Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Why Kaiping?

A few years ago, I made a trip to China, where I made some recordings. I visited the hometown, cut and edited the sounds, wrote a manuscript and posted it all online. But this manuscript wasn’t about Taishanese, and a few people weren’t too happy about this.

As it happens, my family is not from Taishan. We hail from Kaiping. I made my recordings and manuscript based on the Kaiping dialect mostly because Kaiping is where my family is from. The major point of my research is for me to learn about my family’s language. For a more practical reason, some of the best research on the dialects of Taishan and Kaiping were done by a linguist named Deng Jun 鄧鈞, who is also from Kaiping, and who did much more thorough research on the Kaiping dialect. (I even got to meet the main speaker he recorded.) Lastly, it’s important to keep in mind that the difference between the speech of Kaiping and Taishan isn’t so great.

The Four Counties dialects include an abundance of dialectal variety across Taishan, Kaiping, Enping and much of Xinhui. There is no single “Taishan accent,” just as there is no single “Kaiping accent.” There is rather a continuum of dialectal variation across the Four Counties region—often to my great confusion. Sometimes the same syllable means two completely different words in different areas. Sometimes the exact same accent is spoken in areas that span the border between Taishan and Kaiping.

This is not to say that the terms are interchangeable. Taishan does not mean Kaiping. Part of the confusion arises, I believe, in the way that many overseas Chinese refer to the Four Counties dialect (or Seiyap 四邑話). Here in the United States, Taishanese is often used to mean roughly the same thing as the Four Counties dialect. Even though I’m of Kaiping descent, I frequently say that I speak Taishanese. I do this mostly out of convenience; it’s more important for people to understand that I don’t speak Cantonese or Mandarin. If you are from Taishan, you probably speak differently than I do—but the odds are that we can still hold a conversation with each of us speaking only our local dialect.

The point here is to understand the close similarity between the speech of Taishan and Kaiping. For one, the terms Taishan dialect and Kaiping dialect really refer to a large family of dialects. If you peel into research on the Kaiping dialect—or speech from Enping or Xinhui for that matter—there will be quite a bit of overlap with the varieties spoken in Taishan. These dialects are closer to each other than to any other you will find in China. They are Four Counties dialects, after all.


  1. It's interesting that on my blog you knew so much about the "lh" sound. When I went to Kaiping a year ago, that's the difference that stood out the most to me - 開平話 doesn't seem to have it. I imagine you must have spent a lot of time trying to learn that sound and then it isn't actually used in 開平話?

    Also, my wife's family is all from 白沙 (Baisha ) and 三八 (Sanba) in 台山 (Taishan). But my wife's aunt bought a condo in Kaiping, so we stayed there for 10 days and just took day trips into Taishan. The township of 白沙 is really close to Kaiping.

    I remember one time at dinner in Kaiping, the word 開心 was said several times in a short timespan by several people at the table, and I could really hear the variety:
    hoi sam - Cantonese
    hoi lhim - 台山話
    hoi lham - 台山話
    hoi lhem - 台山話 (but one person trying to mimic the accent of the other)
    hoi sim - 開平話

    Also it really pleases me to hear people count to 10. The numbers 2 (ngi versus ngay) and 4 (sei versus lhi versus lhei) seem to vary the easiest.

  2. The important thing to keep in mind is that there isn’t one 開平話. There are many, many different varieties. There are even people in Kaiping who speak almost exactly like those from Sanba—especially in the southern part of the 長沙 area. (In my limited experience, typically people with the last name 余.) Some completely different accents are spoken practically next door to each other. I have personally never heard people from Kaiping without a lateral fricative, unless they were from the areas that don’t speak a 四邑 dialect, like Magang 馬鋼. When I brought some friends to Kaiping several years ago, one of their first reactions was amazement at all the lateral fricatives they heard. But I don’t doubt what you heard—I’m always learning new things.

    I personally pronounce 開心 as hoi lhem, although I’ve also heard people from Kaiping pronounce it as hoi lhim. If you click on the link in the post above, you can listen to some recordings of an individual who grew up in Kaiping, both of whose parents are from Kaiping. I haven’t spoken to many people from Enping 恩平, but one comment I’ve often heard is that they tend to pronounce s where I would pronounce lh. Perhaps the people you heard were from Enping or nearby? But that’s pure speculation on my part.

    Lastly, I’m glad you noted the famous e/i contrast in words like 心 or 四. You can hear both variants in both Taishan and Kaiping—along with other variants. In lieu of e, some areas have ia (which often sounds like ie). This variation is further multiplied when e/i turns to schwa (a in Jyutping), when followed by a final consonant—there are various variations of this pattern as well. Both also worthy of more detailed posts next week.

  3. Oh, thanks for correcting me then. We were in Kaiping city itself, not just the county, but I'm not sure which part of the city. While there, I'm fairly certain I didn't hear the lateral fricative except from Taishanese family members. But maybe I was only focusing on the differences (and perhaps those people were originally from other areas within 四邑) and not fully observing the similarities.

  4. Hi Aaron, I like your blog and was wondering if you would be willing to continue posting Hoisan lessons (preferably Hoiping though). Good work with the lessons!