This article is about the dialect. For the people, see Shanghainese people.
上海話 / 上海话 Zaanhehho
上海閒話/上海闲话 Zaanheh-hehho
滬語 / 沪语 Hu nyy

Recording of Modern Shanghainese
Pronunciation [z̥ɑ̃̀héɦɛ̀ɦʊ̀], [ɦùɲý]
Native to China, overseas communities
Region Shanghai, surrounding Yangtze River Delta
Language codes
ISO 639-3
ISO 639-6 suji
Linguist list
Glottolog None
Simplified Chinese 上海话
Traditional Chinese 上海話
Literal meaning Shanghai speech
Simplified Chinese 上海闲话
Traditional Chinese 上海閒話
Shanghe Hhehho
[z̥ɑ̃̀hé ɦɛ̀ɦʊ̀]
Literal meaning Shanghai speech
Simplified Chinese 沪语
Traditional Chinese 滬語
Literal meaning Hu (Shanghai) language

Shanghainese, also known as the Shanghai or Hu language, is a dialect of Wu Chinese spoken in the central districts of Shanghai and in the surrounding region. It is classified as part of the Sino-Tibetan language family. Shanghainese, like other Wu dialects, is mutually unintelligible with other varieties of Chinese outside of the Wu area such as Mandarin, sharing just 29% lexical similarity with the Mandarin heard in Beijing.[1]

In English, "Shanghainese" sometimes refers to all Wu dialects, although they are only partially intelligible with one another. Shanghainese proper is a representative dialect of Northern Wu; it contains vocabulary and expressions from the entire Northern Wu area of southern Jiangsu and northern Zhejiang. With nearly 14 million speakers, Shanghainese is also the largest single form of Wu Chinese. It once served as the lingua franca of the entire Yangtze River Delta region.

Shanghainese is rich in vowels [i y ɪ ʏ eⁱ ø ɛ ə a ɑ ɔ ɤᵚ o ʊ u] (twelve of which are phonemic) and in consonants. Like other northern Wu dialects, the Shanghai dialect has voiced initials [b d ɡ ɦ z v dʑ ʑ]. Neither Mandarin nor Cantonese has voiced initial stops or affricates. The Shanghainese tonal system is also significantly different from other Chinese varieties, sharing more similarities with the Japanese pitch accent. Shanghainese has two level tonal contrasts (high and low), while Mandarin and Cantonese are typical of contour tonal languages.


Shanghai did not become a regional centre of commerce until it was opened to foreign investment during the late Qing dynasty. Consequently, dialects spoken around Shanghai had long been subordinate to those spoken around Jiaxing and later Suzhou. In the late 19th century, most vocabulary of the Shanghai region had been a hybrid between Northern Jiangsu and Ningbo dialects.[2] Since the 1850s, owing to the growth of Shanghai's economy, Shanghainese has become one of the fastest-developing dialects of Wu Chinese, undergoing rapid changes and quickly replacing Suzhou dialect as the prestige dialect of the region. It underwent sustained growth that reached a hiatus in the 1930s during the Republican era, when migrants arrived in Shanghai and immersed themselves in the local tongue.

After 1949, the government imposed Mandarin as the national language of all China. The influence of Shanghainese began to wane. Especially since Chinese economic reform began in 1978, Shanghai became home to a great number of migrants from all over the country. Due to the national prominence of Mandarin, learning Shanghainese was no longer necessary for migrants, because those educated after the 1950s could generally communicate in Mandarin. However, Shanghainese remained a very important part of the city's culture and retained its prestige status within the local population. In the 1990s, it was still common for local radio and television broadcasts to be in Shanghainese. In 1995, the TV series Sinful Debt featured extensive Shanghainese dialogues; when it was broadcast outside of Shanghai (mainly in adjacent Wu-speaking provinces) Mandarin subtitles were added. The Shanghainese TV show "Lao Niang Jiu" (Old Uncle) has been broadcast since 1999, and is still quite popular among Shanghainese residents. Shanghainese programming has since declined, over concerns of regionalism/localism accusations.

