Sichuanese: just a dialect of Mandarin or a language in its own right?

In 2001 I moved to Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province in China. I had already spent a year in northeastern China studying Mandarin and wanted to spend some time seeing more of the country. Any linguistic map of China will clearly show that Sichuan is within the Mandarin-speaking zone of China, and that was part of the reason I chose the area. I wanted to take my Mandarin to the next level.

Upon arriving in Chengdu, however, I didn’t recognise the language spoken in the train station. “I wonder where those travelers are from, ” I thought. Heading out onto the street and into the city, I realised that everyone was speaking that way. This was my first encounter with Sichuanese (四川話).

“I thought that people in Sichuan spoke Pu Tong Hua (普通話, Mandarin),” I commented to my boss who had come to meet me at the train station. “No, we speak Sichuanese.” I found this strange, since I had never heard of Sichuanese, and every Chinese linguistics book I had ever read stated clearly that Mandarin (all be it sometimes called Southwestern Mandarin) was spoken in Sichuan. I decided that the linguistics books had a relatively useless notion of what “Mandarin” was and decided that they were wrong and Sichuanese was a language that nobody had studied seriously. This also proved to be a less than accurate assessment.

As time went on, I found myself understanding more and more Sichuanese without making much of an effort. I developed an ear for it and was able to extract a lot of Mandarin-based language from other people’s speech. The most striking characteristic of Sichuanese is its pronunciation – at times very nasal and with rather exaggerated tones, which are completely different from the tones in Mandarin. In fact, most words are phonologically similar or even identical to their Mandarin counterparts, except for the tone. For single words and short utterances, you can usually use context to understand and not be distracted by the “incorrect” tone of a word, but in a longer sequence of rapid speech these tone differences often render Sichuanese completely unintelligible to Mandarin speakers. You can listen to a Sichuanese speaker talking about his experience with the language and the way it is changing here.

Sichuanese also has a curious mixture of northern and southern characteristics, as far as pronunciation goes. Most varieties of Sichuanese (there are diverse local dialects throughout the province), do not have the denti-alveolar/retroflex sounds zh, sh, ch that northern varieties of Mandarin have. Instead these sounds are merged with the alveolar z, s, and c, respectively. This is typical of the accents of southerners when speaking in Mandarin. Sichuanese does, however, have the retroflex r sound, usually in the form of 兒化, or adding 兒 to the end of words, a typical northern Mandarin trait used as a diminutive ending.

Phonology is not the only sphere in which Sichuanese differs from Standard Mandarin though. Sichuanese has a lot of unique vocabulary that is not understood elsewhere as well as archaic or unusual usages which may be understood but are not expected or standard. The quintessential Sichuanese word is 巴适 /pa sɨ/, which can mean good, great, delicious, attractive – basically anything positive. It’s etymology is unknown, but some believe it to be a linguistic trace of long extinct Ba-Shu Chinese, an offshoot of Old Chinese.

Some common words with different meaning or usage in Sichuanese:

The word 存在, to exist, is used in the Sichuanese expression 不存在, literally “it doesn’t exist”which means “it doesn’t matter” or “you’re welcome” in response to a thank you.

得 is very commonly used in Sichuanese in unexpected ways. The first word a newcomer will probably encounter is 莫得/没得 /mo21dei21/, the Sichuanese version of 没有 “to not have, there is not”.

要得 is used to express “ok”, used the same as Mandarin 好/可以, and conversely “not ok” is 要不得.

The latter is also commonly expressed with 不得行, as opposed to the simpler Mandarin 不行, and emphatically it’s often heard as 硬是不得行. In written form this is understandable to a Mandarin speaker, however its pronunciation /en35si214 bu21 dei21 xing21/ certainly renders it more opaque.

Sichuanese also has a number of unique modal particles (语气词) that are added to the end of a sentence to give it a certain flavour or attitude. Mandarin has these as well, but Sichuanese makes far more extensive use of them and has some of its own unique modal particles as well.

嘛 is used in both Standard Mandarin and Sichuanese, but while 嘛 is an emphatic particle in Mandarin (often used to imply that something is obvious or to carry a tone of impatience), in Sichuanese it is used quite freely to indicate suggestion or agreement, much like 吧 in Standard Mandarin, cf. Standard Mandarin 好吧 = Sichuanese 好嘛. This often creates the illusion to outsiders that Sichuanese speakers are irritated or living up to the spicy reputation of their cuisine.

噻 /sæ44/ is used as an emphatic or imperative or to express definiteness. Many sentences with 肯定 “definitely” in them end with 噻. I’ve overheard someone being chastised with 你是个男的噻! /li53 si213 go læ21 di sæ44/ “You’re a man!”, i.e. “Be a man!/Man up!” Unfortunately some tropes seem to be universal.

嗦 /so21/ expresses suspicion or dissatisfaction. 你骗我嗦! /li53 piæ213 ngo53 so21/ “You’re cheating me!” This one is particularly useful in bargaining at the market or dealing with taxi drivers.

嘎 /ga44/ is a compact way to seek agreement, much like 对不对 in Standard Mandarin. 你的汉语说得好,嘎? /li53 di han213yu53 suo21 dei21 hao53 ga44/ “You speak Chinese well, don’t you?”

These are only a few common particles, but the everyday speech of the Sichuanese is thoroughly peppered with a wide assortment of such particles, sometimes tagging the end of almost every single sentence.

