Since the Chinese writing system isn't phonemic, I'm curious about how authors write dialogues that have characters speaking with thick accents. For example, the accent of someone from a rural area talking to a city doctor.

Do authors use different hanzi characters to portray nonstandard pronunciations? If so, doesn't that make the text confusing to readers?

2 Answers 2


In formal text its all standard written chinese, and the author simply says they are speaking in XYZ accent, and the reader can imagine it. Just like in english I can tell you two characters are speaking french, and you can imagine it, even though I write all the dialogue out in regular english.

It is possible to write colloquially, sometimes. You are correct that it won't make sense if the reader doesn't know it, so it normally isn't done. Jus' like Imma write inna more slangy way right 'ere dis second, and you finna know what big chungus is only if you already know it, if ya knows what I mean. Or thats all gibberish, and thats why you don't do it. But the equivalent slangy colloquialism is totally possible in most chinese at least. Just like I could write that french dialogue in french and sucks to be you if you don't know french.

Fun fact, some movies especially those from hongkong, would have characters speaking two different types of chinese side by side, no translations or subtitles, cause its a reasonable expectation to know both types of chinese for the viewership.

Alternate fun fact, mainland china takes standard chinese very seriously for viewership enjoyment. Many actresses and actors are straight up dubbed over on their parts for having accents on their standard mandarin, let alone speaking colloquial slang from there hometowns ((you do see local accents when its part of the character itself of course)).

  • Telling the reader that a character is speaking in French is quite a different matter from simply showing it… but then French, being a different language, is a lot different from a dialect or accent. Your slang sentence is a perfectly good example of how an author would actually represent a character in eye dialect. Famous examples include Hagrid in Harry Potter (“Yer a wizard… an’ a thumpin’ good ’un, I’d say”), the flashback dialogue in To Kill a Mockingbird (contrasted with the same speaker’s standardised narration as an adult), etc. Your answer doesn’t address how Chinese does that. Commented Feb 29 at 12:21
  • @JanusBahsJacquet many chinese "accents" are on the level of a different language or close, changing consanants or vowels or tones of mandarin in a way where native speakers usually struggle to speak to each other if their standard mandarins are not nuetral. and of course different vocab and slang in different areas adds up too. I fully agree that the english to french comparison is not perfect or covering the full chinese accent experience. I do think it is way closer to the comparison of different english accents though-- maybe american english to scots could be a more middle version
    – zagrycha
    Commented Mar 1 at 1:56
  • There are frequently several levels of intermingledness between fully standardised Mandarin and local regiolect, but in practice, any combination that results in a loss of mutual intelligibility will be avoided by moving more towards one or the other end of that spectrum. For example, if a Beijinger is in Zhejiang and speaks to local people, the locals are unlikely to speak Huizhou or even a Mandarin–Huizhou hybrid as they might otherwise; they will codeswitch to more standardised Mandarin, retaining only the sort of features that are comparable to English dialects. Commented Mar 1 at 2:25
  • At least as I understand the question, that is the kind of situation the question is about. If mutual intelligibility breaks down, most writers will make this explicit in the text; eye dialect in English is used to indicate different dialects being used in mutually intelligible situations. My old flatmate was from Zhejiang, and I could easily replicate his Mandarin accent in speech (no retroflexes, no erhua, complete merger of /r n l/ in initial position, etc.), but I’ve never considered how I might write it without hindering understanding. I’d have to resort to using Pinyin, I think! Commented Mar 1 at 2:29
  • @JanusBahsJacquet In this case we have just interpreted OP's question differently. Since OP said between different accents of chinese, I interpet that to be as they are with no code switching or effort to switch to a nuetral middle ground-- to me that isn't that accent anymore but something else. ((anyone making significant effort to reach a nuetral ground of standard mandarin will successfully communicate, fully agree and would have answered differently for that)).
    – zagrycha
    Commented Mar 2 at 1:52

Do authors use different Hanzi characters to portray nonstandard pronunciations?

Yes, sometimes. For example,

这是我爸和我妈 - (Beijing)

这是俺爹和俺娘 - (Hebei countryside)

  • 1
    孙悟空总是说:"俺老悟空 ... " 但是他是在东胜出生的! 'I' definitely has an 'a' root: Many English speakers pronounce I as "Ah": Ah dunno = I don't know
    – Pedroski
    Commented Feb 29 at 8:19
  • 1
    Both answers are helpful and interesting, but this one actually answers the question. Commented Feb 29 at 17:26

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