Northern vs. Southern Vocab

Since I’ve always lived in southern China (Nanchang, Kunming, Guangzhou), it’s been fun to travel up North these past few weeks and hear the locals speaking Mandarin with slightly different vocabulary choices than I’m used to hearing in the South.

This list is based on my incidental observations and isn’t meant to be comprehensive (or scientific) at all. It’s simply meant to inform lǎowài learning Chinese in either the North or the South what variations we can expect to encounter in the other half of the country. My impression is that these vocabulary differences are best grouped into vague “how people in the North/South like to talk” categories but I have no idea where that dividing “line” would be. Also, I’d like to point out that all of these words (in both the North and South columns) are accepted as Mandarin (although my feeling is that Southerners would be more surprised to hear words in the North list than vice versa). Regardless, people haven’t seemed to have any trouble understanding me regardless of where I am or which of these variations I use.

Enough disclaimers, on to the list!

North South English
shá shénme 什么 what?
wèishá 为啥 wèishénme 为什么 why?
zěnme 怎么 how?
búkèqi 不客气 / bú xiè 不谢 bú yòng xiè 不用谢 you’re welcome
yíkuàir 一块儿 yìqǐ 一起 together
hǎo de hěn 好得很 hěn hǎo 很好 very good

One of the big surprises has been how prevalent the “(ADJ) de hěn __ 得很” construction has been instead of “hěn (ADJ)” __. I’d seen it in books but I rarely hear it in the South. Up North here, on the other hand, it’s absolutely the default construction for such utterances as “it’s really sour” or “it’s very far” (“suān de hěn” 酸得很 and “yuǎn de hěn” 远得很, respectively).

12 Replies to “Northern vs. Southern Vocab”

  1. Interesting little table, but I always thought that ‘’ was a Southern thing? They certainly never said it in Tianjin and when I said it they’d tell me that it was more of Sichuan thing. And my friend from Chongqing uses it all the time.

  2. sha may be an oddball in the list, I have certainly encountered shazi for what (perhaps even which and who I will check I think shazi was used for who in a film I watched recently and it wasn’t used in a derogatory way) with some Southern Chinese I have met and have seen it used by Taiwanese bloggers on one or two occasions. Of course Southern China is still rather large I’ll start paying more attention to exactly where people are from.

    What about ‘an3’ used for I and we, I had the impression that was a more northern thing but not sure why I think that, and also hai xing rather than hai keyi.

    The yikuair got me a while ago, most of the Chinese people I meet are more Southern so a “lump” of people sounded weird.

  3. The North/South linguistic differences are interesting but cannot always be generalised. In the past few decades, Greater China has become a lot less homogeneous, and the lines between dialectal differences have become much more blurred. So whilst you can make general guesses about certain words and structures that different people from different parts of China may prefer to use, in real life you may encounter Northerners using Southerner dialect-patterns, and vice versa, not to mention other linguistic influences from Dongbei, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, etc. Still, interesting post, and will be useful for the learners, I think.

  4. @Helen I wouldn’t say that northern people use “” INSTEAD of “”; “” is used by everyone. What you could say is that northerners are more likely to use “” than southerners, but this is more in contrast to “” than “”. (They are, after all, different expressions, both structurally and semantically.)

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  6. In Beijing, they use all the expressions listed for the “South”. I even wondered if North and South needed to be switched in the table.

  7. One important one you forgot for the north (or at least the northeast) is gan4 ha2 na4, which is equivalent to 你干什么. This does not have a character representation.

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