What’s the Deal with Dongguan Dialect

0313_WTDWThe Dongguan dialect, articulated from the lower part of throat with a strong bouncy cadence, is intelligible to Cantonese speakers who use higher pitches, but easily differentiated. The two share many sounds and vocabulary whilst preserving individual characteristic pronunciations, words and expressions.

Compared to Mandarin, the official language as advocated in the early 1900s through education, media and official communications, the Dongguan dialect has seven tones rather than four and different vocabulary and grammar. Because of huge geographical obstacles in the past, languages are dramatically diverse even within a small region. The Dongguan dialect varies more or less from town to town. The Guancheng accent has been designated as the authentic.

Professor Yang Baolin, a 77-year-old expert on Dongguan folk culture and history, spent 40 years teaching Chinese in Dongguan. During these years, he read and studied abundances of ancient books and discovered that the Dongguan dialect broadly preserved ancient pronunciation and meanings of the Chinese language.
The forming of Cantonese and other Guangdong dialects was based on the combination of the Aboriginals living in Guangdong and the Han Chinese escaping from warfare and natural disasters before the Tang Dynasty (618-907). Therefore, these dialects preserved some of the original syllables of ancient Chinese which have died out in the north. Both Cantonese and Dongguan dialects preserved some ancient tones such as the ru sound (using a short and rapid vocalization). As a result, reading ancient poems with a Dongguan accent will rhyme much better portraying the emotions of the poem better than in Mandarin.

On the other hand, Yang pointed out that the Dongguan dialect explains ancient meanings of some characters that aren’t available in the modern Chinese dictionary. Before the Yuan Dynasty, Chinese was widely written in classical Chinese, which is more concise and often appears in single characters. The meanings of the same character will be totally different in written Chinese and Mandarin. Yet somehow Dongguan dialect is still using these old meanings, which provides decent references to the study of classical Chinese.

With the popularity of Cantonese and Mandarin, the local language is facing an unprecedented crisis of extinction. Younger generations have been impacted by the dominance of Cantonese on TV and radio so that few of them can speak the authentic Dongguan dialect. “If the Dongguan dialect disappears, lots of ancient meanings of characters find no explanation,” said Yang in one of his lectures about Dongguan dialect.