Minzu Accented Mandarin

I was recently speaking to a woman (in English, for what it’s worth) about her own language use. She was raised in Northeast China, though in a Korean speaking household. School was in Mandarin until university which was in Mandarin fading to Japanese, thanks to her major.

I usually have great faith in polyglots when it comes to pronunciation, but in this case she kept saying things in a very Korean way. “Sue” would come out ㅅㅠ xioo instead of su as in Suzhou. The su pronunciation was easily enough elicited, but not her default. so i asked her if, when speaking Mandarin, she had a distinctly Korean accent, to which she said yes. I found it a little surprising, but of course if most of the peers of her youth were also primarily Korean speakers, it makes sense.

I’m writing about it now to as the readers if you have had similar experiences with people among the less obviously peripheral minzu.

Have you typically found it to be the case than people of Zhuang, chaoxian or Hui backgrounds have exhibited different accents than their Han peers?

14 responses to “Minzu Accented Mandarin”

  1. Kellen says:

    Apologies for some of the above formatting. I wrote this with the WordPress iPhone app, which I now realise sucks real bad. ㅅㅠ should be 슈 and su as in Suzhou should be 苏. Unfortunately I’m not able to fix these or other problems at the moment.

  2. Chris Waugh says:

    Absolutely. There is a Korean restaurant around the corner from my Beijing apartment I frequent whose staff (it seems to be family-run), although they have changed a bit over the years, have consistently spoken with a Korean accent. The ladies I asked many moons ago said they’re from the border region of Jilin and are Chaoxian. The fact that everybody working there since has had the same accent means I haven’t asked again.

    And I had several Uighur students at my school in Tongzhou and got to know a Uighur family running a restaurant across the road from that school who also spoke Putonghua with distinctly Uighur accents – and tones at least as buggered up as mine. There was another Uighur restaurant a bit further away I visited on occasion, and my overriding memory of that place is that the family running the place spoke Uighur among the adults, but distinctly Uighur accented Putonghua to their toddler. Read into that what you will, but Kellen, it reminds me of concerns of the potential death of Shanghaihua caused by Shanghainese parents only speaking Putonghua to their kids. It also reminds me of several of my students – Han, from almost all over the country – who insist they never learnt their hometown dialect because their parents insisted on Putonghua only.

  3. Aaron says:

    My former Mandarin conversation partner here in Japan fits the above description pretty much to a T—Chaoxian-zu family, born and raised in NE China, studied Japanese. She has trouble distinguishing z, c, s from zh, ch, sh, both in Mandarin and English. I could get her to pronounce both, but only with some prompting.

  4. Kellen says:

    the mandarin-only parent is a situation ive seen all too often. it’s good to see that theyre looking out for the wellbeing of their kids, even if it will cost the culture. i’m reminded of the huton loving foreigners and the warm dry home seeking beijing natives who are unwillingly the subject of being saved from modernity. far be it for me to ask kids to learn shanghainese against the perception that it will hurt their future prospects. still, sad from the linguuistic point of view.

    uyghurs with accents are nothing new, as many dont learn mandarin until later in life. im more interested in the hui and zhuang situations as they are more likely to have fully assimilated mandarin in their lives while uyghurs are outsider from the start.

    sounds exactly like my experience.

  5. Chris Waugh says:

    Kellen, I raised the Uighurs because although most had been born and raised in Xinjiang until being sent off to this school on the eastern edge of Beijing, there was this one Uighur family that had settled down, built up their business, and were raising their child to speak Putonghua. It was interesting to see a restaurant full of Uighur staff speaking to each other in Uighur but to the toddler only in Uighur-accented Putonghua.

    And I suspect we agree on the minority/local languages, these are issues we’ve discussed plenty before.

  6. Kellen says:


    Certainly didn’t mean to sound contradictory. I was saying it more of a statement on my own feelings on the issue.

    I admit I’ve only ever seen Uyghurs speak to their children in Uyghur, but what you saw is more than likely to become a trend. The fact that they’d really settled down in Beijing is another interesting point, as most Uyghur families I got to know were more along the lines of migrant workers or short-term relocations than anything else.

  7. Zrv says:

    Several of you have drawn an important distinction between speakers who learn a second language as adults, and therefore speak it with an accent, and whole communities who speak with a distinctive accent across generations.

