Maybe this is a tired old Shanghai joke, but I just heard it last week in class.

A: 他的普通话怎么样? How is his putonghua?

B: 他的浦东话很好。 His Pudong-hua is very good.

Ah, with the subtle change of just one consonant sound from aspirated to non-aspirated, you have fully answered the question with an apparent non-sequitur.

Pragmatics class can be pretty interesting. Occasionally.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Are Pudonghua and Putonghua mutually comprehensible?

  2. Most English-speakers can’t understand Putonghua because Shanghai dialect is fundamentally different from Mandarin. I’m originally from China and I spent my childhood in a city near Shanghai,but I can only understand 50% of Shanghai dialect. For English speakers,Shanghai dialect is a foreign language. I read a book about dialects and I remember that book says there are more than 200 dialects in China.

    Have you been to Hong Kong?I’ve been there twice and I can’t understand Cantonese at all. But I found a funny thing in Hong Kong. Some English people can speak Cantonese.

  3. Sorry, it should be “Most English-speakers can’t understand Pudonghua because Shanghai dialect is fundamentally different from Mandarin. “

  4. Carol, I’m not sure whether or not your comment was in answer to Mark’s, but I think that the concept of “mutual comprehensibility” (whether or not a fluent speaker of Putonghua can understand Pudonghua, and vice versa) which he raised is more relevant than whether or not English-speakers can understand the dialect.

    In Qinghai, it was widely acknowledged that most people’s attempts to speak the national language would be best described as “Qingpuhua” (half-way between Qinghaihua and Putonghua).

  5. Todd,

    Yeah, I’ve heard of 上普话 here in Shanghai and I heard about 杭普话 when I lived in Hangzhou. They’re convenient terms.

  6. Justin (Parasite) Says: June 2, 2006 at 3:59 pm

    The most amusing thing to me is when I make reference to something in Hong Kong or Guangdong and Chinese people always feel the need to exclaim, “OH! Do you know that I can’t even understand what they say when they are speaking down there!?” I never know if they expect me to be impressed or what. Perhaps next time I should let out my need to be equally imformative and let them on to the fact that I don’t understand a ‘lick of German. Heck, for the 91% of Chinese who haven’t lived in and have no intention of living in Guangdong or Xianggang, I’d expect a lower rate of Cantonese aptitude/number of learners than amongst a random sampling of a random non-Asian population in the US.

  7. When i was in high school, my teacher told me that Cantonese has 七声 compare to Mandarin’s 四声. I was also told that there’s even a Cantonese dictionary regarding to pronunciation. But i never make the effort to look for it.

  8. Richard Says: June 4, 2006 at 10:04 am


    Most English-speakers can’t speak Mandarin either (though not because it’s fundamentally different from Wu yu, but because they’re both fundamentally different from English).

    I don’t know why you’d think it’s funny that you’d find English people who can speak Cantonese in Hong Kong. Would you find it interesting if I told you that there are Chinese people who can speak Dutch in the Netherlands?

    BTW, jiangnan or jiangbei?

Leave a Reply