Mandarin Accents: South vs North

Those who have attempted learning Mandarin know the accent changes depending on where you go. The accent is very different when comparing the south and the north. But which one is the most understood?

Here we go again… How do I convince the nurse, who is busy filling in my form, that I was born in April rather than October? I did tell her 四月 (si yue) and not 十月 (shi yue), I’m quite certain. Well, maybe I was not particularly careful to stress the falling tone of si, as opposed to the rising one of shi, but surely there’s quite a difference between the two s sounds? Anyway, I can see her jotting down “October.” Should I drop it? Yet this is a traditional Chinese medicine hospital, which means that my birthday is of crucial importance as my diagnosis and subsequent prescription will be partially based on it. Chinese medicine and astrology are closely related arts (or sciences).

It’s symptomatic, this constant confusion of the various s sounds, isn’t it? Not just symptomatic of my substandard pronunciation skills, mind you. By now I’m confident enough in my own linguistic abilities to assume that most receptionists in Beijing would have no problem understanding that I was born in the spring, rather than late autumn. However, we’re in the South, folks. The place where soft-spoken Southerners are all quite fluent in Mandarin yet have their own way of interpreting Putonghua’s pronunciation. In fact, the blending of the various s, c and z sounds into a single indistinct mush might be the very reason why the Southern accent is perceived to be so soft and sweet. Here’s how local, Victor Yeh, describes it, “Southern Chinese people have difficulty in pronouncing the sh consonant, so we fall back to the s consonant. As a Southern Chinese person, I am able to pronounce the standard sh consonant, but I feel terrible when I pronounce it, so I prefer to pronounce the s consonant instead. Why not?
Every native Chinese speaker understands what I am talking about when I mispronounce sh as s.

A Beijing accent might be highly desirable for an educated person, but its Southern brethren are more suitable for a sophisticated poetry reading.

I’ve heard Chinese friends describing Southerners’ accents as gentler and more feminine, while the way they speak in the North is normally associated with raw masculinity. A Beijing accent might be highly desirable for an educated person, but its Southern brethren are more suitable for a sophisticated poetry reading. So, should I aspire to sound more like a proper Guangdong lady, I wonder? Blurring my s, z and c sounds, swapping ong for eng, replacing the nasal ng with a softer n version? It should be easy; I just need to start listening carefully to my local friends and trying to imitate their accents as accurately as I can.

I must admit, while living in Beijing, I did find the local accent there a bit too harsh sounding on occasion. I could laugh for hours at the way the Northerners would call their babies or sweethearts baober (宝贝儿, rhymes with “blur”), not quite being able to discern the clang of endearment in the term. A piece of advice: when trying to explain your destination to a taxi driver over there, you should definitely add that notorious rolling er at the end of the place’s name if you are to stand any chance of being understood. It’s just hilarious how they’d immediately respond to “Chao Yang Gong Yua’r,” yet look at you uncomprehendingly if you ask them to take you to “Chao Yang Gong Yuan.”

Ultimately though, I’m glad I started my Chinese language studies in the Middle Kingdom’s capital rather than here in Dongguan. It may sound harsher, but the Northerners’ accent is much closer to the standard Mandarin pronunciation prescribed by your average textbook. I assure you, Pinyin makes much more sense in Beijing. It’s actually possible to distinguish clearly sh from both x and s when coming from the mouth of a Northerner. For a beginner, this is a blessing, trust me. Whereas, in our new hometown, I sometimes find myself correcting even my Mandarin teacher’s pronunciation from time to time. Well, at least politely inquiring about how to spell that particular word in Pinyin. In my experience, it’s never a good idea pointing out to someone with far superior knowledge that they’ve made a mistake. Remember kids, no-one loves a besserwisser…