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In English novels, authors sometimes deliberately introduce misspellings into spoken phrases. This is usually done to give a sense of accent, or social class. An example might be:

It'ud be sacker-lijus not to drink it!

Meaning: "It would be sacrilegious not to drink (this fine moonshine whiskey that I'm offering you)", spoken by a rough-mannered Southern US redneck type during the Prohibition era.

Obviously this can't be done in the same way in Chinese, but I was wondering how Chinese authors would approach the problem of indicating mannerisms of speech, regional accent or social class in written dialogue.

I'm guessing in some cases it might be straightforward: A character from Hong Kong could use lots of 啦 at the end of sentences, or even Cantonese characters like 乜 or 冇, which I'm guessing most readers would recognize. Or phrases like 阿拉 or 侬 might be a hint that someone is speaking in Shanghainese.

Other regional dialects might not a written form for their distinctive vocabulary, or they might use essentially the same vocabulary as a Mandarin speaker but only spoken with a strong accent or different tones. How would an author indicate this to readers?

Has any author ever tried to create a Chinese version of an eye dialect by creatively mis-writing certain characters, leaving out or changing critical strokes in a way that is still recognizable?

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Actually this can be done in chinese, at least with any chinese variety that has an actual way to write it ((some types of chinese are oral only, which makes this question not applicable)). Just not standard chinese. So lets look at a few actual examples first, then address writing the sounds in stories etc.

I will give two examples, one with cantonese and one with mandarin-- lets make it two different types of mandarin for even better comparison.

Cantonese: 我唔想今晚喺 Facebook 唔知邊個網絡公審post嗰度見到你喎。If you do not know cantonese, you cannot read this, or if you only know cantonese orally you cannot read this. And its got nothing to do with facebook in english haha. MEANING: I don't want to see a public shaming post tonight about you sitting on the mtr seats tonight ((becuase you sat on ones meant for those disabled etc when you aren't)). Difference level? not mutually intelligible whatsoever, for the purposes of communication its 100% different languages.

Mandarin, beijing flavored: 今兒得下雨出門兒時候記著記著帶傘! If you know mandarin, you will be able to figure these out, even if you find the word choice and grammar a bit odd. Although if you know beijingese you know it is even more different than it appears. You are probably 50% on whether beijinger themselves would recognize this type of stuff-- just like all of china standardized chinese has drastically reduced the amount of people who know their local dialect, and those young people who do know the native dialect often are using a kind of standard mandarin//local hybrid. MEANING: It is going to rain today, so remember to bring an umbrella when you go out. Difference level? Differences in grammar and vocab, but basic commincation for sure is possible. Beijinghua tends to be a lot longer in literal word count, but with lots of contractions verbally.

Mandarin, northeast flavor: 别唠嗑了, 你的手贼拉埋汰,咋地了? I feel like dongbei accent is a bit like a scottish accent of chinese, in the sense that its very famous-- a lot of intelligibility comes from fmaousness and exposure, rather than an inherent similarity. Although basic communication would still be possible either way....probably. MEANING: stop chatting, your hands are so filthy, why is it like this? Difference level? Again, a bit like scottish and other english varieties. In modern day with long distance intercommunication many such differences are famous both ways. In a world without that, proper communication may depend heavily on how well the subject matter lends itself to gesturing. Dongbeihua tends to have lots of unique sayings and slang, and like any local variety it has plenty of changed tones and "letter" sounds.


Now we have a good idea of different chinese vernacular written down, so why don't people do it? Well, actually writing the vernacular isn't that common in enlgish either. raight nuhm wri'en exacly hawuh I speak. Yur probly getting ta basik ideah jus fiine, but not onl izzit hart to decide exakly hah to portray ta sounts.... you get the idea. Lets start that fresh in regular writing: right now I'm writing exactly how I speak . Your probably getting the basic idea just fine, but not only is it hard to decide exactly what to use to represent the spoken accent, but its hard to do it in a way you know the reader will understand. If someone isn't actually familiar with that locality the chance frustration and lack of understanding will happen is really high.

When writing, a literal realism isn't ever the goal. The goal is to engross the reader, whether you are writing fiction or nonfiction. Just like two characters speaking french in a store wouldn't have all their dialogue written in actual french unsubtitled, actual accents are usually just labelled as "X was speaking with a dongbeihua, a heavy cantonese accent, a barely understandable wu village accent." or whatnot. If the person knows the accent, they can immediately imagine it clearly in their mind's eye ear. If they only have a vague notion of it, they have that. If they have no idea what wu village could imply, they are still reading just fine and enjoying. So that is whats most common.