From 1992 onwards Shanghainese use was discouraged in schools,[3] and many children native to Shanghai can no longer speak Shanghainese.[4] In addition, Shanghai's emergence as a cosmopolitan global city consolidated the status of Mandarin as the standard language of business and services.[2]

Since 2005, new movements have emerged to protect Shanghainese. At municipal legislative discussions in 2005, former Shanghai opera actress Ma Lili moved to "protect" the dialect, stating that she was one of the few remaining Shanghai opera actresses who still retained authentic classic Shanghainese pronunciation in their performances. Shanghai's former party boss Chen Liangyu, a native Shanghainese himself, reportedly supported her proposal.[2] There have been talks of re-integrating Shanghainese into pre-kindergarten education, because many children are unable to speak any Shanghainese. Now many Shanghai-dialect programs are running; a citywide program was introduced by the city government's language committee in 2006 to record native speakers of different Shanghainese varieties for archival purposes.[5]

The Shanghai government has begun to reverse its course and seek fluent speakers authentic Shanghainese, but only two out of thirteen recruitment stations have found Traditional Shanghainese speakers; the rest of the 14 million people of Shanghai speak Modern Shanghainese, and it has been predicted that local dialects will be wiped out. Professor Qian Nairong is working on efforts to save the dialect.[6][7] In response to criticism, Qian reminds people that Shanghainese was once fashionable, saying, "the popularization of Mandarin doesn't equal the ban of dialects. It doesn't make Mandarin a more civilized language either. Promoting dialects is not a narrow-minded localism, as it has been labeled by some netizens.”[8] The singer and composer Eheart Chen sings many of his songs in Shanghainese instead of Mandarin to preserve the dialect.[9]

Since 2006 the Modern Baby Kindergarten in Shanghai has prohibited its students from speaking anything but Shanghainese on Fridays to preserve the dialect.[10]

In 2011, professor Qian said that the sole remaining speakers of real Shanghainese are a group of Shanghainese people over the age of sixty, and he urges that Shanghainese be taught in the regular school system from kindergarten, saying it is the only way to save Shanghainese, and that attempts to introduce it in university courses and operas are not enough.[11]

Fourteen native Shanghainese speakers had audio recordings made of their Shanghainese on May 31, 2011. They were selected based on accent purity and other factors.[12]

Intelligibility and variations

Shanghainese is not mutually intelligible with any dialect of Mandarin. It is around 50% intelligible (with 28.9% lexical similarity) with the Mandarin heard in Beijing and Standard Chinese.[13] Modern Shanghainese, however, has been heavily influenced by modern Mandarin. This makes the Shanghainese spoken by young people in the city different from that spoken by the older population, sometimes significantly. It also means that inserting Mandarin into Shanghainese sentences during everyday conversation is very common, at least amongst young people. Like most subdivisions of Chinese, it is easier for a local speaker to understand Mandarin than it is for a Mandarin speaker to understand the local speech.

Shanghainese is part of the larger Wu subgroup of Chinese varieties. It is similar, to a certain degree, to the speech of neighboring Kunshan, Suzhou, and Ningbo. People mingling between these areas do not need to code-switch to Mandarin when they speak to one another. However, there are noticeable tonal and phonological changes which do not impede intelligibility. As the dialect continuum of Wu continues to further distances, however, significant changes occur in phonology and lexicon to the point where it is no longer possible to converse intelligibly. The majority of Shanghainese speakers find that by Wuxi, differences become significant and the Wuxi dialect would take weeks to months for a Shanghainese speaker to fully learn. Similarly, Hangzhou dialect is understood by most Shanghainese speakers, but it is considered "rougher" and does not have as much flow in comparison. The language evolved in and around Taizhou, Zhejiang, by which point it becomes difficult for a Shanghainese speaker to comprehend. Wenzhou dialect, spoken in southern Zhejiang province, although considered part of the Wu subgroup, is not at all intelligible with Shanghainese.

Shanghainese is not mutually intelligible with Wenzhou dialect, Cantonese, Minnan, or any other dialect groups of Chinese.


