Dalian dialect and tone… we'll optimistically call this Part 1

Better late than never, I decided to attempt to pursue the no-longer-so recent statements on Language Log about Dalian dialect (or topolect, as Victor Mair, the author of the post, more accurately calls it).

The discussion arose as the result of a sign in Dalian that was full of mysterious and wonderful Chinglish, all of which turned out to be the fault of Google Translate. Of interest to the post at hand, the vendor was selling 火勺, which Google Translate unhelpfully renders as “fire spoon”. What is this mysterious 火勺, if not a device for moving coals around? It’s actually a type of , but apparently this food, or possibly just the name, isn’t widely found in China. What other parts of China do have is 火烧. The question raised in the Language Log post is whether 火勺 could be a local rendering of 火烧. In standard Mandarin, 火勺 is pronounced huǒsháo and 火烧 huǒshāo. In other words, the only difference between the two is the tone on the second syllable. The first has a rising tone; the second has a high level tone. We foreigners would confuse the two in a heartbeat, but we’d expect that Chinese speakers would be able to keep their tones straight.

But … welcome to the wonderful world of dialectology. Even in Mandarin speaking areas, there’s a vast range of pronunciation. Standard Mandarin is taught in schools. What’s spoken in the home and on the street may sound drastically different. My general impression from flipping through a book about Chinese dialects a long time ago (somebody better start fact checking me here) is that the tones can be highly variable; go to another village and you’ll get another set of tones.

According to Mair, Dalian dialect has no rising tone. Rising (second) tone words are pronounced as either first (high level) or fourth (falling) tone. So of course, having no actual second tone, Dalian speakers might substitute second tone 勺 for first tone 烧 when writing down the name of this food.

But is it true? In an attempt to find out, I finally decided to ask an native Dalian-ren. (Well, ok, my husband finally decided to ask–good thing, as this report is undoubtedly more accurate with the help of his Chinese in the conversation.) He had certainly heard of 火勺–and was surprised that we had never tried it. He said there was no such thing as 火烧–he assumed that I was getting it confused with 烧饼. Definite point in favor of the “local name for a more widely eaten food” theory.

But did this result from a tone confusion? When asked how 火勺 is pronounced in Dalian dialect, he gave us a (heavily er-huaed) huǒsháo. In subsequent conversation about the food, I could be convinced that shao was toneless (as it’s “supposed to” be in Dalian), but in isolation, there was definitely a (supposedly non-existent) rising tone. We asked a few more questions about how various words are pronounced and got some second tones and some non-second tones where standard Mandarin has second tones. But if anything, there was a tendency to turn second tones into third tones, not first or fourth tones. For example, when asked how rénmínlù would be pronounced in Dalian dialect, we heard yěnmínlù. (That’s third-second instead of second-second.) When we asked directly about tones in Dalian dialect, we were told that second tones are seldom used and fourth tones are emphasized. So initial research suggests that, if there has been a local transformation in writing from 火烧 to 火勺, Dalian dialect is not to blame.

Now, the linguists among you are probably feeling a little skeptical about my conclusions at this point, and you should be. This is why I’m optimistically calling this “Part 1″. Potential problems with my data:

- Although the Chinese person we asked is native to Dalian, he can speak fairly standard Mandarin, and did so during this conversation. This might affect his rendering of Dalian dialect.

- He might not even call himself a Dalian-ren (someone who’s native to Dalian) because at least one of his grandparents is from Shandong. This might be significant for our purposes since he lived with his grandparents for much of his life. He certainly speaks something that is not standard Mandarin when speaking to people who speak local dialects–but perhaps we’re getting some Shandong dialect thrown in with the Dalian dialect.

- He doesn’t self-report tones very accurately, so it’s possible that his opinions about Dalian tones are not actually referring to the tones we think they’re referring to, and even if they are they might or might not descriibe actual patterns in the dialect. (It’s pretty typical for people who haven’t been trained to describe language to be pretty inaccurate when they try to do so.)

- A sample size of one is always reason for skepticism.

More research to come, I hope, but don’t hold your breath waiting …

2 thoughts on “Dalian dialect and tone… we'll optimistically call this Part 1

  1. Hi, I am a Dalianese, and my major is psycho-linguistics. I’m doing a Dalian dialect attitude study now. By accident, I searched your post here and found it’s interesting. I can help if you still go on with this.

    • Thanks for commenting. Although I haven’t been pursuing it myself, I’d be very interested in knowing the results of your study, and also your impression of what’s going on with Dalian tones. Where are you studying?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>