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Recording of Modern Shanghainese
Native to Shanghai and the surrounding region; also spoken in overseas emigrant communities, particularly the United States (New York City)
Native speakers
(this article does not contain any information regarding the number of speakers)
Language codes
ISO 639-3
ISO 639-6 suji
Linguist list
Glottolog None
Simplified Chinese
Traditional Chinese
Literal meaning Shanghai speech
Simplified Chinese
Traditional Chinese
Literal meaning Shanghai speech
Simplified Chinese
Traditional Chinese
Literal meaning Hu (Shanghai) language

Shanghainese, also known as the Shanghai or Hu dialect, is a dialect of Wu Chinese spoken in the central districts of Shanghai and in the surrounding region. It is classified as part of the Sino-Tibetan family of languages. Shanghainese, like other Wu dialects, is largely unintelligible with other varieties of Chinese such as Mandarin.

In English, "Shanghainese" sometimes refers to all Wu dialects, although they are only partially intelligible with one another. Shanghainese proper is a representative dialect of Northern Wu; it contains vocabulary and expressions from the entire Northern Wu area of southern Jiangsu and northern Zhejiang. With nearly 14 million speakers, Shanghainese is also the largest single form of Wu Chinese. It once served as the lingua franca of the entire Yangtze River Delta region.

Shanghainese is rich in monophthongs [i y ɪ e ø ɛ ə ɐ a ɑ ɔ ɤ o ʊ u] (eight of which are phonemic) and in consonants. Like other northern Wu dialects, the Shanghai dialect has voiced initials [b d ɡ ɦ z v dʑ ʑ]. Neither Mandarin nor Cantonese has voiced initial stops or affricates. The Shanghainese tonal system is also significantly different from other Chinese varieties. Shanghainese has two level tonal contrasts (high and low), while Mandarin and Cantonese are typical of contour tonal languages.


  • History 1
  • Intelligibility and variations 2
  • Phonology 3
    • Initials 3.1
    • Finals 3.2
    • Tones 3.3
      • Tone sandhi 3.3.1
  • Common words and phrases in Shanghainese 4
  • Plural pronouns 5
  • Writing 6
  • See also 7
  • References 8
    • Citations 8.1
    • Bibliography 8.2
  • Further reading 9
  • External links 10


Shanghai did not become a regional centre of commerce until it was opened to foreign investment during the late Qing dynasty. Consequently, dialects spoken around Shanghai had long been subordinate to those spoken around Jiaxing and later Suzhou. In the late 19th century, most vocabulary of the Shanghai region had been a hybrid between Northern Jiangsu and Ningbo dialects.[1] Since the 1850s, owing to the growth of Shanghai's economy, Shanghainese has become one of the fastest-developing dialects of Wu Chinese, undergoing rapid changes and quickly replacing Suzhou dialect as the prestige dialect of the region. It underwent sustained growth that reached a hiatus in the 1930s during the Republican era, when migrants arrived in Shanghai and immersed themselves in the local tongue.

After 1949, the government introduced Mandarin as the national language of all China. The influence of Shanghainese began to wane. Especially since Chinese economic reform began in 1978, Shanghai became home to a great number of migrants from all over the country. Due to the national prominence of Mandarin, learning Shanghainese was no longer necessary for migrants, because those educated after the 1950s could generally communicate in Mandarin. However, Shanghainese remained a very important part of the city's culture and retained its prestige status within the local population. In the 1990s, it was still common for local radio and television broadcasts to be in Shanghainese. In 1995, a TV series called "Nie Zhai" (the Evil Debt) was broadcast entirely in Shanghainese; when it was broadcast outside of Shanghai (mainly in adjacent Wu-speaking provinces) Mandarin subtitles were added. The Shanghainese TV show "Lao Niang Jiu" (Old Uncle) has been broadcast since 1999, and is still quite popular among Shanghainese residents. Shanghainese programming has since declined, over concerns of regionalism/localism accusations.