Following conventions of Chinese syllable structure, Shanghainese syllables can be divided into initials and finals. The initial occupies the first part of the syllable. The final occupies the second part of the syllable and can be divided further into an optional medial and an obligatory rimes (sometimes spelled rhyme). Tone is also a feature of the syllable in Shanghainese.[14] Syllabic tone, which is typical to the other Sinitic languages, has largely become verbal tone in Shanghainese.


Initials of Shanghainese
  Labial Dental/Alveolar Alveolo-Palatal Velar Glottal
Nasal m n ŋ  
Plosive tenuis p k
aspirated t̪ʰ  
voiced b ɡ  
Affricate tenuis t͡s t͡ɕ
aspirated t͡sʰ t͡ɕʰ  
voiced d͡ʑ  
Fricative voiceless f s ɕ   h
voiced v z ʑ   f
Lateral l

Shanghainese has a set of tenuis, voiceless aspirated and voiced plosives and affricates, as well as a set of voiceless and voiced fricatives. Alveolo-palatal initials are also present in Shanghainese.

Voiced stops are phonetically voiceless with slack voice phonation in stressed, word initial position.[15] This phonation (often referred to as murmur) also occurs in zero onset syllables, syllables beginning with fricatives, and syllables beginning with sonorants. These consonants are true voiced in intervocalic position.[16]


The following chart lists all possible finals (medial + nucleus + coda) in Shanghainese represented in IPA.[17][18][19]

Open Nasal coda Glottal stop coda
Medial jw jw jw
Nucleus u u          
o o          
ɤᵚ ɤᵚjɤᵚ         
ə     ən wən əʔ wəʔ
ɔ ɔ  ʊŋjʊŋ  ʊʔjʊʔ 
ɑ     ɑ̃jɑ̃wɑ̃    
ɡ ɡjawa ã jaʔwaʔ
ɛ ɛ ɪɲ   ɪʔ  
eⁱ eⁱ weⁱ        
ø ø ʏɲ   ʏʔ  
i i          
y y          
Syllabic continuants: [z̩] [m̩] [ŋ̩] [ɚ]

The transcriptions used above are broad and the following points are of note when pertaining to actual pronunciation:[17]

The Middle Chinese [-ŋ] rimes are retained, while [-n] and [-m] are either retained or have disappeared in Shanghainese. Middle Chinese [-p -t -k] rimes have become glottal stops, [-ʔ].[20]


Shanghainese has five phonetically distinguishable tones for single syllables said in isolation. These tones are illustrated below in Chao tone names. In terms of Middle Chinese tone designations, the yin tone category has three tones (yinshang and yinqu tones have merged into one tone), while the yang category has two tones (the yangping, yangshang, and yangqu have merged into one tone).[21][22]

Five Shanghainese Citation Tones
with Middle Chinese Classifications
Ping () Shang () Qu () Ru ()
Yin (阴) 52 (T1) 34 (T2) 44ʔ (T4)
Yang (阳) 14 (T3) 24ʔ (T5)

The conditioning factors which led to the yinyang split still exist in Shanghainese, as they do in other Wu dialects: yang tones are only found with voiced initials [b d ɡ z v dʑ ʑ m n ɲ ŋ l ɦ], while the yin tones are only found with voiceless initials.

The ru tones are abrupt, and describe those rimes which end in a glottal stop /ʔ/. That is, both the yinyang distinction and the ru tones are allophonic (dependent on syllabic structure). Shanghainese has only a two-way phonemic tone contrast,[23] falling vs rising, and then only in open syllables with voiceless initials.

Tone sandhi

Tone sandhi is a process whereby adjacent tones undergo dramatic alteration in connected speech. Similar to other Northern Wu dialects, Shanghainese is characterized by two forms of tone sandhi: a word tone sandhi and a phrasal tone sandhi.

Word tone sandhi in Shanghainese can be described as left-prominent and is characterized by a dominance of the first syllable over the contour of the entire tone domain. As a result, the underlying tones of syllables other than the leftmost syllable, have no effect on the tone contour of the domain. The pattern is generally described as tone spreading (T1-4) or tone shifting (T5, except for 4- and 5-syllable compounds, which can undergo spreading or shifting). The table below illustrates possible tone combinations.

