Sichuanhua: Speaking Mandarin with a Southwestern Accent
It's difficult to explain the personality of Chengdu's dialect to friends and family back home. I've heard attempts at comparison of Sichuanhua to an Irish person commending, "And a fine job you did!" Others note that people here have a drawl not unlike a person from the Southern United States saying, "I've been at the Waaaaalmart for twehhhlve yeeeears now."
Sichuanhua has grown and settled over the millennia in the isolated basin of Sichuan. A Southwestern sub-dialect of Mandarin, it is not difficult to pick up for those with a solid grasp of Mandarin's tones and pronunciation.
With Sichuan-based celebrities like comedian Liao Jian releasing work performed entirely in Sichuanhua, the dialect has reached audiences outside the province—and so it's not uncommon to hear Beijingers or Hainaners try their best "Sazi ma?" or "Guawazi!"
As with many dialects, speakers of Sichuanese might face class snobbery, but many just don't seem to care. And in contrast to some east-coast cities where school-aged children are encouraged to speak pure textbook Mandarin, even at home, in favor of previous generations' "uneducated" dialect, Chengduers seem to see no reason to change.
Mastering—or at least mustering a repertoire of a few phrases in—dialect is worth your time. I've provided here some common words that are different from their equivalents in Standard Mandarin. The rest of the dialect is pretty much just Mandarin with an accent—the pronunciation and tone changes below.
vowel and consonant changes
n ↔ l
h ↔ f
sh, ch, zh → s, c, z
xia → sa
_e → _ei
ge, re, e → gou, rou, ou
_uo → _ou
wo → ngo
guo → gui
zi → cei
ā → á | á → à | ǎ → à | à → ǎ
Navigational Words and Phrases
1 你好。 Ni hào.
2 到哪儿？ Dao làr?
3 老板儿！ Lao bàr!
4 受钱吧！ Sóu qiàn ba!
5 哪个？ Làgou.
6 下车了。 Sa céi lou!
7 没得。 Mei déi
8 晓得。 Xiáo dei.
9 啥子？ Sá zi?
10 要得/要不得。Yáo (bu) dei.
11 小妹儿！ Xiao mèr.
小弟味儿！ Xiao dì wer.
12 好(多)钱? Hào (dou) qian?
13 十四块五。 Sì sí kuái vì.
14 没得事的。 Meidéi si dēi.
1 through 3 ("Hello," "Where are you going?" and "(dining-server) boss!" resp.) are similar to standard Mandarin save for tone changes from the above ovals.*
4 through 6 ("check please!" "which/who?" and "get off the bus," resp.) change both their tone and pronunciation almost consistently with the ovals above.**
In 7 ("there isn't any") the verb "yŏu" is replaced by the noun-verb compliment "de."
8 and 9 are literary forms of "to know" and "what?" resp., where 9 has a "zi" added.
10 is the commonly used form for "good/bad."
11 and 12 ("little sister"/"little brother,") are used to call waiters who are not the restaurant owner.
12 is "How much does this cost?"
In 13 ("14.5 Yuan") "vi" is a buzzed "v-v-v-v-v."
14 means, "No problem."
* Stress falls only on tone-marked syllables. The rest take a neutral tone and less emphasis.
**Level tones on this list are not as high-pitched as in standard Beijing Mandarin. Because there are variations between regions and even among individual speakers, the conversions above are not 100 percent consistent. The a and ei vowel sounds, as in "sa" and "dei," tend to be pronounced very flatly in Chengdu, similar to American Northeasterners, for example, Bostonians, saying "Maaaassachusetts."
Finally, because there is not a standardized Romanization system for dialects of Mandarin, this is our best approximation.
Conversational Words and Phrases
15 哦。 Ó.
16 耍 suà.
17 你是哪个国家的？ Lí si lágou guíjia dei?
18 你叫啥字名字？ Ní jiao sázi míngcei?
19 你中国话说得好好。 Li zónggui hua sóu de háo hào.
20 我是成都的。 Ngó si Céngdu dēi.
21 你可以说四川话吗？ Ni kóuyi sou Sicuánhua ma?
22 好饿了！ Háo ngòu lo.
15 ("Yeah, you know it!")'s tone rises like a North-American saying "really!?"
16 is "fun," or "to have fun."
17 is "What country are you from?"
18 is "What's your name?" whose "o" almost always replaces Northeast China's "a."
19 is "You're Chinese is excellent!"
In 20 ("I'm from Chengdu"), the "ng" is pronounced like the end of "ming."
21 is "Can you speak Sichuanese?"
The grammar structure of 22 ("So hungry!"), "hao ( ) o/lo!" means, "So (adjective)!"
Friendly Insults and Compliments
23 我们两说这些。 Ngómen liáng sou zéi xī(e).
24 不摆了！ Bu bái lo.
25 巴适的很！ Bási dei hèn.
26 安逸三！ Ngá yī san.
27 瓜娃子！ Guá wā zi.
28 瓜后。 Guá hòu.
29 好废哦！ Háo féi
23 ("We two say these things") is used among peers and friends in response to thanks.
24 ("no need for words") is the common response to 23. 24 can also, along with
25 and 26 ("very comfortable"), be used to express appreciation, where "san" is an end-sound.
27 through 29 are, "stupid melon," "most-stupid melon," and "You/she/he's so crazy!
This article by Reed Riggs was first published in CHENGDOO citylife Magazine, issue 1 and reissued in issue 20 ("best of"). Photos ("Natural-Born Players") by Michal Pachniewski are scenes from Chengdu's small streets.