Jin Chinese?

See below for your chance at glory in the big smackdown: Jin Chinese vs Jìnshǎn Mandarin.

Language, or dialect?

Jin Chinese is right at the heart of the never-ending fangyan / language / dialect debate (e.g. here or here or here on Sinoglot). Jin is categorized by some as a top level fangyan (方言) in its own right, comparable to Mandarin, Cantonese, etc., while others insist Jin belongs under the broad wing of Mandarin where it should be classified as a sub-fangyan (次方言), parallel to, say, the Northeast dialect or Beijing dialect.

The location of Jin speakers makes the whole debate even more intriguing: they’re right next to Beijing, practically!

So is it true that the folks just west of Beijing are speaking an entirely different language?

Well, why take anyone else’s word for it? Go empirical! Head over to Phonemica and take a listen to some childhood stories from Plum (梅子), Phonemica’s first-ever Jin speaker.

The aforementioned chance at glory lies in understanding Plum’s speech thoroughly enough to propose a title for her recording. If you think of a title, please go to the Phonemica blog post to propose it.

More general Jin comments can go below. For the record, Phonemica is going to leave Jin out of the top level and treat it as Jìnshǎn Mandarin, although given how tough I find it to understand this recording, it’s a decision I may yet rue. After you have a listen, feel free to weigh in on the “intelligibility” part of Jin language / dialect classification, pro or con.

18 responses to “Jin Chinese?”

  1. It certainly is close to Mandarin. I do hear some regular differences. Much of it was not intelligible to me, but I am not a native speaker and my Mandarin listening skills can sometimes be suspect. I did glean a bit of what she was saying though.

    I wonder, when categorizing this language on the basis of this sample, shouldn’t it be taken into account that the speaker is college educated? It seems to me that high education levels would cause more interference from Modern Standard Mandarin. Thus, if Jinyu is really on the edge of mutual intelligibility with MSM, then a little bit of influence could push it into the “dialect” category. Anyway, it’s a very interesting edge-case.

    • Steve (Syz) says:

      George: yeah, I’d definitely consider college education a factor that might interfere to make her story more intelligible, more putonghuaish. Another factor: she was telling the story to me, a foreigner who she has only ever spoken putonghua with.

      On Phonemica we are in the process of getting our demographics sorted out to make this kind of influence more clear. Right now we include the education level. To that we’ll add the status of the person doing the interview: i.e. are they or are they not a native speaker of the fangyan that the interview is using. For the most part, I’d rather have fangyan interviews done by people who are native speakers of the same fangyan, but that’s not always possible.

      My interviewee, Plum, also asked me after the interview how much I could understand. I told her maybe 40%. Then she said something like, “Oh, so much? Maybe I still wasn’t really using the vocabulary I’d use if I were with someone from home.”

      So I think in her mind too the things we’re talking about are strong influences.

  2. Alexis Brossollet says:

    What this young lady is speaking in absolutely, undoubtebly, Mandarin (I do not pretend however to understand everything). So I guess the qualification as “sub-dialect” is not in doubt. But I think in fact it is a bad example of the language spoken in “Jin”, which is in fact centered on Shanxi and not on Hebei. In Shanxi, especiall south of the province, Jinyu is WAY more inintelligible ; I took a trip there a few years ago, and in a minibus we collectively rented for an excusrsion, even some Chinese couples from Peking and Mandchouria needed a “translation” into putonghua to understand what the driver was saying…

    • Steve (Syz) says:

      Alexis: there’s definitely going to be a wide range of speech even within Jìnshǎn Mandarin. Next time you go down that direction you should get us a recording!

      On the Phonemica blog, Chris Waugh commented to the same effect — that he might think of this as more Mandarin than Jin. I agree it’s a borderline case and before I posted this I was debating how to decide.

      I sent the recording to a friend of mine who’s a professor of linguistics specializing in Chinese dialects at Peking U. His response was this:


      This recording is definitely a northern dialect of Mandarin. I seem to hear entering tones [ie syllables that end in p, t, k or glottal stop], so it can be classified as Jìnshǎn Mandarin, so-called “Jin Chinese” — referring to the entering tone fangyan of Shanxi and adjacent areas.

      So yeah — borderline case probably. Also, it’s not hard to see which side of the language/dialect debate he sits on 😉

      • Alexis Brossollet says:

        Absolutely. It’s true that the northern Mandarin sub-dialects are supposed to cover a wider geographical area than the Cantonese ones which can reportedly be unintelligible from one small valley to the adjacent one. But differences still exist. As for a recording, I wish I had the occasion to contribute to your endeavor, and not only in South Shanxi, but I am in Indonesia now, where the language/dialect situation is even more complicated than in China (more than 500). Good luck !

  3. Daan says:

    Great post! I think I can get about one-third of what she’s talking about in the first few minutes, and this is the first time I’m listening to any Jìnshǎnhuà. It seems to be quite close to Standard Mandarin both grammatically and phonetically, so I can see why it’s being classified as a 次方言.

    A native speaker of Mandarin would, of course, probably understand much more of this recording, especially if they have some familiarity with Jìnshǎnhuà. And that familiarity plays a role is something which you also see for dialects of English, which really are what we should think of when we think of 次方言; 方言 are more like German/Dutch/Frisian/English, I’d say.

