Home > Journal, Language Lessons, Shanghainese Lessons, Taiwanese / Hokkien Lessons > Starting Out: Shanghainese and Taiwanese 1

Starting Out: Shanghainese and Taiwanese 1

Oriental Pearl + Taipei 101Documenting my first forays into a new language!

I just started looking into Shanghainese and Taiwanese. Here’s how I’ve been starting out. I still can barely use Cantonese, but I want to try picking up at least a little of these other languages. Now, why am I doing this? Well, I’m trying push myself (I’m really pushing common beliefs / misconceptions, rather than myself, I think) in a different way now. Is there really a limit to how many languages you can tackle at once, or is it really all methodology and attitude, as I suspect? I should point out, though, this is will not be a project of primary focus. Rather, I want to see if it’s possible to learn them on the side, with little effort, and still retain them – especially if they’re similar in some way.

So, why these languages? Here’s a little about them to explain why I chose them.


Montage of Taipei, Taiwan’s capital, from Wikipedia

A lot Chinese dramas and pop songs known internationally come from Taiwan, and it’s been pretty common for me to meet Taiwanese and people from southern Fujian. Yes, that’s right, with it, I will also be able to communicate with people from southern Fujian province in China, including people from the city of Xiamen. In this sense, it is called Minnanyu or Minnanhua in Mandarin, with the “Minnan” meaning Southern Min. A small issue: Fuzhou, another big, famous city whose emigrants I seem to keep running into in America, is just a bit too far north. They speak Mindong, or Central Min. Hopefully it’s close enough for SOME level of comprehension, but some people seem to say it’s closer to Minbei (Northern Min, if you didn’t see that coming) than Minnan. Oh well. It would still serve me well for talking with Taiwanese people. Variants are also spoken in Singapore, Malaysia, Philippines, and I’m sure other places as well. 

The naming of this language can get confusing, due to what language’s or country’s perspective you’re taking the name from. Minnan comes from Mandarin pronunciation, and Southern Min is the English translation. My friend from Xiamen let me know that in English we can also take “minnan” to call it Minnanese. Sometimes all 3 Min languages / dialects are grouped as one, being all from the same province of Fujian (a Mandarin name), so it may be called Fujianese. Finally, Hokkien is a the romanized (English-ized) version of the native pronunciation of Fujian in… some or all versions of Fujianese. Oh, wait, you may also hear “Hokkien” combined into terms that specify the variant. With Xiamen being a famous city and tourist spot, you may also hear Amoy Hokkien, with Amoy being the native pronunciation of Xiamen. There is also “Taiwanese Hokkien,” “Penang Hokkien,” and more. Confused yet? I know I was!

This does not necessarily mean that Taiwanese Hokkien is the main language of Taiwan. I’d rather not speak too strongly on this, but my impression is that Mandarin is most common, and Taiwanese is  in a close second. However, it’s important to note that there are many aboriginal peoples in Taiwan, resulting in a large variety of cultures and thus, languages, such as Atayal, Saisiyat, Thao, Paiwan, Amis, and more.

Ok, that was a lot of info, I feel obliged to at least mention my sources: my friends from Fujian, Taiwan, and Malaysia, Glossika’s YouTube videos, the many Wikipedia articles for many of these possible variants, and other sites and discussions.


Montage of Shanghai, from Wikipedia

Shanghainese would round out my study of the major languages of China because it is a dialect of Wu Chinese, the 2nd most-spoken language in China. Cantonese is actually in third place, but is better known in America due to the number of Cantonese immigrants and Hong Kong’s economic significance. Many seem to say Wu Chinese has a different, more flow-y sound to it. It technically seems to have 5 tones, but some people say it usually becomes a high and low tone system like Japanese – compared to the reportedly 7 tones in Taiwanese.

As for the naming of Shanghainese….well, it’s just Shanghainese or Shanghai Dialect. Shanghaihua in Mandarin. Easy enough.


I’m fully aware I may be biting off more than I can chew. However, that’s partly what I want to try out. Let’s see if am stopped somewhere. Let’s see if I get confused. Let’s see if I can’t make the time for it or can’t keep it up. Oooh, exciting!

Starting Out!