From 1992 Shanghainese use was discouraged in schools,[2] and many children native to Shanghai can no longer speak Shanghainese.[3] In addition, Shanghai's emergence as a cosmopolitan global city consolidated the status of Mandarin as the standard language of business and services.[1]

Since 2005, new movements have emerged to protect Shanghainese. At municipal legislative discussions in 2005, former Huju actress Ma Lili moved to "protect" the dialect, stating that she was one of the few remaining Huju actresses who still retained authentic classic Shanghainese pronunciation in their performances. Shanghai's former party boss Chen Liangyu, a native Shanghainese himself, reportedly supported her proposal.[1] There have been talks of re-integrating Shanghainese into pre-kindergarten education, because many children are unable to speak any Shanghainese. Now many Shanghai-dialect programs are running; a citywide program was introduced by the city government's language committee in 2006 to record native speakers of different Shanghainese varieties for archival purposes.[4]

The Shanghai government has begun to reverse its course and seek fluent speakers of "real" authentic Shanghainese, but to their horror, due to the national government's effort to wipe out dialects and locality-focused aspects of Chinese culture, only two out of thirteen recruitment stations have found Traditional Shanghainese speakers; the rest of the 14 million people of Shanghai speak Modern Shanghainese, and it has been predicted that local dialects will be wiped out. Professor Qian Nairong is working on efforts to save the dialect.[5][6] Qian Nairong is promoting Shanghainese language and culture in the face of an onslaught of Mandarin by the national government which left schoolchildren speaking poor Shanghainese. In response to criticism, Qian reminds people that Shanghainese was once fashionable, saying, "the popularization of Mandarin doesn't equal the ban of dialects. It doesn't make Mandarin a more civilized language either. Promoting dialects is not a narrow-minded localism, as it has been labeled by some netizens.”[7] The singer and composer Eheart Chen sings many of his songs in Shanghainese instead of Mandarin to preserve the dialect.[8]

Since 2006 the Modern Baby Kindergarten in Shanghai has prohibited its students from speaking anything but Shanghainese on Fridays to preserve the dialect.[9]

Professor Qian says that few Shanghainese people under the age of sixty can speak real Shanghainese, and he urges that Shanghainese be taught in the regular school system from kindergarten, saying it is the only way to save Shanghainese, and that attempts to introduce it in university courses and operas are not enough.[10]

Fourteen native Shanghainese speakers had audio recordings made of their Shanghainese on May 31, 2011. They were selected based on accent purity and other factors.[11]

Intelligibility and variations

Shanghainese is not mutually intelligible with any dialect of Mandarin. It is around 50% intelligible (with 28.9% lexical similarity) with the Mandarin heard in Beijing and Standard Chinese.[12] Modern Shanghainese, however, has been heavily influenced by modern Mandarin. This makes the Shanghainese spoken by young people in the city different from that spoken by the older population, sometimes significantly. It also means that inserting Mandarin into Shanghainese sentences during everyday conversation is very common, at least amongst young people. Like most subdivisions of Chinese, it is easier for a local speaker to understand Mandarin than it is for a Mandarin speaker to understand the local speech.

Shanghainese is part of the larger Wu subgroup of Chinese varieties. It is similar, to a certain degree, to the speech of neighboring Kunshan, Suzhou, and Ningbo. People mingling between these areas do not need to code-switch to Mandarin when they speak to one another. However, there are noticeable tonal and phonological changes which do not impede intelligibility. As the dialect continuum of Wu continues to further distances, however, significant changes occur in phonology and lexicon to the point where it is no longer possible to converse intelligibly. The majority of Shanghainese speakers find that by Wuxi, differences become significant and the Wuxi dialect would take weeks to months for a Shanghainese speaker to fully "pick up." Similarly, Hangzhou dialect is understood by most Shanghainese speakers, but it is considered "rougher" and does not have as much flow in comparison. The language evolved in and around Taizhou, Zhejiang, by which point it becomes difficult for a Shanghainese speaker to comprehend. Wenzhou dialect, spoken in southern Zhejiang province, although considered part of the Wu subgroup, is not at all intelligible with Shanghainese.

Shanghainese is not mutually intelligible with Wenzhou dialect, Cantonese, Minnan, or any other dialect groups of Chinese.


Following conventions of Chinese syllable structure, Shanghainese syllables can be divided into initials and finals. The initial occupies the first part of the syllable. The final occupies the second part of the syllable and can be divided further into an optional medial and an obligatory rimes (sometimes spelled rhyme). Tone is also a feature of the syllable in Shanghainese.[13] Syllabic tone, which is typical to the other Sinitic languages, has largely become verbal tone in Shanghainese.


Phonetic Transcription of Initials in Shanghainese
  Labial Dental Alveolo-Palatal Velar Glottal
Nasal m ȵ ŋ  
Plosive tenuis p k ʔ
aspirated t̪ʰ  
voiced b ɡ  
Affricate voiceless t͡s̪ t͡ɕ
aspirated t͡s̪ʰ t͡ɕʰ  
voiced d͡ʑ  
Fricative voiceless f ɕ   h
voiced v ʑ   ɦ
Lateral l

Shanghainese has a set of voiced as well as voiceless aspirated and tenuis/unaspirated plosives. It also has fricatives, affricates Alveolo-palatal initials.

