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Wu Phonology in the Context of Chinese Dialects (2002)

Ying-zong Huang


Aside from the commonly spoken form of Modern Standard Chinese, there are seven or eight natively spoken dialects (or dialect groups) in the Chinese language, only somewhat or not mutually intelligible. The written Chinese script however, is shared, which allows communication across dialect groups in all of China. This has been the case through history, where spoken Chinese evolved in time and space as groups migrated or interacted but written Chinese linked all dialects together.

Linguists situate Chinese in the Sinitic branch of the Sino-Tibetan language family. More than 5000 years ago, it is posited, the Sinitic and Tibeto-Burmese branches diverged and since then, dialects within Chinese have branched by changing in linguistically regular patterns. Dialects today are not only templates for studying the modern Chinese language but are also valuable to historical linguists who reconstruct archaic forms like Middle Chinese or Old Chinese. By comparing several disparate dialects, linguists can apply rules and often infer the corresponding attributes of the archaic parent language.

The Wu dialect is a major dialect group with an estimated native speaker population second only to Northern Chinese (within the Chinese dialects). However, the Wu dialect is not as well known outside of China as either Standard Chinese (based on Northern Chinese) or Cantonese (of the Yue dialect). However, it is well represented in linguistic studies of dialects, especially those initiated within China. The Wu dialect has several intrinsic phonetic features that make it an interesting dialect to study, for example, its consonant system and its tone rules. Extrinsically, it is undergoing rapid change, so it is also valuable to verify trends identified in previous studies or to note new changes.

My motivations

Though the geographic coverage of the Wu dialect is quite broad, the principal representative of the Wu dialect group is the Shanghai dialect. I grew up in Shanghai speaking the native dialect at home, though at school, I learned Standard Chinese. This experience is my preliminary background for exploring the Wu dialect. Learning a foreign language when I came to the US also inevitably forced me to think about how one acquires a language, why one does or does not have an accent, the relationship between languages, the changes in a language, and such issues. Language, being the key component of culture and ethnicity, also plays a very important role in shaping the identity of groups. Despite that these pages deal solely with linguistics, the project itself did provide some appreciation for some of these broader questions and realizations, by the observation of a specific case in the history of the Wu dialect.

Note: Because linguistics is not my major, my observations and interpretations should be read in an informal context.


I would like to thank Professor Chao Fen Sun, the faculty sponsor, for allowing me to sit in on his Chinese historical linguistics class and for his invaluable guidance during this project. I would also like to thank the URO; this project was made possible by a  President's Scholars grant.

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