I’ll try to link to what I use so that you can follow this and learn things yourself!


Normally, I like to first check a language’s grammar article on Wikipedia. In this case, I may do it soon, but I just wanted to jump in. I suspect their grammar won’t be vastly different from Mandarin, but I could be wrong as that may be a huge assumption considering my total ignorance of the topic! We’ll see!

Regarding any pronunciations I decide to write (since I am jumping in and not learning any romanization systems yet):

Plain text: Mandarin Pinyin.
Italics: Cantonese Jyutping.
“Quotes”: More like American English.
(Parenthesis): Uncertain, guessed sounds.

I’m almost totally ignoring tones since it would be too hard to try to figure them out correctly; besides, some change depending on the previous/next syllable’s tone (it’s called tone sandhi). I only have a few tones labeled because I’m relatively more confident on them and want them at least for my reference. They would follow Mandarin tone numbers. I suggest you ignore them and make your own judgements from the audio. Or ask a friend. Or learn the tone systems.


Either way, don’t consider my spellings / romanizations to be in any formal standard.
I repeat, don’t consider my spellings / romanizations to be in any formal standard.

Similarly, any Chinese Characters may be my own guesses rather than than the reality – unless I say otherwise.
I’m big on sticking to standards, but what can I do? I haven’t learned any, and with less famous languages, they tend to be….not as standard as you’d hope.
This also holds true in the case of Chinese Characters, since certain languages have been more spoken rather than written.
I’m not yet sure if I’ll learn a romanization for either of these languages.

Finally, since it is mostly written during my time going through the mentioned lessons, this post is very heavy on personal impressions, thoughts, and assumptions. Do not take anything I conclude too seriously – I’m mainly doing it to show you my thought processes (and explaining why some are educated guesses), to show how you can make such connections to help your learning of related languages, and to encourage you to do so yourself. Do not take such assumptions as factual. You should ONLY take serious information from the links provided. NOT FROM ME. :)


I first started with these two videos by Glossika: Taiwanese Lseson 1: Names, and Taiwanese Lesson 2: Greetings. As he himself recommends, I’m ignoring the names and just listening to the vocabulary.

While I can’t be sure what Chinese characters are being used, many of them sound like they’re probably the same as Mandarin. Of course, most of these languages will share characters. I’m also prepared for certain differences in pronunciation, since – as far as I know – most southern languages don’t have those deep SH, ZH, and R sounds of Mandarin (just listen to Mandarin in a southern accent).

Lesson 1

你是(谁)人? li xi xia(n) lang? That 谁 character doesn’t work here in Mandarin as far as I know, but I assume it’s the one used due to the usage in one of the next sentences (where it DOES work in Mandarin).

我是__。 “Goa” xi ___

我姓__。”Goa seng” ___

伊是谁?Yi xi xia(n)? Seems like Taiwanese uses 伊 for 他/她; it’s also pronounced “yi” in Mandarin and Cantonese.

伊是__先生,太太,小姐。 Yi xi __  “sen” xin(g), taitai, xiujia.

So what are we seeing? From Mandarin. -> Taiwanese, SH -> X, X -> S, N -> L. HUGE generalization from such few words, but interesting nonetheless. As I pointed out before, it is common enough for sounds to stay toward the front of the mouth (losing SH, CH, etc.), and so is the N becoming L (just think Hong Kong accent’s Lei hou instead of the standard Cantonese Nei hou). In other words, knowing this makes these Taiwanese words pretty easy to remember.

Also interesting is that the initial W in Mandarin for 我 seems to become a loose G – that G is not pronounced distinctly, much as can happen in Spanish. Despite having a G sound, “goa” sounds a lot like “wa,” similar to how Spanish “agua” (meaning water) can sound like “awa.” being pronounced as lang doesn’t sound too distant from Mandarin ren.

Something I noticed from one of the names: 美 -> mi, which is the same pronunciation as in Korean and Japanese.

