January 27th, 2012
As in every year, we spent Spring Festival up in the village eating jiaozi, visiting relatives and blowing things up. Well, as family fuselighter in chief (i.e. the only one dumb enough to approach explosives of dubious origin with a naked flame (or lit cigarette, usually – ciggies don’t blow out in the wind). I have noticed my father in law is quite happy to lay fireworks out for me, but retreats quite a conspicuous distance when I light the fuse) while my wife, daugther, mother in law, brother in law and his wife, stayed inside, safe. And the fact my brother in law got married last year meant he had to visit absolutely all his relatives to introduce his wife. This meant a lot of squeezing our car through narrow village lanes, divided into two separate trips, with a boot-load of large, heavy gifts, the first trip with the car and an electric scooter filled to capacity, the second trip only the car as it wasn’t essential for my wife and daughter to visit everybody.
On the second trip we got to the house of a great uncle and great aunt. He’d had a firework explode next to him, deafening him in at least one ear, and was feeling poorly, so he sat on the kang and didn’t say much. Great aunt did most of the talking, and was in quite a nostalgic, teary mood. Now, I’d always had trouble understanding these two, but I’d always put it down to their advancing age and the trouble that can wreak with clear speech combined with the much stronger accents one seems to encounter in older, less educated people. Turns out there was more, and I should’ve recognised certain aspects of great aunt’s speech. Well, in my defence, I only see them once a year at Spring Festival, maybe also when there’s some big family event. So great aunt turned to me and said, “你还喝x吗？”, the x being a word I didn’t catch. Except what she said came out as “nǐ hái hā x ma?” I turned to my mother in law, who translated into standard Yanqinghua. Great aunt’s mood of weepy nostalgia meant I understood even less of the ensuing conversation, which seemed to be largely a review of her life and the people she’d known. Not being familiar with the history of her branch of the family didn’t help either. And it could’ve actually been a fascinating discussion to listen to. But a couple of phrases here and there stood out, for example, “不是这个的” came out as something like “basì jǐgede” and “是这个的” as “sì jǐgede”, with the ‘a’ in ‘ba’ being short and somewhat rounded, about halfway between a regular Pinyin ‘a’ and ‘o’ and somewhat schwa like, and the ‘i’ in sì being pronounced as if it were preceded by ‘x’ or ‘j’ rather than ‘s’.
I asked my mother in law as we left, and she said, “Oh, she’s from out west, Huailai County,” and I allowed myself a Homer Simpson moment. Her pronunciations of 喝 and 不 were Huailaihua pronunciations I’ve been familiar with for years now. I don’t know why I missed the x in “你还喝x吗？”, considering I was drinking tea it would most likely have been either 茶 or 水, both of which would’ve been pronounced pretty close to standard Putonghua, and which I must’ve heard in Huailaihua plenty of times before. I don’t know which part of Huailai she was from or why her accent seemed so much stronger or somehow subtly different from those of other Huailaihua speakers I’ve heard – all of whom come from one village in northeastern Huailai (ah, the perils of using your family for research) very close to the border and our village, and most of whom moved to Yanqing in their youth, as great aunt did.
Anyways, the next day my brother in law and his wife needed transport out to his mother’s home village – the aforementioned “one village in northeastern Huailai very close to the border and our village” – to visit her younger brother, uncle and aunt, the last of her family to still live in the village that bears their surname.
So I got the car warmed up (winter mornings out there can make it very hard to get the car started, and when it’s started it can take quite a few minutes before the oil in the gearbox is warmed up enough for me to move the gear lever easily or get it properly into gear, and I need to drive a long way before the wiper fluid is warm enough that it will squirt far enough to hit the windscreen, although it is supposed to be good down to minus 25 degrees and Yanqing is not supposed to get that cold – get a bucket of hot water? Done that, it freezes as soon as it hits the glass. But I digress), we loaded up, and off we went northwestwards up the G110. As we passed Xiaying, the Last Village in Beijing (at least, as you travel that road in that direction. Turn around and it’s the First), only 6 kilometres from our own village, the commentary turned to how Xiaying’s accent is quite distinct from that of our village’s. On the one hand, that makes sense, Xiaying is on the border with Huailai, logically speaking it’s accent should sit somewhere between those of Huailai and Yanqing. But it’s only six kilometres up the road.
