Dialects of Mandarin

From Academic Kids

Mandarin, when used in the broad sense to refer to most of the Chinese dialects spoken over northern and southwestern China, covers many variations. This is manifested in two ways:

  1. Various dialects of Mandarin cover a huge area containing nearly a billion people. As a result, there are pronounced regional variations in pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar encountered as one moves from place to place. These regional differences are as pronounced as (or more so than) the regional versions of the English language found in England, Scotland, Ireland, Australia, Canada, and the United States. Two speakers of northeastern dialect and southwestern dialect can hardly communicate.
  2. Standard Mandarin has been promoted very actively by the PRC, the ROC, and Singapore as a second language. As a result, native speakers of both Mandarin varieties and non-Mandarin Chinese varieties frequently flavor it with a strong infusion of the speech sounds of their native tongues. Spoken Taiwanese Mandarin, for instance, has become a fairly consistent variant of standard Mandarin as defined by educational authorities. Mandarin is also sometimes imprecisely referred to as Beijingese (Běijīng hu or Běijīng fāngyn), or a "Beijing drawl" Jīng pinzi (京片子). In Taiwan, those espousing Taiwan independence often insist on using the term Beijing hua instead of Guoyu in order to promote the idea that Taiwanese should be their new national language.

Generally speaking, the local pronunciations of people from other Mandarin-speaking areas depart more and more from the standard as distance from Beijing increases. Some areas, such as Heilongjiang, have pronunciations that are not significantly different from the standard, though this is the exception rather than the rule. Cities very close to Beijing, such as Tianjin, Baoding, Shenyang, or Dalian, already have pronunciations that are markedly different. In general Mandarin can be divided into the following dialect areas:

In addition, Jin is sometimes categorized under Mandarin, as the Qin-jin subdivision. However, current practice tends to set it apart as a separate division on equal footing with Mandarin.

See List of Chinese dialects for a comprehensive listing of major Chinese dialects, including Mandarin dialects.



Due to differences in pronunciation, not all variations of spoken Mandarin are readily mutually intelligible. Specifically, according to SIL International [1] (http://www.ethnologue.org/show_language.asp?code=CHN):

Mandarin varieties in the Lower Plateau in Shaanxi are not readily intelligible with Putonghua [Standard Mandarin]. Mandarin varieties of Guilin and Kunming are inherently unintelligible to speakers of Putonghua.

In addition, persons speaking forms of Mandarin which not completely intelligible with Standard Mandarin will often conceptualize their speech as distinct from Standard Mandarin. Educated speakers of the official language of instruction living in southwestern cities such as Guilin and Kunming will be found to speak quite adequate Standard Mandarin, as well as their own mother tongue. However, they will conceptualize their mother tongue to be different than Standard Mandarin.

In addition, it is not uncommon for two speakers who both think of themselves as speaking Standard Mandarin to find it difficult to understand each other.


  • People in both Manchuria and in southern areas mix initials zh, ch, sh and z, c, s , substituting one for the other. (zhi becomes zi, chi becomes ci, shi becomes si, and ri or may sound like IPA .) This is also common in the Mandarin spoken in Taiwan. Most other Mandarin-speaking areas do have separate zh ch sh and z c s, but some have them distributed differently from standard Mandarin.
  • The set of initials j- q- x- is the result of merger between historical gi- ki- hi- and zi- ci- si- . Some dialects keep these separate still. Most that do make the distinction have zi- ci- si- kept with their original pronunciations (the unique pronunciation used in Beijing opera falls into this category). Others, especially some of the Jiao-Liao dialects, tend to have gi- ki- hi- kept close to their original forms as well.
  • Many southwestern Mandarin dialects mix f- and hu- , substituting one for the other in some or all cases. For example, fei "fly" and hui "dust" may be merged in these areas.
  • In some (especially southern) areas people do not distinguish between initial l- and n- sounds, and may merge them in some or all words, to either l- or n-.
  • People in many parts of Mandarin-speaking areas use different initial sounds some or most of the time where standard Mandarin uses initial r- . Common alternatives include y-, l-, n-, and w- .
  • Ng- , used as an initial in earlier forms of Chinese, has been lost in Beijing speech (and hence standard Mandarin) but remains in some form in some varieties of Mandarin.
  • The dialects of Xi'an and Lanzhou have wherever standard Mandarin has zhu- chu- shu- ru- . E.g. "pig" for standard Mandarin zhu , "water" for standard Mandarin shui , "soft" for standard Mandarin ruan , and so forth.


  • In many widely scattered Mandarin dialects, finals ai ei ao ou are pronounced as monophthongs (i.e. with no glide).
  • Beijing Mandarin and Northeastern Mandarin underwent more vowel mergers than many other varieties of Mandarin. For example:
Character Meaning Standard
(Ji Lu)
Standard Mandarin finals such as e, o, ai, ei, ao, u, e, and ie often turn up unpredictably as other vowels in other dialects. The rules are complex and must be put into the context of Middle Chinese phonology (especially interactions with final stop consonants) to make any sense.
  • The medial -u- , occurring with an alveolar consonant, is often lost in southwestern Mandarin. Hence we get dei "right" where standard Mandarin has dui , ten "swallow" where standard Mandarin has tun .
  • Southwestern Mandarin have gai kai hai in a few (not all) words where standard Mandarin has jie qie xie . This is a stereotypical feature of southwestern Mandarin, since it is so easily noticeable. E.g. hai "shoe" for standard xie, gai "street" for standard jie.
  • In some areas (especially southwestern) final -ng changes into -n . This is especially prevalent in the rhyme pairs -en/-eng and -in/-ing . As a result, jīn "gold" and jīng "capital" merge in those dialects.
  • Some dialects of Mandarin have a final glottal stop in certain words. See the second point under "Tones", below.
  • R-coloring, a characteristic feature of Mandarin, works quite differently in the southwest. Whereas standard Mandarin generally has much of the syllable intact after adding the rhotic final -r , in the southwest the -r replaces the nearly the entire rhyme.