Voiced stops are phonetically voiceless with slack voice phonation in stressed, word initial position.[14] This phonation (often referred to as murmur) also occurs in zero onset syllables, syllables beginning with fricatives, and syllables beginning with sonorants. These consonants are true voiced in intervocalic position.[15]


The following chart lists all possible finals (medials + rimes) in Shanghainese represented in IPA.[16][17]
Phonetic Transcription of Riming Groups in Shanghainese
Long Nucleus
Nasal ending
Short Nucleus + Nasal Ending
Short Nucleus checked
by a glottal stop
Rimes Medials + Rimes Rimes Medials + Rimes Rimes Medials + Rimes
i         jɪʔ    
y         ɥɪʔ  
ɜ   əɲ wəɲ əʔ jəʔ wəʔ
ʊ     ʊŋ jʊŋ   ʊʔ jʊʔ  
ɔ   ɑ̃ jɑ̃ wɑ̃    
a ja wa ã jaʔ waʔ
ɛ̝ jɛ̝ wɛ̝            
e   we            
ø ɥø            
Syllabic continuants: [z̩] [ʑ̩] [m̩] [ʔm̩][n̩] [ʔn̩] [ŋ̍] [ɚ]

The Middle Chinese [-ŋ] rimes are retained (as [-ŋ/ɲ]), while [-n] and [-m] have either become [-ŋ/ɲ] or have disappeared in Shanghainese. Middle Chinese [-p -t -k] rimes have become glottal stops, [-ʔ].[18]


Shanghainese has five phonetically distinguishable tones for single syllables said in isolation. These tones are illustrated below in Chao tone names. In terms of Middle Chinese tone designations, the yin tone category has three tones (yinshang and yinqu tones have merged into one tone), while the yang category has two tones (the yangping, yangshang, and yangqu have merged into one tone).[19][20]

Five Shanghainese Citation Tones
with Middle Chinese Classifications
Ping () Shang () Qu () Ru ()
Yin () 52 (T1) 34 (T2) 44ʔ (T4)
Yang () 14 (T3) 24ʔ (T5)

The conditioning factors which led to the yin–yang split still exist in Shanghainese, as they do in other Wu dialects: yang tones are only found with voiced initials [b d ɡ z v dʑ ʑ m n ȵ ŋ l ɦ], while the yin tones are only found with voiceless initials.

The ru tones are abrupt, and describe those rimes which end in a glottal stop /ʔ/. That is, both the yin–yang distinction and the ru tones are allophonic (dependent on syllabic structure). Shanghainese has only a two-way phonemic tone contrast,[21] falling vs rising, and then only in open syllables with voiceless initials.

Tone sandhi

Tone sandhi is a process whereby adjacent tones undergo dramatic alteration in connected speech. Similar to other Northern Wu dialects, Shanghainese is characterized by two forms of tone sandhi: a word tone sandhi and a phrasal tone sandhi.

Word tone sandhi in Shanghainese can be described as left-prominent and is characterized by a dominance of the first syllable over the contour of the entire tone domain. As a result, the underlying tones of syllables other than the leftmost syllable, have no effect on the tone contour of the domain. The pattern is generally described as tone spreading (T1-4) or tone shifting (T5, except for 4- and 5-syllable compounds, which can undergo spreading or shifting). The table below illustrates possible tone combinations.

Left-Prominent Sandhi Tone Values
Tone One syllable Two syllables Three syllables Four syllables Five syllables
T1 52 55 22 55 44 22 55 44 33 22 55 44 33 33 22
T2 34 33 44 33 44 22 33 44 33 22 33 44 33 33 22
T3 14 11 44 11 44 11 11 44 33 11 11 44 33 22 11
T4 44 33 44 33 44 22 33 44 33 22 33 44 33 22 22
T5 24 11 24 11 11 24 11 22 22 24
22 44 33 11
11 11 11 11 24
22 44 33 22 11