    For example, if you’ve never heard Hull English, give this one a try without reading the subtitles or the transcript below: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=skCEN7Mh7Qc I think it’s a safe bet many native speakers of English would find this hard to understand initially, but after some familiarisation things get much better. Similarly for many other dialects in the British isles.

    • Steve (Syz) says:

      I can’t stop laughing over that Dean Windass clip. Heck, even after reading the transcript I think I barely understand the gist — except for the name mixup, which is pretty easy to follow.

      Totally agree on the “fangyan are like German/Dutch/Frisian/English” analogy. 次方言 should be closer to “dialect”, but I’m suspecting that as we get deeper into Phonemica, we’re going to find plenty of mutual unintelligibility even within some 次方言.

    • Katie says:

      Interesting example of English dialect–you’re right, I could pick out maybe 25% the first time through. Reading along, I could pick out 98% … only, like Steve, I still have no idea what he’s talking about. (Then again, I don’t think I’ve ever watched a broadcast of a soccer/football match, except in Chinese when I was really bored once, so that might be part of the problem.)

      As to the Jin, I can understand more of it than I can either the Wu or the Cantonese recordings, so I guess I’d buy dialect. Although I’d be really curious to see how much a native Mandarin speaker could pick out from this–I don’t think my judgments count for much of anything.

  4. Zhang Binglin says:

    Whether Jin should be considered a Mandarin dialect depends on the terms of the classification. For example, if you were to say that Mandarin dialects don’t have oral stop codas, then Jin wouldn’t be a Mandarin dialect. But, does such a classification capture all the available evidence? (I don’t think so.) I suggest reading “Chinese Dialect Classification: A Comparative Approach to Harngjou, Old Jintarn, and Common Northern Wu” by Richard Simmons if you’re interested in this.

    • I don’t think a dialect should ever be classified based on a single feature. That seems like a broken system that won’t get at the underlying principle of mutual intelligibility.

      • Zhang Bingling says:

        I agree, George. That was what Zhao Yuanren proposed with voiced initials and Mandarin. I believe Jerry Norman likes to group dialects along several features, as well. I think the book mentioned above and David Prager Branner’s book — Problems in Comparative Chinese Dialectology — which is available for free as a PDF on his website do a good job of pointing out the problems these methods. One other thing, Li Rong wrote an article on why he thinks Jin should be classified separately; Li Rong. 1985. “Guanhua Fangyan de Fenqu”. In “Fangyan”. I have this if you want it.

        • Steve (Syz) says:

          I’m curious to read Li Rong’s article. I’m going to email you separately on that. He gets a lot of flack for the “separate language based on one feature” thing — it’s hard for me to believe he didn’t propose something a little more subtle.

  5. Dalt says:

    Is it still possible to register on Phonemica? I tried
    to no avail.

    • Steve (Syz) says:

      Yikes. sorry, Dalt. The url is an old one, that’s why it didn’t work. I see that you did manage to get registered eventually, but I’m approving this and putting it up in case anyone else ends up there. The correct address is http://phonemica.net/register.php. Thanks for letting us know. I’ll ask you offline if you remember how you got there.

  6. QinChn says:

    Well, I’d be more inclined to say it’s still 国语 mandarin rather than a dialect (or at the very most, a mutually intelligible dialect as opposed to unintelligible dialect if one wants to get very technical – kind of like pure Scots is to English). I’m not a native Chinese speaker, but I’ve lived 35% of my life in China, and I can understand 80% of what native Jin region speakers say (it’s seems to be no more intelligible from 北京话 than what hardcore 青岛话 is to 北京话). So I’m baffled that the debate exists in academic circles.

    • Have you spent a lot of time in a Jin-speaking area? You may have picked up the dialect a little on your own if that is the case.

      These debates exist because the answer to the question of what is a dialect and what is a language is not always obvious. There is, of course, a technical definition — if two variants are mutually intelligible they are dialects of the same language — but dialect continuums and multilingual or diglossic communities can make the lines fuzzy or difficult to determine experimentally. Have you listened to the sample? How much did you understand of it?

  7. Modu says:

    as a native speaker of Jin I can tell you at least one truth:

    back to my grandpa, he didn’t understand mandarin and he couldn’t speak it either, so it’s definitely mutual unintelligible back then.
    My dad can, due to the long term influence of in Mandarin TV and radio, understand mandarin but he can’t speak it.
    Me as a younger generation can speak and understand mandarin.

    Grammar difference exists and even bigger than most ppl actually believe. a lot of function words actually can’t written in chinese characters or they just don’t have the same meaning as they do in mandarin, this is a bit like what happened in Japanese, in which the function words need to written in Kana. On another hand Jin Chinese borrowed lot of words from the neighbors e.g. Mongols.

    • SYZ / Steve says:

      Hi Modu,
      Thanks for reviving a very old post! The example of your grandpa not even *understanding* mandarin is very interesting. That’s one of the tricky things with younger generations: below a certain age almost everyone can understand Mandarin, and below an even younger age almost everyone can speak it. The massive influence of putonghua on the fangyan makes classification a moving target.

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