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North-South Variations Posted by on May 25, 2010 in Culture, grammar, Pronunciation, travel, Uncategorized, Vocabulary

After moving from Beijing to Shenzhen last year, I noticed numerous differences between the spoken Mandarin that I was accustomed to up north and the Mandarin spoken in this new city full of 外地人 (wai4di4ren2 – out-of-towners) from all over China.  As Shenzhen is located in Guangdong province and next to Hong Kong and Macau, the lingua franca of the Pearl River Delta (Cantonese) has influenced the Mandarin spoken locally in several ways, see below for some examples:

1.  Placement of (xian1 – first)
In standard Mandarin, you’d likely encounter a phrase like 我们先吃饭 (wo3men2 xian1 chi1fan4 – let’s eat first [lit. we first eat food].  However, moves in Cantonese-influenced Mandarin such that the sentence becomes 我们吃饭先 [lit. we eat food first].  This is actually more natural for native English speakers (“Let’s eat first.”)

There are lexical differences as well that you may encounter.  In the south, people are more likely to say 塞车 (sai1che1 – traffic jam [lit. stuck car]) in reference to a traffic jam.  The first time I heard this I heard wrong and thought people were saying 赛车 (sai4che1 – car-racing) which , but I later realized this was an alternative to the saying of 堵车 (du3che1 – traffic jam.

Another lexical difference is that in the north a man being accosted by a street vendor is likely to hear something like 帅哥 (shuai4ge1 – handsome man) whereas down south you’ll hear 靓仔 (liang4zai3 – good-looking guy).  The alternative to 美女 (mei2(3)nv3 – pretty woman) is 靓女 (liang4nv3- pretty woman).

At a restaurant up north, you’d likely call over the waiter to order your meal by saying 点菜 (dian3cai4 – order food), while down south people would say 下单 (xia4dan1 – placing an order).  This likely comes from the Cantonese phrasing of 落单 (luo4dan1 – placing an order, notice that may be substituted for ).

This post is focused on Mandarin spoken in Guangdong province, but there are differences in speech all over the country not limited to dialects.  Readers, leave some of your own examples in the comments!

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  1. stephen:

    你好 i have many internet friends in china and 我的太太中国人 ok a wonderful Chinese wife, hehe but learning chinese is not easy at the best of times, but one thing has come to my attention, the pronunciation of 这 个 zhe ge my wife from wuhan will use a stronger zz so do some of my friends from south of china but my chinese teacher is more jhe sound as are my friends in north china i guess i will have to use both hahah

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