As an example, in isolation, the two syllables of the word for China are pronounced with T1 and T4: /tsʊ̆ŋ52/ and /kwə̆ʔ44/. However, when pronounced in combination, T1 from /tsʊ̆ŋ/ spreads over the compound resulting in the following pattern /tsʊ̆ŋ55kwə̆ʔ22/. Similarly, the syllables in a common expression for foolish have the following underlying phonemic and tonal representations: /zə̆ʔ24/ (T5), /sɛ̝52/ (T1), and /ti34/ (T2). However, the syllables in combination exhibit the T5 shifting pattern where the first-syllable T5 shifts to the last syllabe in the domain: /zə̆ʔ11sɛ̝11ti24/.[22]

Phrasal tone sandhi in Shanghainese can be described as right-prominent and is characterized by a right syllable retaining its underlying tone and a left syllable receiving a mid-level tone based on the underlying tone's register. The table below indicates possible left syllable tones in right-prominent compounds.[23]

Possible Left Syllable Tone Values in Right-Prominent Sandhi
Tone Underlying Tone Neutralized Tone
T1 52 44
T2 34 44
T3 14 33
T4 44 44
T5 24 22

For instance, when combined, /ma14/ and /tɕjɜ34/ become /ma33tɕjɜ34/ (buy wine).

Sometimes meaning can change based on whether left-prominent or right-prominent sandhi is used. For example, /tsʰɔ34/ and /mi14/ when pronounced /tsʰɔ33mi44/ (i.e., with left-prominent sandhi) means fried noodles. When pronounced /tsʰɔ44mi14/ (i.e., with right-prominent sandhi), it means to fry noodles.[24]

Common words and phrases in Shanghainese

Note: Chinese characters for Shanghainese are not standardized and are provided for reference only. IPA transcription is for the Middle period of modern Shanghainese (), pronunciation of those between 20 and 60 years old.
Translation IPA Chinese character Transliteration
Shanghainese (dialect) [zɑ̃.hɛ ɦɛ.ɦʊ]
Shanghainese (people) [zɑ̃.hɛ.ȵjɪŋ]
I [ŋu]
we or I [ɐʔ.lɐ]
he/she [ɦi]
they [ɦ]
you (sing.) [noŋ]
you (plural) [na]
hello [noŋ.hɔ]
good-bye [tsɛ.ɦwɛ]
thank you [ʑja.ja.noŋ] or [ʑja.ʑja.noŋ]
sorry [tɛ.vəʔ.tɕʰi]
but, however [dɛ.zɿ], [dɛ.zɿ.ni]
please [tɕʰjɪɲ]
that one [ɛ.tsɐ], [i.tsɐ]
this one [ɡəʔ.tsɐ]
there [ɛ.tɐ], [i.tɐ]
over there [ɛ.mi.tɐ], [i.mi.tɐ]
here [ɡəʔ.tɐ]
to have [ɦjɤɯ.təʔ]
to exist, here, present [lɐʔ.hɛ]
now, current [ɦi.zɛ]
what time is it? [ɦi.ze tɕi.ti tsoŋ]
where [ɦɐ], [sa.di.fɑ̃]
what [sa.ɦəʔ]
who [sa.ȵjɪɲ] or [ɦɦwɛ]
why [ɦwɛ.sa]
when [sa.zəɲ.kwɑ̃]
how [na.nəɲ], [na.nəɲ.ka]
how much? [tɕi.di]
yes [ɛ]
no [m̩], [vəʔ.zɿ], [m̩.məʔ], [vjɔ]
telephone number [di.ɦʊ ɦɔ.dɤɯ]
home [oʔ.li]
Come to our house and play. [tɔ ɐʔ.lɐ oʔ.li.ɕjɑ̃ le bəʔ.ɕjã]
Where's the restroom? [da.sɤɯ.kɛ ləʔ.lə ɦɐ]
Have you eaten dinner? [ɦja.vɛ tɕʰjɪʔ.ku.lə va]
I don't know [ŋu vəʔ.ɕjɔ.tə]
Do you speak English? [noŋ jɪn.vəɲ kã.tə.lɛ va]
I love you [ŋu ɛ noŋ]
I adore you [ŋu ɛ.mu noŋ]
I like you a lot [ŋu lɔ hwø.ɕi noŋ əʔ]
news [ɕjɪɲ.vəɲ]
dead [ɕi.tʰə.lə]
alive [ɦwəʔ.lə.hɛ]
a lot [tɕjʊ.kwɛ]
inside, within [li.ɕjã]
outside [ŋa.dɤɯ]
How are you? [noŋ hʊ va]

Plural pronouns

The first-person pronoun is suffixed with 伲, and third-person with [la˦] (underlying /la˥˧/), but the second-person plural is a separate root, [nʌ˨˧].[25]


A table of Shanghai Phonetic Symbols by Rev. J. A. Silsby

Chinese characters are used to write Shanghainese. Romanization of Shanghainese was first developed by Protestant English and American Christian missionaries in the 19th century, such as Joseph Edkins. Usage of this romanization system was mainly confined to translated Bibles for use by native Shanghainese, or English-Shanghainese dictionaries, some of which also contained characters, for foreign missionaries to learn Shanghainese.