As far as grammar goes, there is not much difference between Sichuanese and Standard Mandarin, though there are some constructions that differentiate the two. Again, Sichuanese makes extensive use of the word 得, pronounced /dei21/. To say that you can speak Sichuanese, you might say 我说得来四川话, instead of the more standard 我会说四川话. Furthermore, to ask if someone speaks the language, you would ask 你说得来四川话不?, with an unapologetic 不 at the end. Indeed, this 不 is often tagged onto the end of yes-no questions, much the way one would use 吗 in Standard Mandarin. I can’t help but notice the similarity in usage with the Min Nan 无 /bo24/ and wonder if this 不 /bu21/ could be a leftover calque from Ba-Shu Chinese, considering that Min Nan and Ba-Shu both originally stemmed from Old Chinese. This is pure speculation, but therein lies the fun trying to piece together less documented “dialects”.

Going back to 要得 “ok”, to ask if something is ok the question is simply 要得不? And to reply negatively 要不得. 得 is also used to ask if something is likely to happen or not, as in the expression 得不得. Once on my final visit to a school in the south of Chengdu a student asked me 老师,得不得回来? /lao53 sei45 dei21 bu dei21 fei21 lai21/ “Teacher, are you going to come back?”, to which I sadly replied 不得.

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“Why is Sichuanese a northern dialect?”

So how did these differences arise? And more importantly, how is it that a version of Mandarin, a northern Chinese language, came to be spoken in the south, the home of the most divergent and conservative Chinese languages? Sichuan’s linguistic history is actually quite unique. I mentioned traces of Ba-Shu Chinese possibly existing in the vocabulary of modern Sichuanese. Ba-Shu Chinese was actually the first Chinese language spoken in the area of modern day Sichuan. It was an off-shoot of Old Chinese (as opposed to most other varieties of Chinese which developed out of Middle Chinese), and though not much is known for certain, it presumably had a phonology that would have been very different from any variety of Chinese spoken today.

The Yuan Dynasty brought a significant population decrease due to Mongol invasions and illness. This significantly decreased the number of Ba-Shu Chinese speakers, and eventually the language was replaced by varieties of Mandarin spoken by in-coming migrants mostly from Hubei. Speakers of other Chinese languages such as Gan, Xiang, and Hakka also made their way to Sichuan, and these languages most likely exerted some influence on the formation of modern Sichuanese as well.

Today Sichuanese flourishes despite the constant pressure of Standard Mandarin. Some of the older pronunciations of words in Sichuanese are giving way to more standard, Beijing-type pronunciations, and many local words and expressions are falling out of use. The Sichuanese of young people today often resembles relatively standard Mandarin with a slightly compromised Sichuanese phonology. It isn’t the Sichuanese of 50 years ago, but it is still quite distinct and is definitely the preferred mode of communication for most people.

The government knows this and uses schools as a forum to encourage students and teachers to clean up their local “dialect” and use Standard Mandarin. Perhaps here more than anywhere else is the discrepancy between “Mandarin” and “Sichuanese” most apparent. Linguistically Mandarin is a broad category that refers to a sometimes loosely shared history with Ming and Qing Dynasty Guan Hua, “officials’ language”. This language was based on the speech of the northern capitals of Nanjing and Beijing, and spread across the northern plains via migration and government influence. In most of the south where the government’s grip was weaker, it never took hold and had only marginal effect on the Chinese languages there.

The PRC’s version of Guan Hua today is Putong Hua, an even more precise and prescriptive language based on the speech of Beijing and the northeast. Thus, Sichuanese may fall under the broader, linguistic category of Guan Hua (Mandarin) but it definitely falls outside of the confines of Putong Hua (Standard Mandarin). In short, Sichuanese is Mandarin and Putong Hua is Mandarin, but Sichuanese is definitely not Putong Hua.

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Varieties of Mandarin

So is Sichuanese a language or a dialect then? There can be no easy answer to this question, given the varying definitions of languages and dialects and the different political and cultural agendas that influence such labeling. Linguistically, I would say Sichuanese could be considered to be a dialect of Mandarin, given its relatively short history and shared core development with other varieties of Mandarin.

However, and this is a big “however”, socially and culturally I push for the recognition of Sichuanese as a language. Aside from the obvious reasons such as lack of complete mutual intelligibility and significant lexical differences, I think that the situation of diglossia in Sichuan is important to consider. Sichuanese people, particularly young people, regularly code-switch between Sichuanese and Standard Mandarin. This code-switching isn’t limited just to vocabulary or the register of language used, but also includes switching phonological systems, i.e. tone systems, sound shifts, and sometimes accent. I even know people who have almost completely different voices depending on whether they are speaking Standard Mandarin or Sichuanese (incidentally, this type of person is always selected at school or work to make speeches or public statements because of their ability to differentiate so starkly between the standard and local speech).

This standard/local split creates a mechanism of identifying an in-group and an out-group. The rapport that results when speaking Sichuanese is unparalleled when speaking Mandarin in Sichuan, and it is this strength of identity that makes the most compelling argument for designating Sichuanese as a language. It is so integral to the Sichuanese identity and conveys the culture in a way that the more sterile Mandarin simply cannot. Beijing knows this – about Sichuanese and all other varieties of Chinese – and it is for exactly this reason that they are so preoccupied with reminding schoolchildren to 普通话, “please speak Mandarin”. Sichuanese will get no support from any official channels, so it is all the more important that people act to raise the profile of the language and push to use it wherever and whenever possible.

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a sign in a Sichuan school reminding students to speak and write in Standard Mandarin

I will be posting some basic lessons in Sichuanese here. Please check back in the future for further installments.

Introduction to Sichuanese 四川话入门 – 1