A couple more kilometres took us winding under the G7 expressway and the Datong-Qinhuangdao Railway (which seems, so far as I can tell, to transport only coal in kilometres-long trains down to the port and the empty coal cars back to Datong for refilling. Fortunately the locomotives are all electric), then up to the border. We entered Hebei with a thud. Literally. There was a sign by the road proclaiming the Hebei border and a line level with that sign right across the road where the smooth G110 leading back into Yanqing dropped into a series of potholes, lumps, bumps, judders, shudders and shakes covered in the most cracked up tarseal you can imagine. The car went thud as it fell from smooth road to once-was-road. All road markings – lane markings, crossings, arrows, speed limits, whatever, disappeared, and with them went any attempt by the drivers to drive where they should’ve been. My brother in law’s talk went from the differences in different villages’ accents to, “Wow, this place hasn’t changed a bit! It’s exactly the same as last time I was here 10 years ago!” I’d been out there once before, the New Year after we got married when we had to do the same tour around absolutely all the relative’s houses, and my reaction was pretty similar, except I’m sure that after so many years of thousands of heavy trucks and no repairs, the road is in even worse state than the first time I was out there.
My brother in law, his wife, and myself where the only ones there who did not speak Huailaihua. Well, I’m not the most talkative type, and was there as driver only, so I kept to myself for the most part and just listened. My brother in law and his wife, both Yanqinghua speakers, took part in conversations, but his wife is even less talkative than me and he was deferential to his elders, so we were pretty much in a sea of Huailaihua. 喝 and 不 pronounced as the hā and ba described above, ‘h’s disappearing from ‘sh’ (hardly unique to Huailai, I know), generally the same pronunciations and rhythm patterns I know from when my mother in law code switches into Huailaihua.
My mother in law generally speaks Yanqinghua, sometimes to other natives from Huailai, like her sister or niece, who now live in Yanqing, but generally speaking, when she is talking to another Huailairen she switches to Huailaihua. Sometimes she code mixes and speaks to us in a mash up of Yanqinghua and Huailaihua, which can draw quite an amusing command to speak proper Yanqinghua from my wife. She can speak standard Putonghua when she wants to, but rarely wants to. What was amusing this time, though, was that she turned to me and forgot to switch back to either Yanqinghua or Putonghua, saying, “nǐ hái hā suì ma?” (你还喝水吗？). But two of the people there were a great uncle and great aunt of roughly a similar age as the great aunt in our village in Yanqing whose accent had given me so much trouble, and yet I understood them perfectly. Sure, there was no weepy nostalgia this time. But nor did I hear 这 pronounced jǐ. As I said, I don’t know which part of Huailai the great aunt in our village was from, but it felt like I’d had enough exposure to the Huailaihua of my mother in law’s home village that it no longer gives me any trouble.
And I left my cellphone in Yanqing, so I couldn’t get any surreptitious recordings. Sorry. You’ll just have to trust my transcriptions of the above remembered snippets of conversation. Oh, sure, I’ve never added any recordings before, but I might start doing that in the future if I get my recording act together.
But I do have to wonder, considering the huge amount of intermarriage between Yanqing and Huailai, how a series of three villages strung along the G110 separated by distances of only 6 to 7 kilometres can maintain distinct accents.
And as I was writing this, Firefox again ate the language bar. Language bars are kinda necessary for polyglot computer users, and having to close and reopen Firefox and rewrite the beginning of this post is a pain in the arse. I hope Firefox isn’t planning on making a habit of this.