你贵姓?Li gui “seng.” Just like in Cantonese, Taiwanese has a “wee” vowel sound, while the closest in Mandarin (-ui in pinyin) is actually shortened from -uei, and is therefore pronounced like “way” rather than “wee.” The occurrence of these sounds may not correspond to the same characters, but in this case, it does. 贵 is spelled gui in Mandarin Pinyin; therefore, in Taiwanese, it is pronounced just how an untrained person may read the Mandarin Pinyin: “gwee.”

Lesson 2

你好否?Li he “boh” (Usually romanized as Li ho bo)

This is another interesting but not too distant phonetic “change”: Mandarin question marker 吗 is 否 or 無 / 无 (As I discovered here, at Omniglot) and pronounced “boh.” F or W are both labial (lip-based) sounds, so the Taiwanese using B isn’t strange. Even if it’s not the right character, for the vowel’s memorization’s sake, I can also imagine “bo” as a lazy “ma” (吗) like “me” (么), which some people say and use informally.

你叫啥物名 Li giu xa mi mi’an. I think it’s easier to think that “xa mi” sounds like 什么, but the character is not hard to remember because 什么 can sound like 啥 in fast, casual speech, and is sometimes written as such in texts, online chats, etc.

敖早! Gau ca! – good morning. I don’t know the 1st character is, and I only put 敖 there because I saw it on Omniglot. It may have been chosen purely for phonetic value (ao2 in Mandarin), which I’ve read is common for these other languages and dialects – although so far I’ve practically only run into characters that still mean or are related to the Mandarin counterparts. Other than saying the character is for phonetic value, the only other idea I can come up with is that Yellowbridge saying the character can also be an old variant of 熬, which has meanings related to heating, cooking, or boiling. So…. I can only see that being true if the phrase really comes from saying “Roasting hot morning, isn’t it?” Yeah, ok, I’ll end my speculation there. I’m inclined to think that character was chosen for its phonetic value only.

你食飽未?Li qia pa bui? – have you eaten yet? First off, Cantonese and Taiwanese are both using  (which is also used in Japanese) rather than Mandarin’s . Second, Mandarin tends to use some version of 你吃饭了吗?or 你吃过饭吗? as the phrase, but this phrase is literally more on whether or not you’re full  (In Mandarin, if you ate until you were full, you’d say you 吃了). This probably explains why the video, Omniglot, and other sites point out that this phrase may be more typically used as a greeting like “How are you?” or to show hospitality, checking if you are feeling well-fed. A couple of my friends have said if they seriously want to ask if you ate or not, they’d just say 你食未?or possibly 你食没?, since one friend in particular told me it’s a “meh” sound.

Mandarin 不是 sounds like m xi, the negation “m” being like Cantonese 唔.

我真好 – gua jin he – I’m fine. Interesting; compared to Mandarin’s 很好 or 还好, to me, 真好 sounds relatively strong, if 真 really is the character and meaning behind the “jin” word.

你呢? Li ne? Again, you could spell this with the Mandarin pinyin for 呢, but the “e” is more “literal” in the eyes and ears of an English speaker. In the video, the N sound quite close to an L or D.

好啊. he a. Ah, that famous “A,” whether it’s written with Mandarin’s 啊 or Cantonese’s 呀 (or something else – I don’t know), seems like it tends to be the same thing; same rough usage.

Lesson 3

I watched just a bit of this lesson, planning to watch it more carefully another day, so the only things I took away from it were:

美国人 – mi “gok” lang – American. The word for America is very close to Korean 미국 (miguk).

你是美国人否? li xi mi “gok” lang bo? – Are you American?


I ran into this video on YouTube, but found that only Lessons 1, 4, and 5 are on there. Lucky, I found all episodes directly on their website:

China Daily: Say it in Shanghai.

It may be a little complicated to download the videos if you so choose (seems like you need to register), but it’s easy to download if you know how. They’re probably wanting to limit the downloads by making you register, so I’m sorry, I’d rather not tell you how. It’s easy to find out if you wanted to, but you could just try registering.

I like these videos. They teach a couple of words or phrases in a just a couple of minutes. It’s a little strange that they write the English on the board rather than the Shanghainese pronunciation or Chinese characters, but at least they show that in the subtitles.

Lesson 1: Shanghai, I’m Shanghainese, Good Morning, and Hello

I already knew relatively well how to say 上海 in Shanghainese, since every Chinese person I know likes to say it when we bring up this topic. I had forgotten, but somewhere I had also already heard that is the same as Japanese: nin.

