Beijing accent, no self-respecting KTV goer will be caught dead without a Canton pop rendition due to Hongkong’s indelible pop influence.
5. The Shanghai accent, a.k.a the bygone accent:
The sound: a noticeable lack of 后鼻音/hòubíyīn/ nasal sounds, a.k.a”ng” sounds and “er” sounds. (Being a native of Shanghai, I am paranoid about these sounds in lesson podcasts.) Listen to how the middle aged man and woman in this clip talk.
The people: there was a time when the Shanghai accent stood for class, wealth and glamor. People from surrounding regions of Shanghai took pride in being able to speak Shanghainese. And locals looked down on those who spoke perfectly standard Mandarin. However, the prestige has eroded due to demographic change and Shanghai’s declining cultural influence.
The verdict: many locals are concerned over the survival of Shanghainese. Young generations now speak standard Mandarin without a detectable accent. However, just when you think you don’t have to deal with the Shanghai accent, middle-aged ladies behind convenience store counters promptly remind you the accent is still in the city’s DNA.
Do you guys agree? What are your thoughts on other Chinese accents? Sichuanese, Henanese, Taiwanese? Share in the comments!