Shanghainese is sometimes written informally using homophones: "lemon" (ningmeng), written 檸檬 in Standard Chinese, may be written (person-door) in Shanghainese; and "yellow" (huang) may be written (king) rather than standard . These are not homophones in Mandarin, but are homophones in Shanghainese. There are also some homophones in Mandarin which are not homophonic in Shanghainese: , and are homophonic in Mandarin, but not in Shanghainese.[26]

Shanghainese Phonetic Symbols were another phonetic script created by Protestant missionaries in the 1800s to write Shanghainese phonetically. The symbols are a syllabary similar to the Japanese Kana system. The system has not been used and is only seen in a few books.[27][28]

See also



  1. ^ a b c China Newsweek Archived March 14, 2008 at the Wayback Machine
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^
  11. ^
  12. ^ Glossika's index of mutual intelligibility
  13. ^ Xiaonong, Zhu. A Grammar of Shanghai Wu. Lincom, 2006, pp. 6-16.
  14. ^ Ladefoged, Peter, Maddieson, Ian. The Sounds of the World's Languages. Wiley-Blackwell, 1996, p. 64-66.
  15. ^ Zhu, Xiaonong S. Shanghai Tonetics. Lincom Europa, 1999, p. 12.
  16. ^ Zhu, Xiaonong S. Shanghai Tonetics. Lincom Europa, 1999, p. 14-17.
  17. ^ Zhu, Xiaonong S. A Grammar of Shanghai Wu. Lincom Europa, 2006, p. 11.
  18. ^ Svantesson, Jan-Olof. "Shanghai Vowels," Lund University, Department of Linguistics, Working Papers, 35:191-202
  19. ^ Chen, Zhongmin. Studies in Dialects in the Shanghai Area. Lincom Europa, 2003, p. 74.
  20. ^ Zhu, Xiaonong. A Grammar of Shanghai Wu. Lincom Europa, 2006, p. 17.
  21. ^ Introduction to Shanghainese. Pronunciation (Part 3 - Tones and Pitch Accent)
  22. ^ Zhu, Xiaonong. A Grammar of Shanghai Wu. Lincom Europa, 2006, p. 38-46.
  23. ^ Zhu, Xiaonong. A Grammar of Shanghai Wu. Lincom Europa, 2006, p. 46-47.
  24. ^ Zhu, Xiaonong. A Grammar of Shanghai Wu. Lincom Europa, 2006, p. 35.
  25. ^
  26. ^ ()
  27. ^
  28. ^


  • Lance Eccles, Shanghai dialect: an introduction to speaking the contemporary language. Dunwoody Press, 1993. ISBN 1-881265-11-0. 230 pp + cassette. (An introductory course in 29 units).
  • Xiaonong Zhu, A Grammar of Shanghai Wu. LINCOM Studies in Asian Linguistics 66, LINCOM Europa, Munich, 2006. ISBN 3-89586-900-7. 201+iv pp.

Further reading

  • "Shanghai steps up efforts to save local language" (Archive). CNN. March 31, 2011.

External links

  • 100 Useful Shanghainese phrases
  • Example sentences in Shanghainese with audio and translations in other languages.
  • Shanghainese to IPA tool turn input text in Shanghainese into IPA, with tones
  • Shanghainese Pronunciation Shanghainese Pronunciation
  • Shanghainese Dictionary: Glossika's Searchable Shanghai Wu Dictionary
  • Shanghainese audio lesson series: Audio lessons with accompanying dialogue and vocabulary study tools
  • Shanghai Dialect: Resources on Shanghai dialect including a Web site (in Japanese) that gives common phrases with sound files
  • Shanghainese-Mandarin Soundboard: A soundboard (requires Flash) of common Mandarin Chinese phrases with Shanghainese equivalents.
  • Shanghai Dialect Words Learn and search Shanghai Dialect
  • Wu Association
  • Romanization of Shanghainese at Omniglot
  • IAPSD | International Association for Preservation of the Shanghainese Dialect
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