Left-Prominent Sandhi Tone Values
Tone One syllable Two syllables Three syllables Four syllables Five syllables
T1 52 55 22 55 44 22 55 44 33 22 55 44 33 33 22
T2 34 33 44 33 44 22 33 44 33 22 33 44 33 33 22
T3 14 11 44 11 44 11 11 44 33 11 11 44 33 22 11
T4 44 33 44 33 44 22 33 44 33 22 33 44 33 22 22
T5 24 11 24 11 11 24 11 22 22 24
22 44 33 11
11 11 11 11 24
22 44 33 22 11

As an example, in isolation, the two syllables of the word for China are pronounced with T1 and T4: /tsʊŋ52/ and /kwəʔ44/. However, when pronounced in combination, T1 from /tsʊŋ/ spreads over the compound resulting in the following pattern /tsʊŋ55kwəʔ22/. Similarly, the syllables in a common expression for foolish have the following underlying phonemic and tonal representations: /zəʔ24/ (T5), /sɛ52/ (T1), and /ti34/ (T2). However, the syllables in combination exhibit the T5 shifting pattern where the first-syllable T5 shifts to the last syllabe in the domain: /zəʔ1111ti24/.[24]

Phrasal tone sandhi in Shanghainese can be described as right-prominent and is characterized by a right syllable retaining its underlying tone and a left syllable receiving a mid-level tone based on the underlying tone's register. The table below indicates possible left syllable tones in right-prominent compounds.[25]

Possible Left Syllable Tone Values in Right-Prominent Sandhi
Tone Underlying Tone Neutralized Tone
T1 52 44
T2 34 44
T3 14 33
T4 44 44
T5 24 22

For instance, when combined, /ma14/ and /tɕjɤᵚ34/ become /ma33tɕjɤᵚ34/ (buy wine).

Sometimes meaning can change based on whether left-prominent or right-prominent sandhi is used. For example, /tsʰɔ34/ and /mi14/ when pronounced /tsʰɔ33mi44/ (i.e., with left-prominent sandhi) means fried noodles. When pronounced /tsʰɔ44mi14/ (i.e., with right-prominent sandhi), it means to fry noodles.[26]

Common words and phrases in Shanghainese

Note: Chinese characters for Shanghainese are not standardized and are provided for reference only. IPA transcription is for the Middle period of modern Shanghainese (中派上海话), pronunciation of those between 20 and 60 years old.

