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Is Shanghainese the Same as Mandarin Chinese?  

Mandarin Chinese, or Standard Chinese, is the official language of China. However, it’s not the only language Chinese locals are speaking. There are other regional languages and dialects spoken throughout China. 

In Shanghai, the locals use both Mandarin Chinese and its provincial dialect, Shanghainese. Though Shanghainese shares many similarities to Mandarin Chinese, it still has a lot of differences in pronunciation, tones, and vocabulary. Read on to discover more!

What is Shanghainese?

Shanghainese 上海话 (Shànghǎi huà), or Shanghai dialect, belongs to the Wu Chinese language group, the third most spoken Chinese language after Mandarin and Cantonese. With nearly 14 million speakers, it is also the largest single dialect of Wu Chinese. Shanghainese used to be the lingua franca of the entire Yangtze River Delta region (East China), but its popularity has declined in recent decades in comparison to Mandarin, the official language of China and also the main language used by the majority of Shanghai people today.

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Shanghainese vs. Mandarin: What are the differences?

Though Shanghainese and Mandarin Chinese use the same script (characters) and some overlapping vocabulary and grammar points, Shanghainese has its own pronunciation, tones, and wording. Let’s have a look at how they’re different from each other.  

1. Pronunciation 

Shanghainese is rich in vowels (e, ae, oe, a, ei, eu, i, ü, u, o, ou, ao) and consonants (b, d, g, p, t, k, ph, th, kh). What’s more special? This dialect uses many unique consonants, like “ng” (heavier n), “gh” (heavier vowel), which Mandarin does not have.

Like other Taihu Wu dialects, Shanghainese features voiced initials and affricates (a consonant that starts as a stop and ends as a fricative) that Mandarin does not have. For example, the word (strange) is pronounced as “jí” in Shanghainese but “qí” in Mandarin. 

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2. Tones

Shanghainese also has a different type of tone system. The Shanghainese tonal system shares more similarities with the Japanese pitch-accent system with two-level tonal contrasts – high and low, unlike Mandarin with its distinctive contour tones (5 tones with each tone having a different internal pattern of rising and falling pitch.)

For example, pái (card) is pronounced as “pài” when it comes after the character hóng (red). It is because the character hóng (red) has a high tone which will make the second syllable a low tone regardless of what character it is. 

In contrast, the pronunciation of pái will not be changed if it comes after 绿 lù (green). The explanation for this is that a low tone character like 绿 lù (green) will make the following character a high tone word no matter whatever character it is. 

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3. Vocabulary

For those who wonder what the biggest difference between Shanghainese and Mandarin Chinese is, we have the answer: vocabulary. This is the major distinction between Shànghǎihuà and Standard Chinese. 

Though there’s a vocabulary overlap between Shanghainese and Mandarin Chinese, Shanghainese only shares 29% lexical similarity with Mandarin. The other 71% of the words are different, including many basic, everyday words. Without any knowledge of Shanghainese vocabulary, outsiders will not be able to communicate with Shanghai people specifically and people who speak the Wu language generally.

This table illustrates the difference between Shanghainese and Mandarin Chinese. Check it out!

ShanghaineseMandarin ChineseEnglish
吾 (wú)我 (wǒ)I
侬 (nóng)你 (nǐ)You (singular)
伊 (yī)他/她/它 (tā)He/she/it
阿拉 (ā lā)我们 (wǒ men)We
㑚 (nuó)你们 (nǐ men)You (plural)
伊拉 (yī lā)他们 (tā men)They
侬好! (nóng hō)你好! (nǐ hǎo)Hello!
早晨好! (zō lǎng hō)早上好! (zǎo shang hǎo)Good morning!
晚安! (wö ä)晚安! (wǎn ān)Good night!
再喂! (zä wēi)再见! (zàijiàn)Good bye!
谢谢! (yá yà)谢谢! (xièxiè)Thank you!
用客气! (yōng kē qì)不客气! (bù kèqì)You’re welcome.
对弗起 (dēi fé qì)对不起 (duì bu qǐ)Excuse me…
吾叫 (wú jiō)我叫 (wǒ jiào)My name is…
吾从 (wú zóng)我来自 (wǒ láizì)I’m from…
零 (líng)零 (líng)zero
一 (yē)一 (yī)one
俩 (liáng)二 (èr)two
三 (sä)三 (sān)three
四 (sī)四 (sī)four
五 (ng)五 (wǔ)five
六 (ló)六 (liù)six
七 (qīe)七 (qī)seven
八 (be)八 (bā)eight
九 (jǐu)九 (jǐu)nine
十 (zé)十 (shí)ten

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The bottom line

Shanghainese is quite different from Mandarin in terms of pronunciation, tone, and vocabulary. Though this dialect is not as popular and useful as Mandarin Chinese, learning a little Shanghainese will enable you to make friends with Shanghai locals and win their hearts.

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