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.