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.
Advocates, consisting mainly of scholars like Qian and non-governmental organisations, have started to move to protect Shanghainese, and their efforts seem to be bearing some fruit.
Some public buses have started to use Shanghainese, in addition to Mandarin and English, in their announcements, while Shanghai Airlines in January began using the dialect on some of their flights.
While fewer and fewer younger generations are learning to speak Shanghainese, those from outside Shanghai seeking jobs in the country’s commercial hub say the dialect still plays a key role in society.
Zhang Wenxia, an undergraduate from central Henan province, said she was completely left out at a job interview at a Shanghai-based media company.
“I felt like I was deaf during the job interview. The only language that was spoken was Shanghainese. The hiring manager and other candidates communicated fluently in Shanghainese, and I had no choice but keep silent,” she said.
Xu Shudan, a 28-year-old insurance salewoman from neighboring Anhui province, is studying Shanghainese at a privately-run school.
“Mandarin is spoken nationwide. However in Shanghai, using words like “nonghao” —a local expression for hello — can immediately close the distance between business partners,” she said.
Reporting by Shanghai newsroom; Editing by Kazunori Takada