back, again

January 27th, 2008

I’ve spent more time sitting in the back of Yanqing’s miandi fleet this weekend than should generally be considered healthy. I also managed to go to Hebei for the very first time.

Yes, that second sentence should be considered extremely silly considering how long I’ve lived in north China, seven out of my eight years here having been spent in Taiyuan, Beijing and Tianjin, and I have passed through Hebei a gazillion times, but nevertheless, unless you count the scheduled pit stops the Taiyuan-Beijing buses make on the side of the expressway just outside of Shijiazhuang, it is true.

And I think it is safe to say it was one of the less ordinary introductions to Hebei, although nothing particularly out of the ordinary happened.

This will be our first Spring Festival since the wedding. The civil ceremony doesn’t count, you see, only the proper ceremony and party with the family. So this means that we have no choice but to visit every single member of the extended family bearing many gifts. lzh’s mother actually comes from Hebei, and so lzh decided to get the Hebei round of visits out of the way early. The transport isn’t so convenient, apparently, even though it’s only Huailai, the next county over, and not too far into Huailai, either. It seems the Yanqing county buses only go as far as Xiaying, the western-most village along Yanqing’s section of State Highway 110, and you have to find some other form of transport from there over to Huailai. Of course, hiring a miandi is always possible, but that is naturally harder to do during Spring Festival, when the miandi drivers also want to be spending time with their families, and neither of us really wanted to deal with all the fuss the presence of a big nose would create when everybody’s home for the holidays, and so it was decided we’d hire a miandi and head out there this morning to get the visits out of the way with the minimum hassle. The rest of the extended in-laws are a bit easier to deal with, all being in Yanqing, and mostly in more or less the same village.

Funny thing is, even though Yanqing and Hualai are right next to each other and share the same basin, they do have different accents. I can’t tell you terribly much about the Huailai accent, because I still can’t distinguish it from the Yanqing accent (although lzh and all her family members can, and her mum can be persuaded to speak Huailaihua). All I can tell you right now is that in Huailai 喝 is pronounced ha4 and 吃 cha4. lzh just told me that 吃饭了没有?is pronounced cha4 fan4 le mayou2, with  没/ma being apparently a neutral tone, very unstressed and very short, and the 有 stressed and quite long.

It’s odd, we’d travelled maybe ten kilometres, we were still in the same basin, at the base of the exact same mountain range, and yet there were clear linguistic differences.

And one linguistic mystery was cleared up. We were visiting Jiujiu and Jiuma (mother’s younger brother and his wife). Jiuma comes from Hebei, but she has such an incredibly thick and almost indecipherable accent that I don’t really think I can say she speaks Putonghua. And there have been several occasions on which only Jiujiu has understood her, so it’s not my own linguistic incompetence that’s getting in the way here. Anyway, she’s from Hebei, but up until today, nobody could tell me where, exactly. Well, after reading the Wikipedia article on the Jin language sometime last summer (one of a long series of tangents leading off a project I still haven’t finished), I got to wondering if she was from somewhere up the other side of Zhangjiakou, closer to Shanxi. And today for some reason some aspects of her accent started reminding me ever so vaguely of Taiyuan… which is strange, because I learnt basically nothing the entire year I spent there. Anyway, today I finally got a clear answer, and as it turns out, I was right. She’s from Yuxian, right up on the Shanxi border. So I guess her native language is Jin. And I would have to say that judging by the thickness of her accent (a knife would not suffice, you’d need a chainsaw to cut it- honestly, I’ve had less trouble understanding people in Hunan, Guangxi and Yunnan than her, and that is no exaggeration) she doesn’t speak Putonghua so much as Huailaihua-ised Jin.

Well, yes, Yanqinghua and Huailaihua are just dialects of Mandarin, and aren’t too difficult for those with a basic grounding in Putonghua or one of the more “standard” (meaning “bigger”, I guess- Tianjinhua would actually be surprisingly useful for understanding Yanqinghua) Mandarin dialects. But Jin is something else entirely, as evidenced by Jiuma’s accent.

I can only remember a couple of examples: Whether we would go back to Huailai at Spring Festival was discussed. lzh and Ma said in Yanqing accents: 过年不回来了, which sounds pretty much as it does in Putonghua. Jiuma said: 过年不来了吗?, but somehow that 来/lai2 had become lei4. I heard a similar thing happening with 快, becoming kuei instead of kuai, and something odd (although I could be remembering that wrong) happening to the tone. Something strange happened with 啤酒, too, the pi being longer and sounding kinda first tone-ish, and the jiu sounding more like jiew (like jew, but with an “ee” sound inserted), and also being quite long. And she seemed to be trying to teach her step-grandson to say “goo” instead of 狗, but who knows, that could’ve been “baby talk”.

But what really gets me about Jiuma’s accent is that insted of the usual confusion of s/sh, z/zh and c/ch/similar sounds you get in just about every Sinitic language and dialect outside of Beijing, she seems to blend all of those consonants into one thoroughly confusing mess. At least, that’s how it sounds to my thoroughly unpracticed ear.

Ah well, I’m pretty tired, there is more to write, but I’m going to leave it at this for now. The very amateur linguistics is covered (I really should get back to school and get some proper training before I continue).

4 Responses to “back, again”

  1. John Says:

    Some interesting observations about dialectal variation there. With so much merger among consonants like that, I wonder how effective communication remains possible because there must be even more homophones than there are in putonghua.

    The pronunciation in Chengdu is much like the rest of the country with simplification of the affricates and even loss of any real distinction between s and x. Here there’s l~n allophony and a little l~r, but the latter is not as distinct as it was in Fuzhou or even Benniu.

  2. wangbo Says:

    I am, of course, exaggerating about Jiuma’s accent.

    But: l~n allophony is fairly common south of the Yangtse from what I’ve experienced and heard from others. l~r surprises me, though, not because it’s so unknown, but because it’s so Japanese-sounding.

  3. John Says:

    That’s what got me about the accent in Benniu. It sounded like they were speaking Japanese or Korean. Still got the same thing in Fuzhou and get it here as well, but they don’t share that odd southern Jiangsu accent.

  4. wangbo Says:

    No, I meant only that the l~r thing sounds like a typically Japanese “mistake”, nothing more than that. I have heard people from various parts of China say that one southeastern dialect or another- usually “Zhejianghua”- sounds like Japanese, but I very deliberately spent my short trips to southern Jiangsu sampling whatever brews were available- as you well know- so I can’t and won’t comment on that accent.