我是上海人 – ngu2 si sang3 “heh”4 nin

侬早 – nong2 zo2. I don’t know if this is said in Mandarin, but I typically hear 早安.

侬好 – nong2 ho2

So, these weren’t hard at all. 我 sounds like “ngoo,” the ng part which is like Cantonese, 人 is like Japanese, and & aren’t that much different from Mandarin in a southern accent. We see that they use for 你. My dictionary points it out as having the same pronunciation in Mandarin, but says it’s old way to say 我. Next lesson!

Lesson 2: See you later

Shanghainese version of 再见 is pronounced like “zeh weh.” I can guess zeh is 再 but “weh” sounds too distant from 见. This is where another neat site comes in: Omniglot, which I also referred to for the Taiwanese above. Here’s the page on useful phrases. The “weh” is 会! Makes sense. From my knowledge of Mandarin and Japanese, it means meet or gather, so the meaning still makes sense, and again, the pronunciation is not too distant from Mandarin. Also helping me to remember is, is that there’s a slightly more formal version of 再见 in Mandarin that uses 会.

Lesson 3: Thank you, You’re Welcome

I love how you say 谢谢. It almost sounds like a cute version of the Mandarin; it’s xia xia. NOTE: I’ve seen some other places say the 2nd character may be reduced to simply sounding as “ya,” so it all sounds like xia ya. NOTE #2: My Shanghainese friends say they usually say “ya ya.”

谢谢侬 – xia xia nong OR xia ya nong OR apparently, ya ya nong.

不用谢 is “vuh yoh” xia. Sounds quite the same, so I would guess they are the same characters. The 不用 part just sounds like lazy Mandarin pronunciation.

In Lesson 4 and lesson 5, things started getting a bit more different. The word for “want” sounds like “yoh,” which isn’t bad, and makes me think it’s . However, the equivalent to as in 很好 sounds like “loh” and the equivalent to 好玩 (or possibly just 玩?) sounds very different as ba xiang.

In addition, I checked out Omniglot for a few other phrases – particularly those I heard in the Taiwanese videos by Glossika. I mainly looked at:

饭吃过伐? “veh chok” gu “vah” – Have you eaten? The characters are more like Mandarin (look, it’s and not 食!), but look at the word order! “饭吃过.” Actually, I doubt there’s anything different here, since Mandarin (well, even English sometimes) can put the object of a sentence at the beginning, for emphasis or to clarify the topic (“the food, did you get it??”), so it may just be that this order became more common in Shanghainese for this particular phrases. I’m sure I’ll understand better as I learn more phrases and get a better sense of the grammar.

Quick, Select, Back-to-Back Comparison

T: 敖早 – gau ca
S: 侬早 – nong2 zo2.

T: 你好 – li he.
S: 侬好 – nong ho.

T: 我是_人- gua xi _ lang
S: 我是_人 – ngu si _ nin

Negation: 不
T: 唔 – m
S: 不 – “vuh”
(not definite characters; just saying it sounds like them)

T: 你食飽未? / 你食未? li qia pa bui / li qia bui
S: 饭吃过伐?- “veh chok” gu “vah”

Closing Remarks

Not so similar, are they, Taiwanese and Shanghainese?

All in all, an interesting first couple days looking into these languages! It’s interesting that in the case of Taiwanese / Hokkien, I find more relation and memorization aids in Cantonese, while Shanghainese borrows or sounds more like Mandarin with a southern accent. With Fujian bordering Guangdong, the connection there is no surprise (whether or not such a connection is truly there is a different matter). However, I don’t know much about how Shanghainese and Mandarin may be related – IF they are. On that note, however, I found an interesting anecdote on Omniglot’s main page on Shanghainese. I quote:

The bulk of vernacular Mandarin Chinese literature were written not by native Mandarin speakers but by native Wu and Shanghainese speakers. As result, a lot of today’s Mandarin Chinese vocabulary comes from Wu Chinese via these literary works. The words and usages have become so well adapted into Standard Mandarin that most speakers assume they are indigenous to Mandarin rather than being cognates of Shanghainese.