Translation IPA Chinese character Transliteration
Shanghainese (dialect) [zɑ̃.hɛ ɦɛ.ɦo] 上海闲话 or 上海言话(上海閒話 or 上海言話)
Shanghainese (people) [zɑ̃.hɛ.nɪɲ] 上海人
I [ŋu] 我、吾
we or I [aʔ.la] 阿拉)
he/she [ɦi] 渠(佢, 伊, 其)
they [ɦ] 渠拉(佢拉, 伊拉)
you (sing.) [nʊŋ] (儂)
you (plural) [na]
hello [nʊŋ.hɔ] 侬好(儂好)
good-bye [tsɛ.ɦweⁱ] 再会(再會)
thank you [ʑja.ja.nʊŋ] or [ʑja.ʑja.nʊŋ] 谢谢侬(謝謝儂)
sorry [teⁱ.vəʔ.tɕʰi] 对勿起(對勿起)
but, however [dɛ.z̩], [dɛ.z̩.ni] 但是, 但是呢
please [tɕʰɪɲ] (請)
that one [ɛ.tsa], [i.tsa] 埃只, 伊只(埃隻, 伊隻)
this one [ɡəʔ.tsa] 箇只(箇隻)
there [ɛ.ta], [i.ta] 埃𡍲, 伊𡍲
over there [ɛ.mi.ta], [i.mi.ta] 埃面𡍲, 伊面𡍲
here [ɡəʔ.ta] 搿𡍲
to have [ɦjɤᵚ.təʔ] 有得
to exist, here, present [laʔ.hɛ] 徕許, 勒許
now, current [ɦi.zɛ] 现在(現在)
what time is it? [ɦi.zɛ tɕi.ti tsʊŋ] 现在几点钟?(現在幾點鐘?)
where [ɦ], [sa.di.fɑ̃] 何里𡍲(何裏𡍲), 啥地方
what [sa.ɦəʔ] 啥个
who [sa.nɪɲ] or [ɦɦweⁱ] 啥人, 何里位
why [ɦweⁱ.sa] 为啥(為啥)
when [sa.zən.kwɑ̃] 啥辰光
how [na.nən], [na.nən.ka] 哪能 (哪恁), 哪能介 (哪恁介)
how much? [tɕi.di] 几钿?(幾鈿?)
yes [ɛ]
no [m̩], [vəʔ.z̩], [m̩.məʔ], [vjɔ] 呒, 勿是, 呒没, 覅 (嘸, 勿是, 嘸沒, 覅)
telephone number [di.ɦo ɦɔ.dɤᵚ] 电话号头(電話號頭)
home [oʔ.li] 屋里(屋裏)
Come to our house and play. [tɔ aʔ.la oʔ.li.ɕjɑ̃ lɛ bəʔ.ɕjã] 到阿拉屋里向来孛相(白相)!(到阿拉屋裏向來孛相!)
Where's the restroom? [da.sɤᵚ.kɛ ləʔ.ləʔ ɦ] 汏手间勒勒何里𡍲?(汏手間勒勒何裏𡍲?)
Have you eaten dinner? [ɦja.vɛ tɕʰɪʔ.ku.ləʔ va] 夜饭吃过了𠲎?(夜飯喫過了𠲎?)
I don't know [ŋu vəʔ.ɕjɔ.təʔ] 我勿晓得.(我勿曉得.)
Do you speak English? [nʊŋ ɪɲ.vən kɑ̃.təʔ.lɛ va] 侬英文讲得来𠲎?(儂英文講得來𠲎?)
I adore you [ŋu ɛ.mu nʊŋ] 我爱慕侬.(我愛慕儂!)
I like you a lot [ŋu lɔ hwø.ɕi nʊŋ əʔ] 我老欢喜侬个!(我老歡喜儂个)
news [ɕɪɲ.vən] 新闻(新聞)
dead [ɕi.tʰəʔ.ləʔ] 死脱了
alive [ɦwəʔ.ləʔ.hɛ] 活勒嗨(活着)
a lot [tɕjɔ.kwɛ] 交关
inside, within [li.ɕjɑ̃] 里向
outside [ŋa.dɤᵚ] 外頭
How are you? [nʊŋ hɔ va] 侬好𠲎?(儂好𠲎?)

Plural pronouns

The first-person pronoun is suffixed with 伲 [ɲi˨˧] as in "我伲" [ŋu˨˨.ɲi˦˦], and third-person with 拉 [la˥˧]), but the second-person plural is a separate root, 㑚 [nʌ˨˧].[27]


A table of Shanghai Phonetic Symbols by Rev. J. A. Silsby

Chinese characters are used to write Shanghainese. Romanization of Shanghainese was first developed by Protestant English and American Christian missionaries in the 19th century, such as Joseph Edkins. Usage of this romanization system was mainly confined to translated Bibles for use by native Shanghainese, or English-Shanghainese dictionaries, some of which also contained characters, for foreign missionaries to learn Shanghainese.

Shanghainese is sometimes written informally using homophones: "lemon" (ningmeng), written 檸檬 in Standard Chinese, may be written (person-door) in Shanghainese; and "yellow" (huang) may be written (king) rather than standard . These are not homophones in Mandarin, but are homophones in Shanghainese. There are also some homophones in Mandarin which are not homophonic in Shanghainese: , and are homophonic in Mandarin, but not in Shanghainese.[28]

Protestant missionaries in the 1800s created the Shanghainese Phonetic Symbols to write Shanghainese phonetically. The symbols are a syllabary similar to the Japanese Kana system. The system has not been used and is only seen in a few historical books.[29][30]

