Nuances of the Chinese language (3)- Sampled Dialect Differences

This is probably the last of this set of serial posts. So I’ve talked about how three different dialects of Chinese sound like to me in the very first post. Today I will provide some concrete examples so you can see for yourself how different each is. 

Example 1: Different units for a kiss 

The preamble for this example is that in Chinese there is a unit that goes with anything you can count i.e. you never just say one apple or one hair, you have to say one unit of apple or one string of hair. 

So there is the official unit that is supposed to go with different types of objects/nouns. But in each dialect, there is usually a different flavour in what unit gets used with the same object. Here I’m going to use a kiss as the example. In Mandarin, a kiss is perceived in terms of a bodily motion or time so they say a motion/a moment of kiss. In Cantonese, we think of a kiss as a motion of the mouth so we say a mouthful of kiss. In Shanghainese, I think they say a mark of a kiss, perhaps alluding to the mark left by lipstick?

Example 2: Unique wording in each dialect

In Cantonese, we have a special verb for describing marinating meat in sauce which sounds like Yip. The same word does not exist in either Mandarin or Shanghainese. Well, I can think of no equivalent sound in Shanghainese at all and it would sound like the word for “castrate” in Mandarin if I try to pronounce it in Mandarin (it would also sound like a Mandarin word for describing the process of making preserved vegetables that is basically the same as Korean kimchi but given that they have no equivalent word for meat products, I think the first thing that came to their mind would be the word castrate, Mandarins basically call what we Cantonese call marinated beef  “beef in sauce” if I translate over the literal meaning). 

Example 3: what do you call this vegetable/fruit?

Not surprisingly, different vegetables and fruits go by different names. For example, potatoes are commonly known as earth-bean now in Mandarin, Cantonese calls it little yam and Shanghainese says it’s foreign sweet potato. The fruit longan (similar to lychee but smaller, with a brown skin that has no spikes) is called dragon eye in Cantonese and I believe also in Mandarin but perhaps because it doesn’t sound right in Shanghainese, it’s known by the name given to dried longan fruit instead, the meaning of which roughly translates to rounded osmanthus but don’t ask me why and how this came about. 

Published by moonlakeku

intermediate Chinese fantasy writer working on her debut series

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