Growing up Accentless

I had a conversation last night with a guy in one of the classes I’m taking. I’d noticed his Mandarin was straight out of the textbooks, so I asked where he was from. Turns out he’s from Ürümchi in Хіnjіаnɡ. The details have since been made unclear by baijiu, but I believe he said his father was from Manchuria and his mother was from Guangdong or Guangxi. They had volunteered to go to Хіnjіаnɡ after they were married, like so many Han of their generation, in search of wealth and success in the New Frontier.

We began talking about dialects (方言 was the word used). He said that they didn’t have a dialect, since it was a melting pot. Instead, the locals spoke with a wei dao 味道, a flavour, which from his examples is less an accent than a controlled slurring.

I went on to ask him if, after almost two decades of living in Хіnjіаnɡ, he’d been able to pick up any spoken Uуɡhuɾ. Not more than a few phrases, he said. Simple things like greetings. But not “thank you”. And not “bring me another beer”.

This, he said, was very typical of people his age growing up in Хіnjіаnɡ. You are born there of parents from somewhere else. Dialects and accents aren’t handed down to the new generation. The Uуɡhuɾs speak Mandarin when conversing with the Han population, but it’s rare enough for most people, he said, that there’s little inlfuence on the spoken Mandarin.

In a city as far from Beijing as one can reasonably get, a whole generation is speaking perfect Mandarin.

– – –

*You hear 味道 used like this in a lot of different places. I can’t say I’d encountered it before in terms of language, but the usage is completely unsurprising.

17 responses to “Growing up Accentless”

  1. Eric Havaby says:


    Everyone has an accent unless they are dumb. Speaking textbook Mandarin is an accent.

  2. Eric Havaby says:

    Yes. Mute.

  3. Kellen says:

    Right. That was meant as hyperbole. I know that an accent isn’t really something one can be without.

  4. Eric Havaby says:


    I don’t think so. Hyperbole is akin to exaggeration.

    Irony, perhaps.

  5. Kellen says:

    Nah. I’m gonna stick with hyperbole on this one. Exaggeration isn’t so far off.

  6. smyth says:

    “the locals spoke with a wei dao 味道, a favour

     [thanks. typo fixed. -Kellen]

  7. Zev Handel says:

    Some linguists make a useful distinction between what in English is called “accent” and “dialect”, though I’m not sure if these would map directly onto your classmate’s use of the terms wèidao and fāngyán. In this formulation a dialect is a regional form of speech that differs notably from other varieties in lexicon, phonology, syntax, and morphology. An accent refers only to differences in pronunciation. So I can speak standard English with a New England accent; that’s different from speaking a New England dialect of English. Many of us, if we move to different parts of the country, end up losing many dialectal features while retaining an accent.

    Now, it’s possible to imagine that this is the sort of distinction that your classmate is drawing. He might be claiming that people in Xinjiang speak more or less standard Mandarin rather than a regional dialect, though with a particular accentual “flavor”.

  8. Kellen says:

    Let me clarify. Acentless, which I know isn’t really a possibility, refers to the Mandarin he spoke with me. Everyone tries to speak to me in standard mandarin but then there are still accents for me to contend with.

    Had I known this would go in the direction it has I might not have been so casual.

  9. Brendan says:

    A similar thing was true of Shenzhen a while ago: not that people were being sent there, but that they were going there from elsewhere and using Mandarin as a lingua franca. I haven’t spent enough time there to know whether or not it’s resulted in Mandarin as “accentless” (and what a wicked, wrong, bad person you are to use that word, Kellen!), but I do remember reading somewhere a while ago that kids in Shenzhen are starting to speak Cantonese as an assertion of regional identity. It’d be interesting to see whether or not that happened with Han in Xinjiang — especially since they’d be harder put to find Sinitic languages with which to assert their identity.

  10. I doubt we’ll see a bunch of Han youth picking up Uyghur just to piss off their old man. Maybe they can take up Xibe.

  11. Porfiriy says:

    I don’t know what Cantonese’s status is on the social hierarchy but I assure you in Xinjiang Uyghur is unambiguously considered a lesser, coarser, and “less valuable” language. Kellen’s doubts are founded. I think 9 times out of 10 instances where I mentioned I was studying Uyghurs to local Han they would grimace and ask why I was doing such a useless thing when “Uyghurs speak Mandarin anyway.”

