The Bell Tower of Xi'an, capital of Shaanxi Province (XINHUA)
Wang, the driver of our school bus, is the most animated speaker I have ever seen—in any language. He is generally so excitable on the drive to and from school that he entertains all the teachers. He maintains a constant flow of speech, his voice soaring and plummeting as he tells jokes, frequently taking his eyes off the road and his hands off the steering wheel. His colorful discourse is never in Mandarin, but rather in the regional dialect, Shaanxi hua. Therefore it was Wang's popular oratory that sparked my interest in the peculiarities of local speech.
Having lived and traveled in the south of China for several years, I have been both fascinated and confounded by the varied dialects spoken there: from the sing-song sounds of Wuhan hua and its stretched syllables, to the impatient and irritated cadence of the Guizhou dialect. Picking up Shaanxi hua seems a much easier project for the eager student of Chinese, as it's more closely related to Mandarin than the southern dialects and therefore less confusing.
The British sometimes claim to speak the "Queen's English," and Xi'an residents will tell you theirs is the Chinese spoken by Emperor Qinshihuang, the first emperor to unite China, long before Beijing hua became the standard vernacular. Shaanxi natives can keep themselves endlessly entertained discussing the peculiarities of local speech, which may vary from town to town, generation to generation and even person to person. As the Shaanxi dialect is similar but not identical throughout the province, we will consider the kind of things commonly heard when crammed into a sweaty Xi'an bus, waiting for a bowl of noodles or trying to tell a cab driver your destination.
Shaanxi hua is a spoken, not written language, but most of its sounds can be reasonably well represented in pinyin. As a general rule, very few people actually "speak" Shaanxi hua, they "shout" it. Also, the tones differ from standard Mandarin, usually shifting to the falling fourth tone, but tones may also rise, fall and stretch. The best thing to do is just to keep your ears pricked as you move around and try to learn from the locals without worrying too much about specifics.
Unlike their brethren south of the Yangtze River, people in Shaanxi can usually pronounce every sound that exists in Mandarin, but when speaking the dialect that may change. At the level of individual sounds, you won't encounter the chronic southern pronunciation problems that can turn President Hu Jintao into Fu Jintao. However, there is some inconsistency in the way things are said. For example, the zh/ch/sh/ sounds that tie so many southern tongues may be pronounced correctly in Xi'an, or incorrectly as z/c/s/, with few clear rules as to when and why. This means that a simple word like 'here' could be pronounced zher, zheli or zeli, depending on the speaker. Personally, I find this lack of consistency comforting as it reminds me that I'm not the only one who struggles with these tricky sounds, and despite what your Mandarin teacher may say, people still understand you even if your pronunciation is not "standard."
Let's move onto commonly heard words that exhibit a Shaanxi twang. First is ng, which replaces wo, meaning that you quite literally become a different person when speaking the local dialect. This is followed by di, instead of de, meaning that "my friend" becomes ng di pengyou. Next is mo, which replaces the Mandarin mei. As sentences often end in lie, rather than le, the next time someone asks to borrow a few yuan you can shout that you are "broke": ng mo qian lie! Locals often replace the Mandarin zenme with a simple za, so your penniless pengyou may ask you "what's the matter?" by bellowing za lie?! You can then point out that "nothing's wrong" by coolly saying mo za. Adding just these few words to your Shaanxi hua repertoire will give you a local style that no amount of noodle-eating could achieve.
As confidence grows you can move onto a few useful phrases. After a delicious meal, you let everyone know it was "just right" with a heartfelt liao za lie. You can tell somebody "it doesn't matter" by changing the Mandarin mei shi into a more relaxed-sounding mo si. If you feel somebody is "worrying over nothing," you can tell them it's sui sui ge si. Next time you see your neighbors, the traditional greeting of "Have you eaten?" can be localized by asking fan die lie mo? And if you find yourself standing in the rain at 4 o'clock in the afternoon unable to get a taxi, you can show your exasperation by turning your face toward the heavens and shouting ng di ma ya!
As with any dialect, getting the sounds of Shaanxi hua right will require a lot of authentic listening practice, but that's part of the fun. Moreover, slipping some local expressions into your conversations is guaranteed to get a good response and endear you to the Shaanxi natives. As different dialects are a topic that people never seem to tire of, your Chinese friends will be more than happy to give you some help. Of course, the phrases mentioned above are just the tip of the iceberg and truly mastering any Chinese dialect is a long term project. You could even get into the local swear words, which is where things really get colorful, but just be sure not to take the expression "when in Rome, do as the Romans do" too literally.
The author is a Briton living in China