Chinese Southern Charm

In the United States, the charming southern accent is all about vowels that get swapped around or changed. I still remember this great game of Catch Phrase where the southern belle mother gave this clue “It’s long and thin” and someone guessed “pin!” She was delighted and passed the thing to the next player (her own child). “Mom! This is ‘pen’ not ‘pin’.” But the mom didn’t understand, “That’s what they said!”

It was funny to everyone because her own children (growing up in Arizona) had lost the southern accent but their mother pronounced “pen” and “pin” exactly the same.

In Southern China, the accent comprises not vowel differences, but rather consonants that the locals can’t distinguish. There are many vocabulary differences between the North and the South (and everywhere in China, for that matter), but the biggest challenge to learning Mandarin in the South is the pronunciation.

One example is: “s” and “sh” sound different to me because in my native language (English) they are different sounds (it matters very much which one you use when you tell some to “sit.”). But in Southern China “s” and “sh” sound the same to them (they are what linguists call allophones).

This makes for many misunderstandings, but also some cute jokes that are only possible in the South. For example this fruit shop’s name:

The hanzi is 随果 suí guǒ which is a mispronounciation of 水果 shuǐ guǒ (meaning fruit). You can see the “s” and “sh” switcharoo. But there’s one other thing that makes the joke possible: “shui” in the real word for fruit switched to sound like a 2nd tone because of the “double 3rd tone rule.” So these two words would sound exactly the same with a Southern Chinese accent. Clearly this is a tongue in cheek mocking of Southern pronunciation that most Chinese people I’ve talked to find pretty cute.

There are several other features of the Southern accent (enough for a whole post or book chapter just on that), but I’ll give just one more, this time, unintentional evidence of a 分不清楚 fēn bù qīng chu sound: “-n” and “-ng” at the end of a word. In English this is important because we want the church choir to “sing” not “sin,” right? But in Southern China they can’t always tell the difference. Look at the login info for a local “Lanzhou” restaurant’s WiFi:

The really interesting thing about this is: Lanzhou is in the north and you would think those running the restaurant would be too. We can only surmise that the internet was installed by a local.

If you live in Southern China, and you have some printed material showing the local pronunciation of Mandarin, please feel free to leave a comment and tell us about it!

2 Replies to “Chinese Southern Charm”

  1. I’m not sure if there is clear data on this, but s/sh I find to be pretty widespread across China. It certainly existed in Dongbei. It’s usually referred to as 平舌/翘舌分不清. The nasal non-differentiation I find to be more common in Xiamen where I now live. Of course where you are there’s also the n/l onset problem. Here we also have an f/h onset problem, so “hukou” comes out as “fukou”. I found a wonderful example of this on a huge sign on the top of a building (2 meter size characters) where the character started with H but the corresponding letter in the acronym was F (if I remember correctly). The sign later got hit pretty hard by a typhoon, so I’m not sure it’s still apparent.

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