    Risking the danger of eliciting an analogy, could you imagine the red-blooded Amuurrrican teens of Texas learning Spanish from their Hispanic neighbors to accentuate a “Texan” identity?

  12. Porfiriy says:

    Re: the op; I found in *Xinjiang* itself the Mandarin accents of local Han individuals was refreshingly “textbook” (apparently “accentless” is taboo?). I found this to be patently unique; as your friend observed in Xinjiang because it’s a “melting pot” there’s no dominant local Sinic dialect to flavor the Mandarin of every Mandarin speaker. As a result, *particularly* among the “second generation Xinjiangren,” that is not the generation that moved there from Gansu or Sichuan or Shandong, but *those* people’s kids, the accent is quite pristine.

    There is of course a dominant local language, but it doesn’t flavor any deomgraphic except the Uyghurs for the reasons in my comment above. In fact, I think there’s a comedian – Uyghur? Han? I forget – who gets his laughs from doing Mandarin in a Uyghur accent.

    To his credit though Uyghur-accented Mandarin is pretty awesome. Especially for foreign learners of Mandarin, since they speak like we do – without tones (or with poor ones).

    I can’t count the number of times I’ve been with Uyghurs speaking toneless, accented Mandarin to Han people and the Han person is completely perplexed whereas I understood the Uyghur’s Mandarin perfectly. Because for me, as a foreign language learner, the tones aren’t really that important for deciphering meaning.

  13. Bruce says:

    I’ve been in Urumqi twice, perhaps about two weeks in all. Several things about language there.

    I found the “flavor” very “Xibei.” I liked it immediately, and experienced it as being quite similar to working-class Xi’an Mandarin. Very earthy, very masculine.

    A bit of Urumqi’s lingo is captured in Wang Gang’s “English” (英格力士,王刚著), a review of which you can see on my site at

    I would never have classified Urumqi Chinese as “textbook” Mandarin, or accentless. If you want that sort of Putonghua — Beijing accent, minus the annoying “rr,” and hyper-standard use of vocabulary — I would recommend you go to Lanzhou. Perhaps because of its relative isolation and the fact that professional soldiers and their families from all over China are often stationed there, I have found that young people from Lanzhou (whom I met elsewhere in China) speak squeaky-clean Mandarin. A bit odd, really.

    Finally, re: the idea that any native Mandarin speaker in Urumqi would intentionally speak Mandarin with a Uighur accent or learn a decent amount of Uighur (as some migrants to Shenzhen learn Cantonese), that strikes me as very, very unlikely to become a trend in my lifetime. The status of Uighur in Xinjiang is well below that of Spanish in Texas, based on what I saw. My driver in Kashgar, a Han who has lived all his life in the city which is 90%+ Uighur, was proud of his ability to haggle a bit in the lingo. But he didn’t know much more than the numbers.

    Han disinclination to learn Uighur is not based on the fact that the Uighurs can speak some Mandarin; rather, it appears to be motivated by a firm disinterest — or even intense dislike — of Uighur culture as they know it. I realize that is a blanket statement, and it is based on short visits to Xinjiang, but studies such as those done by Blaine Kaltman (Under the Heel of the Dragon) document the mutual animosity painfully clearly.

  14. Bruce: I never doubted the reasons for Mandarin youth not learning Uyghur were anything but a distaste for everything Uyghur. The example you give of the driver ought to be shocking, but then I know a fair number of foreigners who are of about the same level of desire to learn the language while living in places like Shanghai and Beijing.

    I’ve only been to Ürümchi once and it was a good year before I learned any Mandarin so I only had conversations in English and Arabic, and only with Uyghurs or other ethnic minorities. I’ve since then known a few younger (early 20s) Han guys from the city, all of whom have had pretty standard Mandarin. But then they also are well enough off that they could return to Jiangnan with their families. So I wonder what sort of background the people with whom you spoke have.

  15. Syz says:


    Beijing accent, minus the annoying “rr”

    Will you southerners stop at no insult? I suggest a punishment of remedial listening at Beijing Sounds.

  16. Kellen says:

    @Syz: Ive been waiting for your response to the slight. Even pirates must defend their honour.

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