See also



  1. Glossika's index of mutual intelligibility
  2. 1 2 3 China Newsweek Archived March 14, 2008, at the Wayback Machine.
  3. Yin Yeping (2011-07-31). "60 years of Putonghua and English drown out local tongues". Global Times.
  4. Zat Liu (20 August 2010). "Is Shanghai's local dialect, and culture, in crisis?". CNN GO. Retrieved June 5, 2011.
  5. "Call goes out: Language, please". Shanghai Daily. 04-06-2010. Check date values in: |date= (help)
  6. "Shanghai struggles to save disappearing dialect". CNN GO. 22 November 2010. Retrieved January 18, 2011.
  7. Tiffany Ap (November 18, 2010). "That ain't Shanghainese you're speaking". shanghaiist. Retrieved 2011-09-30.
  8. Tracy You (3 June 2010). "Word wizard: The man bringing Shanghainese back to the people". CNN GO. Retrieved January 18, 2011.
  9. Tracy You (26 July 2010). "Eheart Chen: Shanghai's modern rocker with a nostalgic soul". CNN GO. Retrieved January 18, 2011.
  10. Ni Dandan ([00:26 May 16, 2011]). "Dialect faces death threat". Global Times. Retrieved June 5, 2011. we arranged Shanghai Day on Fridays to promote the language and local culture Check date values in: |date= (help)
  11. Miranda Shek (February 2, 2011). "Local dialect in danger of vanishing". Global Times. Archived from the original on November 6, 2011. Retrieved December 1, 2016.
  12. Liang Yiwen (2011-05-30). "14 Shanghainese selected for dialect recording". Shanghai Daily. Retrieved 2011-09-30.
  13. Glossika's index of mutual intelligibility
  14. Xiaonong, Zhu. A Grammar of Shanghai Wu. Lincom, 2006, pp. 6-16.
  15. Ladefoged, Peter, Maddieson, Ian. The Sounds of the World's Languages. Wiley-Blackwell, 1996, p. 64-66.
  16. Zhu, Xiaonong S. Shanghai Tonetics. Lincom Europa, 1999, p. 12.
  17. 1 2 Chen & Gussenhoven (2015)
  18. Zhu, Xiaonong S. Shanghai Tonetics. Lincom Europa, 1999, p. 14-17.
  19. Zhu, Xiaonong S. A Grammar of Shanghai Wu. Lincom Europa, 2006, p. 11.
  20. Svantesson, Jan-Olof. "Shanghai Vowels," Lund University, Department of Linguistics, Working Papers, 35:191-202
  21. Chen, Zhongmin. Studies in Dialects in the Shanghai Area. Lincom Europa, 2003, p. 74.
  22. Zhu, Xiaonong. A Grammar of Shanghai Wu. Lincom Europa, 2006, p. 17.
  23. Introduction to Shanghainese. Pronunciation (Part 3 - Tones and Pitch Accent)
  24. Zhu, Xiaonong. A Grammar of Shanghai Wu. Lincom Europa, 2006, p. 38-46.
  25. Zhu, Xiaonong. A Grammar of Shanghai Wu. Lincom Europa, 2006, p. 46-47.
  26. Zhu, Xiaonong. A Grammar of Shanghai Wu. Lincom Europa, 2006, p. 35.
  27. Graham Thurgood, Randy J. LaPolla (2003). Graham Thurgood, Randy J. LaPolla, ed. The Sino-Tibetan languages. Volume 3 of Routledge language family series (illustrated ed.). Psychology Press. p. 86. ISBN 0-7007-1129-5. Retrieved 2012-03-10.
  28. Wm. V. Hannas (1997). Asia's orthographic dilemma. University of Hawaii Press. p. 20. ISBN 0-8248-1892-X. Retrieved 8 December 2011. Non-Mandarin speakers take their own shortcuts, such as 王 (Shanghai) wang "king" for 黃 wang "yellow" (pronounced Huáng in Mandarin) or 人門 (Shanghai) ningmeng (lit.) "person" and "door" for 檸檬 ningmeng "lemon," not to mention hundreds of unique forms and usages devised popularly that have no application to Mandarin at all. There is nothing new about this phenomenon. For at least two millennia, there have been two orthographies in China: the one formally sanctioned by lexicographers and the state, and a popular tradition used informally by people in their everyday lives.()


Further reading

Wu edition of Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Shanghai dialect.
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