  • In general, no two Mandarin-speaking areas have the exact same set of tone values. On the other hand, most Mandarin-speaking areas have very similar tone distribution -- for example, the dialects of Jinan, Chengdu, Xi'an etc. all have 4 tones that correspond quite well to the Beijing tones of 55, 35, 214, and 51. The exception to this rule lies in the distribution of ancient entering tone words, which are treated differently in different dialects of Mandarin. (See chart below)
  • The entering tone, a tone of Middle Chinese, is kept in Jianghuai dialects and a minority of Southwestern dialects. It has short duration compared to the other tones, and wherever it occurs, the syllable ends with a glottal stop . This is in common with non-Mandarin varieties of Chinese, such as Jin and Wu. (Even more conservative varieties such as Cantonese may have a full set of final stop consonants, such as -p, -t, -k, associated with the entering tone.) Older dictionaries such as Mathews' Chinese-English Dictionary mark entering tone characters with a superscript 5.
  • Standard Mandarin employs many neutral tones for the second syllables of words (syllables whose tone contour is so short and light that it is difficult or impossible to discriminate) -- this is also characteristic of northern dialects. However, in many areas, especially in the south, the tones of both syllables are made clear -- this is also characteristic of non-Mandarin varieties of Chinese in the south.

Tone distribution variation:

V- = unvoiced initial consonant
L = sonorant initial consonant
V+ = voiced initial consonant (not sonorant)

Middle Chinese Tone Ping
"level tone"
"rising tone"
"departing tone"
"entering tone"
Middle Chinese Initial V- L V+ V- L V+ V- L V+ V- L V+
Beijing Yin Ping Yang Ping Shang Qu redistributed
with no pattern
Qu Yang Ping
Northeastern Qu Yang Ping
Ji-Lu Yin Ping Qu Yang Ping
Jiao-Liao Shang Qu Yang Ping
Zhongyuan Yin Ping Yin Ping Yang Ping
Lan-Yin Qu Qu Yang Ping
Southwestern Yang Ping Yang Ping Yang Ping
Jianghuai Ru Ru Ru

Tone contour variation:

Tone name Yin Ping Yang Ping Shang Qu Ru
Beijing Beijing 55 35 214 51
Northeastern Harbin 44 24 213 52
Ji-Lu Tianjin 21 35 113 53
Shijiazhuang 23 53 55 31
Jiao-Liao Yantai 31 (55) 214 55
Zhongyuan Zhengzhou 24 42 53 312
Luoyang 34 42 54 31
Xi'an 21 24 53 44
Tianshui 13 53 24
Lan-Yin Lanzhou 31 53 33 24
Yinchuan 44 53 13
Southwestern Chengdu 44 21 53 213
Xichang 33 52 45 213 31
Kunming 44 31 53 212
Wuhan 55 213 42 35
Liuzhou 44 31 53 24
Jianghuai Yangzhou 31 35 42 55 5
Nantong 21 35 55 42, 213* 4, 5*

* Dialects in and around the Nantong area typically have many more than 4 tones, due to influence from the neighbouring Wu dialects.


In general, the greatest variation occurs in slang, in kinship terms, in names for common crops and domesticated beasts, for common verbs and adjectives, and other such everyday terms. The least variation occurs in "formal" vocabulary -- terms dealing with science, law, or government.

Northeastern Mandarin, in particular, has a number of borrowings from Altaic languages not shared by other varieties of Mandarin.


Sentence-final particles

Especially prominent in conversational Chinese, sentence-final particles alter the inherent meaning of a sentence by changing its sentence construction. Much like vocabulary (of which it is a hyponym of), particles can vary a great deal with regards to the locale. For example, the particle 嘛 (ma), which is used in most northern regionalects to denote obviousness or contention, is replaced by 哟 (yo) for southern usage. More examples persist in everyday colloquialism.


One feature of southwestern Mandarin is its frequent use of noun reduplication, which is almost not used in standard Mandarin. So in Sichuan we hear baobao "handbag" where Beijing has baor.

Mandarin and the Educational System

In both Mainland China and Taiwan, Mandarin in predominantly Han Chinese is taught by immersion starting in elementary school. After the second grade, the entire educational system is in Mandarin, except for local language classes that have been taught for a few hours each week in Taiwan starting in the mid-1990's.

Social Implications

In northern China, Sichuan, and other areas where the "Northern" language is spoken, the local variations of Mandarin are the mother tongues of most of the people who live in those regions. The era of mass education in Mandarin has not erased these earlier regional differences. In the south, the interaction between Mandarin and local variations of Chinese has produced local versions of the "Northern" language that are rather different from that official standard Mandarin in both pronunciation and grammar. For example, the Mandarin spoken in Taiwan by students who speak Taiwanese (a dialect of Southern Min) or Hakka as their mother tongue is usually spoken with a grammar and accent that renders it different from the Kuoyu standard, creating a version of Mandarin commonly known as Taiwan Mandarin.

Although Mandarin is considered the standard dialect, speaking Mandarin without the local accent or speaking Mandarin instead of the local dialect can mark a person as being an outsider or as someone who is not "a regular guy." Thus most Chinese, including Chinese political leaders themselves, do not bother to learn to speak Mandarin with the official standard accent. In some cases, such as with both Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-Shek this results in the political leaders' speech being largely unintelligible to large numbers of Chinese. One other consequence of this linguistic diversity, is that Chinese politics does not have a strong tradition of speech-making and a great amount of political discourse occurs in writing.


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