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Chinatown Decoded: What Language Is Everybody Speaking?

Chinatown's polyglottal population. 


Editor's Note: This is one of many stories about the Chinese-American city that San Francisco is publishing over the next month, all part of the April 2015 Chinese Issue. To peruse the rest of the issue's contents, and to read stories as they become available online, click here.  

Even people who speak “Chinese” can find Chinatown’s languages hard to navigate. That’s because what the West calls the Chinese language is in fact a group of 13 main dialects, each of which encompasses many subdialects. Pegging “Chinese” as a single language is the equivalent of defining everything spoken from Lisbon to Moscow as “European” and expecting a Portuguese to converse with a Russian.

The main dialect spoken in San Francisco’s Chinatown is Taishanese, a part of the Siyi dialect group, which itself is a subgroup of the Yue family. Taishanese is the language that was spoken by San Francisco’s first groups of immigrants, who hailed from Guangdong Province in the southern part of China. Two other variants of Yue, one from elsewhere in Guangdong and the other from Hong Kong, are also spoken in Chinatown. (Point of confusion: These two dialects, although very different, are sometimes lumped together as Cantonese.)As if that weren’t enough, most of the immigrants who’ve come to Chinatown since the immigration reform of 1965 speak Mandarin. That makes even the simple greeting of “Happy New Year” a tough task: In Mandarin it’s “Gong Xi Fa Cai”; in Hong Kong Cantonese, it’s “Gong Hey Fat Choy”; and in Taishanese, it’s “Lhen Nïn Fai Lòk.”

As a consequence, says Adina Staicov, a PhD student in linguistics at the University of Zurich who has studied Chinese speakers in San Francisco, “more and more people in Chinatown have some level of competence in Mandarin.” That said, Taishanese is still the dominant dialect in Chinatown. For now.

Chinatown Decoded:
What Language Is Everyone Speaking?
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Why Do Some Buildings Fly the Mainland’s Flag While Others Fly Taiwan’s?
Why Is Everyone Pushing Me?
Why Is That Art Gallery Under a Dry Cleaner's?
How Can You Tell If an Erhu Player Is Any Good?
Is the 30 Really the Worst Bus in Town?
How Could This Possibly Be Legal?
What's Going on Under That Lion Head?
What Are You Doing to My Body?
Is the Architecture East or West?
Are Those DVDs Bootlegs?
What Happens During a Chinatown Funeral?


Originally published in the April issue of San Francisco

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