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Wu Chinese Language

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Overview: The term “Wu” is mostly considered to be a technical term used by linguists; those who encounter the language in other contexts are likely to call it simply “Chinese,” “Shanghainese,” or one of the many local dialect names. It is popular in and around China’s largest city, Shanghai, and in the surrounding Jiansu and Zhejiang provinces. Although they are spoken by many people, the Wu dialects are not usually mutually intelligible with Mandarin Chinese, and so those who speak Wu natively are almost always fluent in Mandarin as well.

During the 1950s, as the People’s Republic of China took power, it sought to establish Mandarin as a lingua franca throughout the nation. Efforts were made to persuade the people of the Shanghai region to speak Wu less frequently in favor of Mandarin, with mixed success. Although people are technically supposed to speak Mandarin in public, official, or formal situations, they do not always adhere to the rules, and these rules are also not strictly enforced. Something of a blend of Wu and Mandarin has emerged, which some consider to be threatening to the existence of a few of the older dialects.

 

Roots of the language: A language family that is nearly three thousand years old, the Wu dialects are said to have been spoken by the ancient Wu and Yue peoples of the Yangtze River Delta. These states, which were considered barbaric by the Chinese dynasties, became increasingly involved in Chinese politics before being absorbed into the larger empire. It is unknown to what degree the modern language of Wu has changed from the way it was centuries ago, but it is generally agreed to have descended directly from the states of Wu and Yue.

The Suzhou variety was perhaps the most important dialect of Wu in earlier times, used by scholars, officials, and other members of the elite. It was supplanted by the Shanghai dialect in the early twentieth century as migrants flooded Shanghai, making that city one of the largest and most powerful in the region (and in China as a whole). The Shanghai dialect, sometimes referred to as “Shanghainese,” is now the dominant form of Wu, and lesser-spoken dialects might even be endangered. The Suzhou dialect, however, is still considered to have more features in common with the older, “pure” form of Wu that first came to be.

Language characteristics: The pronunciation differences that the Wu dialects have from Mandarin Chinese are proposed to be remnants of certain pronunciation characteristics typical of Middle Chinese (from roughly between the 7th and 10th centuries AD). Word order is generally less strict in Wu than it is in Mandarin, although the majority of phrases still follow the subject-verb-object pattern. Wu is often described by other Chinese speakers as having a soft, flowing quality to its pronunciation. The language is known for its complex pronoun system, which uses different sets of pronouns depending on whether or not the speaker is including the listener in the reference.

Written form: Most of the cultures that existed near the ancient Chinese state, whether or not they were Chinese themselves, adopted classical Chinese characters as their own writing system. This was true of the Wu and Yue people as well, whose writings are not easily distinguishable from those of other Chinese scholars in the same time period. While there are some differences in vocabulary and grammar, older Wu texts do not give much of an idea of what pronunciation must have been like, as Chinese characters do not reflect phonetic sounds. While Wu literature can be studied, much of the focus is necessarily on more modern pieces, or else on folklore and poetry.

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