What the early Shanghainese proponents for a common Chinese language did not anticipate was that Standard Mandarin’s promotion would be handled through the simultaneous oppression of all other Chinese regionalects, and most harshly on Wu and Shanghainese.

That’s not to say it’s the reason for the similarities I’ve seen so far. I would expect those similarities to be in more advanced words, but it was a nice coincidence to find this when I was wondering about the similarities.

That ends this post! Don’t expect future updates to be as detailed! I went a bit overboard here, basically writing as I went through the lessons, but maybe it helps anyone reading to also get a good start as I (hope I) am doing – if you choose to follow this, that is.

  1. A
    2013/12/02 at 22:17

    Hi. You left a comment at 廈門話・臺南話.

    Unfortunately, I can’t log in there. Wordp*ss has banned me from accessing the site due to “offensive” political comments.

    It’s difficult to learn Taigi (Taiwanese) without any Taigi-speakers to practice with. But not impossible!

    Re “my impression is that Mandarin is most common, and Taiwanese is in a close second.” :

    It’s debatable, depending on what you mean by “common”.

    Everybody in Taiwan is supposed to be fluent in Mandarin/Guoyu, and it’s mandatory in schools, post offices, government offices, and so on.

    Taigi is definitely understood by less people (it’s the second language; Hakka is third), It’s hard to measure how many people use Taigi on a daily basis, or as their main language, or who can at least understand it. However, if you were able to measure how many Taiwanese people speak Taiwanese with their family and friends, and at home — how many consider it their native language, it could be greater than those who consider Mandarin their native language.

    The number of speakers of all the aboriginal languages are low. Most aboriginals I met spoke Taigi more fluently than they did Mandarin. It’s probably different with aboriginals living in Taipei.

    Email me if you like.


    • 2014/01/10 at 01:50

      Thank you for your directly responding to that doubt of mine. That was definitely a useful clarification, so I appreciate your thoughts on that. You’re right that saying “most common” is a bit vague. If I want to indicate what language would be most useful / usable with the largest amount of people in Taiwan, it sounds like you would say the answer would still be Mandarin, but Taiwanese is more likely to be the top native language. Correct?

      PS: I emailed you the SAME day I saw your comment. I emailed the email address you entered when you posted this comment. Did you receive that email?


  2. A
    2013/12/03 at 00:06

    “Want” in Taigi is prob. better as “su-iào”, than just “iao” (yoh, as you have it above).

    I don’t have Han character keyboard right now. The “iào” is 要, but if you use that character alone in Taigi, then it means more like “wish”, and is pronounced “ài” or “boeh”.

    Other words for “want” are “kíam-síau”, “khìam-khoeh”, and “iok-bōng” [the accent on “iok” is a vertical line above the “o”].


  3. A
    2013/12/03 at 00:08

    Sorry, I meant to delete this: “I don’t have Han character keyboard right now.”

    I just cut and pasted “要” from your text.


  4. A
    2013/12/03 at 00:14

    By-the-way. I had just uploaded a bunch of random data, wordlists, etc. at 廈門話・臺南話, and intended to edit it into lessons; but lost interest after Wordp*ss locked me out.


    • 2014/01/10 at 02:03

      Well, maybe we can return to that idea somehow. It may benefit others. And me, hehe.

      Correction, no need for dashes in “by the way.”


  5. A
    2013/12/03 at 00:27

    Want “su-iao” is 需要.


    A request; to ask/request (noun): 要求 iau-kiû

    Don’t want: 无爱 bô-ài; 不爱 m̄-ài|m̄-ài


    • 2014/01/10 at 02:09

      I would think it’s likely that most people outside of Taiwan who are learning Taiwanese may be coming from having learned Mandarin, so you may want to point out relations and differences. You say su-iao 需要 is “want,” but in Mandarin that means “need.” Does that mean that they DO have different meanings in Mandarin and Taiwanese?

      Sounds like 无爱 bô-ài and 不爱 m̄-ài|m̄-ài are like Mandarin 不要. Well, if 无爱/不爱 is “don’t want,” how do you say “don’t love”? That’s not 不爱?


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