    The latter situation, which Kellen was describing of the Korean community in the northeast, seems strange but is in fact extremely common when whole communities become bilingual, and can persist even after the community loses its first language. In Los Angeles today it is easy to encounter people who appear to be speaking English with a Spanish accent, and you might naturally conclude that English is their second language. But in fact it is their first language; they belong to a community of English speakers that have a Spanish-influenced dialect of English.

    The modern dialectal diversity of Chinese is probably attributable in large part to this process playing out over a large geographic and time scale. For example, most of the Han of southern China are in fact descended from non-Han peoples (Tai-Kadai, Austroasiatic, Hmong-Mien) who lived in that part of China before they assimilated to the Han moving southward from the central plains. As part of that assimilation process, they learned Chinese imperfectly, with influence from their native languages. The result was a large community speaking distinctly accented Chinese. Subsequent generations learned that distinct form of Chinese as their first, native language. (And accent isn’t the only part of it; vocabulary and grammar are influenced as well.)

    Indeed, you can think of the divergence of Chinese over the last 2000 years in every part of the country as resulting in part from this process, which continues today. Northern Mandarin is the result of large numbers of Khitan, Jurchen, Mongolians, Manchus, and other northern peoples imperfectly learning Chinese as a second language; Yue (Cantonese) languages are the result of large numbers of Dai, Zhuang, and other southern peoples imperfectly learning Chinese as a second language; and so on.

    Even if all the Koreans in the northeast assimilate to the point where they stop speaking Korean, their form of Chinese will probably lead to a distinctive northeastern dialect, with identifiable substratum elements from Korean. We can observe similar processes happening in the zones where Chinese meets Tibetan, where Chinese meets Qiang, and so on.

    There’s nothing particularly unique to China about these processes. English spoken in Minnesota is distinctive precisely because of Scandinavian accents in English ending up influencing the regional dialect.

    It’s interesting to think about all the modern varieties of Chinese as “bad” forms of Middle Chinese learned as a second language by speakers of other languages! That’s a bit oversimplified, but there’s some truth in it.

  8. Peter Nelson says:

    @Zrv I would agree there’s some truth in it, but it’s probably worth distinguishing borrowings (and other results of language contact) from divergances that result from language change over time. I must admit that my knowledge of the former is decidedly lacking (and so this blog post is interesting!). I remember something in Norman’s Chinese about Mongolian influencing Mandarin, but I can’t check it since the Chinese postal system lost my copy. :'(

  9. Zrv says:

    Although there’s still a lot we don’t know about this, languages in isolation seem to change very slowly. A great deal of the causes of divergence from a common ancestor seem to be due to the different contact situations that speakers are in. Because contact influence often leads to very regular changes, the results can be indistinguishable from purely internal language change over time.

  10. 0 0 says:

    “Spanish-influenced dialect of English” -Zvr


    [edit: this comment is from a fake email address and frankly, even if it weren’t, I’m not at all clear what the point of it is. I’m approving it in case it’s clear to anyone else. Mostly if semi-nonsensical comments come through I just delete them since they’re usually a way for spammers to get approved.

    To the author of this comment: Please elaborate a bit. -kp]

  11. 0 0 says:

    Sorry, my point was that I think you’re being quite liberal with the term ‘dialect’…you’re going out on quite a large limb by calling what some people in LA speak a “Spanish-influenced dialect of English”

  12. Kellen says:

    0 0,
    thanks for coming back. glad you’re human.

    as for dialect, I’m right there with Zrv. im not sure it’s even possible to be too liberal with dialect. so while I can’t say what Zrv is thinking, I’m guessing it’s in line with my own thoughts, so I’d be happy to make the argument.

  13. Zrv says:

    0 0,

    It’s regionally based, spoken by a sizable community, and has distinctive phonology, syntax, and lexicon. Under most definitions of “dialect”, that would qualify as a distinct dialect. But there is wide variation in how people understand what the term “dialect” means. Perhaps you are operating with a different definition. What is the nature of the large limb that I have gone out on? We could use the more neutral term “variety”. The label isn’t of much interest to me; it’s the phenomenon that is of interest.

  14. Tenzin Ngawang says:

    Hi, it seems to me that Mongolian has a unique accent in pronouncing AO sound. In fact it is a phonetic rule in Mongolian that when you have -ɑʊ and -ɑGʊ you will get -ʊː . So words like 包头 sounds like pʊː tuː

    Also in Tibetan, aɪ, ʷɔ are simply æ and o.

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