If I just generically tell you that I speak with a midwest usa twang that will help you way more than my butchering of the english language. The few times you do commonly see vernacular written, it is usually only things that are famous and easy to recognize, which is kinda like a false positive if you think about it. Whether its a dongbei white eye wolf, a southern first letter dropping twang, those famous bits are outliers not the rule.

((Final fun fact, in hongkong its a pretty realistic expectation that people will know mandarin and cantonese. I have seen more than one movie that does exactly that french unsubtitled example-- a period piece with a blend of mandarin and cantonese speaking characters, and every one actually speaking the two different things with zero subtitles! Definitely very very very rare to do, but shows that if the expectation of it being understood exists, realism and vernacular use will increase exponentially.))

Hope this helps it make sense (◐‿◑)

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  • The Beijing example seems too light on erhua, if anything – but then the issue is how would you even accurately represent the amount of erhua found in many Beijingers’ speech? I remember a taxi driver once asking me something which I can only transcribe in pseudo–half-Pinyin-half-IPA as “Xǐr ŕʷ ŕʷ r̃a?”. I got that he meant “喜欢——吗?”, but I had zero way of guessing that ŕʷ ŕʷ (two second-tone syllables consisting entirely of labialised/rounded erhua) actually meant 足球 zúqiú. Commented May 2 at 9:28
  • As to your last paragraph, I don’t think it’s actually all that rare. An expectation of bilingualism is quite common around the world, and there are lots of cases where people speak different languages in films. A few examples that come to mind: Danish/Swedish throughout The Bridge; Portuguese/Spanish in Élite, Spanish in many US shows, lots of (if not most) content from India, South Africa, etc. Commented May 2 at 9:35
  • @JanusBahsJacquet on the beijinghua I agree, most of beijinghua is actually in the contractions rather than the texts, which I hinted at. On the second point, I also agree. My statement of it being rare was only in the scope of the sinosphere :)
    – zagrycha
    Commented May 3 at 3:48
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In Chinese novels, if authors want to suggest where the character comes from by the character's words, they often used words that exists only in the dialect the character speaks.

For example:

你个悖时砍脑壳的!

it was a sentence from 《边城》 wrote by 沈从文, 悖时 and 砍脑壳的 was words in the dialect of western Hunan, so readers saw it and could know the story happened in western Hunan.

And also authors could change some characters in words and use modal particles to show where the character comes from, such as:

嗯晓得他到哪里的不

The real meaning was 你知不知道他到那里去了? and it should said by someone came from Hunan.

Pronunciation of 嗯 in Mandarin was similar to 你's pronunciation in the dialect of Changsha, Hunan, 克's in Madarin was similar to 去's in the dialect too. 咯 was a common tone of voice in Changsha. 晓得 was the same as 知道 and also often used by people in Changsha.

Readers came from Changsha saw the sentence would quickly know the character was a people from Hunan, but the others may got confused, the writer often told them the real meaning in the below.

Changing strokes was not a good way for that every singal Chinese character has its own meaning, strutcture and pronunciation. We could change or omit a letter to change the pronunciation of a word in English, but changing strokes may got a wrong character which has never been seen in the dictionary and could not be typed in devices and likes a typo.

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  • Pronunciation of 嗯 in Mandarin was similar to 你's pronunciation in the dialect of Changsha, Hunan, 克's in Madarin was similar to 去's in the dialect too. If I'm understanding correctly, these characters are being used purely because they sound like words in Changsha dialect, and the reader would infer their meaning from context? Commented May 1 at 21:55
  • yes, readers could infer their meaning from context, and writers would also do something to make readers understand these words by explaining with a character's mouth or simply using braces to explain.
    – A Lod
    Commented May 2 at 4:57
  • for examples: 大叔说道:“嗯到哪里克耍了咯?”李华听到后感到很迷惑,因为他听不懂长沙话,“大叔是在问你之前去哪里玩了。”李薇在一旁解释说道。 or 嗯到哪里克了?(你到哪里去了。长沙方言)
    – A Lod
    Commented May 2 at 4:59
  • generally speaking, the authors just need to expalin for one time and then the readers will default to the same meaning of these words when they reappear later on.
    – A Lod
    Commented May 2 at 5:04

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