R. L. Starr

Phonological Variation in Shanghai Mandarin


While the primary language of Shanghai is historically Shanghainese, rapid economic development in the city and the resulting influx of Taiwanese and other Mandarin-speaking immigrants has led to a rise in the use of Mandarin and changes in attitudes towards speaking Mandarin. Is the Mandarin spoken in Shanghai changing as it popularizes?

This research is based on the 2003 THU, CASS, JHU Shanghai Mandarin corpus that was originally collected for a speech recognition project. It contains spontaneous and read speech from 100 Shanghai natives of various ages and educational levels. I looked for gender, age, educational, and stylistic differences in the use of a socially meaningful variable, standard retroflex sibilant initials.

The retroflex variable is one of my favorites in my studies of Mandarin variation — it's frequent, perceptually salient, and extremely socially salient. Plus, it involves both standardization and hypercorrection. Sociolinguistics doesn't get any better than this! Here's how it works: in standard Mandarin (putonghua), which is based on the phonology of the Beijing variety of Mandarin (which is Northern), there is a distinction between s and sh, z (dz) and zh (dzh), and c (ts) and ch (tch). In some other varieties of Mandarin, this distinction also exists, except the lexicon is divided up differently, such that some words that start with /s/ in standard Putonghua start with /sh/, etc. But in most Southern dialects, there is a merger of these two sets of sounds such that there is only s, z, and c. This includes the non-standard varieties spoken in Taiwan. This merger is quite stigmatized, even in places like Taiwan where it is prevalent. In addition to looking at the merger itself, i.e., the use of a dental sound where standard Mandarin expects a retroflex, we can look at hypercorrection, when a speaker uses a retroflex where standard Mandarin expects a dental.

In my study of the corpus of 100 speakers, I found that all of my stylistic and social variables significantly correlated with the use of retroflex. Younger speakers, female speakers, and more educated speakers were all more likely to use the standard retroflex. What was most striking about the results was the rapid change within age ranges. While the corpus only included speakers aged 25-50, the speech of the youngest speakers was dramatically different from those even a few years older. These differences correlated significantly with age groupings I created based on which speakers would have been under age 13 at certain key points in Shanghai's history: after the Cultural Revolution, after Shanghai was declared an open city in 1984, and after Shanghai was declared a special economic zone in 1990.

Aside from main effects, the data also yield some fun interactions: in the youngest age group, 25-26, there was no longer a significant gender distinction, whereas in the older age groups, men were using virtually no retroflex at all. As for hypercorrection, women, more educated speakers, and older speakers were more likely to hypercorrect. The hypercorrection analysis allows us to refine our understanding of what's going on in Shanghai; while older educated and older female speakers want to speak standard Mandarin, they don't have the knowledge required to use retroflex standardly, so they end up using it in contexts where it doesn't belong. In contrast, young people are able to use retroflex without overapplying. These data suggest that older speakers who used retroflex were changing their speech later in life to match changing attitudes towards speaking standard Mandarin.

Why are these changes happening? As the gender data show, we can't attribute all this standardization to improved education; when boys and girls in the same classroom end up speaking differently, there something else at work besides the quality of Mandarin education. Instead, I would argue that the changes in Mandarin reflect the changing economic realities of Shanghai. In the past, to be Shanghainese, and speak authentic Shanghainese, was considered prestigious; it was something that set the Shanghainese apart from neighboring rural speakers of non-Shanghainese varieties of the Wu dialect. If you wanted to get ahead in Shanghai in the past, you had to speak standard Shanghainese. The recent economic development in Shanghai, however, has led to an influx of businessmen from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and America. These Mandarin-speakers couldn't care less about whether you speak standard Shanghainese. The language at the top of the economic food chain is now Mandarin, making standard Mandarin suddenly important. Just as Shanghainese students rush to trendy new majors as careers become popular, they have thrown themselves into the new Mandarin linguistic market, largely abandoning Shanghainese.

My account of why Mandarin is changing makes a key prediction: Shanghai Mandarin is moving towards the Mandarin standard of Taiwan, Singapore, and Overseas Chinese, the "deterritorialized" variety posited by Qing Zhang in her 2001 dissertation. If the standardization observed in Shanghai was purely a result of improved education, we would expect that the standard in Shanghai was moving towards traditional Northern-based Putonghua. While the data on retroflex initials don't shed much light on this question, the fact that the corpus speakers don't use rhoticization (er-hua) suggests that they are not orienting towards the Northern standard. In the future I plan to do more research to shed some light on this issue.