Shanghai residents stand up to save their local dialect

Tue Sep 4, 2012 12:54am EDT
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SHANGHAI (Reuters) - A small group of scholars, students and local residents of Shanghai are standing up to save their dialect, which traces its roots to one of China's oldest spoken languages, from extinction.

Shanghainese, like many of the estimated 80 other local dialects spoken in China, is endangered by the central government's pro-Mandarin policy, which allows only "putonghua" - literally, "common language" - to be used at schools as a way to control the vast country with its population of 1.4 billion.

"I guess the younger generation is much more familiar with English than their mother tongue," said Roman Xu, a 33-year-old who heads an non-profit organisation that promotes the use of the Shanghai dialect.

"I've read in history books about how a language gradually dies out. Hope my mother tongue won't become one."

Qian Nairong, a professor at Shanghai University who specializes in language research, says it's not yet too late to save the dialect - but the clocking is ticking.

"Shanghainese will come to an end within a generation or two," said Qian, who has written textbooks as well as a dictionary on Shanghainese.

Shanghainese, a branch of the Wu dialect which was spoken in regions around Shanghai over 2,200 years ago, has its own grammar and vocabulary, with limited correlation with Mandarin.

For example, a commonly-used phrase "have you eaten?" would be "ni fan chi guo le ma?" in Mandarin but would be pronounced "nong che gu la va?" in Shanghainese.

The dialect's unique pronunciation also makes its a distant relative of Japanese, according to Qian.   Continued...