A recent post entitled “China’s Ten Most Difficult Dialects” has been shared far and wide on Weibo this week, with some surprises and plenty of debate to boot.
Wenzhounese was crowned the hardest dialect to understand with Cantonese predictably taking second. Minnanese and the Suzhou dialect tied for third and Shanghainese followed closely behind.
Wenzhou’s geographic isolation has resulted in a dialect is not mutually intelligible with any other variety of Wu Chinese nor Min Dong to the south, let alone Putonghua. During the Second World War, the Nationalist military used people from Wenzhou to relay strategically sensitive information much in the same way as the United States used Navajo “code talkers,” baffling the Imperial Japanese Army’s best intelligence units.
Although the top spot was a no-brainer, the list has nonetheless sparked a lot of debate online. Dongbeiren were incensed to see their north-eastern dialect even appearing on the list (albeit at tenth place), but southerners were quick to point out their hubris and remind them how incomprehensible their slang is to outsiders.
Linguists from universities across China joined the fray as well, generally opining that the list was far too subjective; for example, the Suzhou dialect may be very difficult to understand for someone from Beijing, but to Shanghainese it’s actually quite easy. Therefore, it’s impossible to objectively determine which is the hardest. The term “dialect” is in itself controversial as well, with most linguists agreeing that, due to the lack of mutual intelligibility between it’s divisions, Chinese is in fact a family of languages rather than a single language with multiple dialects.
Regardless of their “difficulty” level for Putonghua speakers, however, these dialects/Sinitic languages are a rich treasure trove of Chinese culture – particularly Cantonese with it’s nine tones and Wenzhounese with it’s checked tone inherited from Middle Chinese, both of which retain far more features of the classical language than Putonghua. As more and more dialects wither away and die, these endangered species all deserve a bit more love.
By Ryan Kilpatrick