What makes dialects in South China much more diverse than in the North?

by Haoqiu Zhang

Yesterday on the way to the supermarket, my friend and I talked about our hometown and dialects. It seems to be the right and typical time to get a little bit homesick seeing that many of our other friends have already flown back home.

My friend is from Heilongjiang province in the northern part of China and I am from Jiangsu province in the south. After exchanging ideas, we surprisingly find something we had never paid attention to. She said a sentence in her hometown dialect. But I could barely find its difference from Mandarin except the change in the tones of the words. So I had to ask her, “that’s it”? “That’s it!” She replied without hesitation. She added that the dialects in the whole northern region in China sound almost the same, just with slight difference in tones or intonation from Mandarin. Therefore, it would not be a problem for people to understand northern dialect so long as they can understand Mandarin. So the northern dialect seems quite monotonous and dull.

Then what about southern dialect? The fact is that there is no such southern dialect at all! Things are quite different and complicated when it comes to dialects in southern regions in China. There are too many kinds of dialects in one city, let alone in a province or in the whole southern area. So dialects in the south are usually named after the town, county or even village. I heard that in Rugao, a small town in the city of Nantong in Jiangsu province, the language people speak in one side of the town is different from language spoken in the other side. People living in the same small town could possibly not understand each other! You can see how different and diverse dialects can be in south China.

What makes northern dialects so uniform and what makes dialects in the south so distinctive and diverse? Surely it should be traced back to historical reasons. In ancient times, the northern area was constantly controlled by  unified regimes and it always had its official language. By contrast, the southern area was dotted with lots of tribes or clans which were rather autonomous, closed and isolated to each other. From the economic perspective, the economics in the north was once much more developed than in the south due to a more stable political environment, calling for a unified language to serve for the development of economics and trade.

Geography, I think, is another factor causing today’s dialect divergence. The northern area was mostly flatlands; conversely, the northern area was mountainous, making traffic more inconvenient and thus reducing opportunities of communication between regions. Besides, southern areas have abundant nature resources; northern conquerers constantly waged wars in the south, causing southerners to migrate from time to time. Therefore, there was no appropriate social environment for a language to grow and mature.

Learning that everything is connected to everything, we can take the initiative to explain things from different perspectives and build the links by ourselves. Can you think of other reasons for dialect divergence in north and south China? Is there such dialect difference in different regions in your country? If so, can you take a wild guess what the reasons are behind?

One thought on “What makes dialects in South China much more diverse than in the North?”

  1. Shengwen Xu (comment #2)

    Hello, Haoqiu

    It is really a time of homesickness since the Christmas decorations are being put on and people are talking about going home to spend a happy reunion with their families.
    As a southern dialect speaker, I am really interested in the topic of your post. As you have mentioned, the northern dialects are more similar to each other. While the southern dialects are sometimes so different that they couldn’t understand each other. For example, I come from Guangdong, a province with diverse dialects. There are three main dialects, that is, Cantonese, Hakka, and Chaoshanhua (not sure about the translation of the last one). I speak Cantonese as my mother language, but I can barely understand my friends when they say the other two languages.
    In my opinion, I think two of the reasons for the diversity of dialects is history and geography, just as you have mentioned in your post. Even within the same dialect, there are still some differences due to geographical conditions. For example, people in Hong Kong also speak the Cantonese dialect, but due to the history of British colonization in this region, their vocabulary and phrases are obviously influenced by English.
    I do think it a very interesting topic to think about the reasons causing the languages to change into what they are nowadays. Maybe we can share our opinions from both a northern dialect speaker’s perspective and a southern speaker’s perspective.


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