Shanghai's Fengxian to build a 'vowel park' to protect the local Jinhui dialect

Updated 2017-08-24 10:02:53 Shanghai Daily

Construction of a "vowel park" will start at the end of month to highlight the unusual number of vowels that appear in the local dialect and to awaken public awareness of the need to protect it.

The Jinhui dialect, named after the town in Fengxian District, is known as "dang dai hua." The dialect is renowned as "the most vowel-diversified language," local authority officials told Shanghai Daily.

The small park will be sited along a downtown walking and jogging path in Fengxian, with a stone tablet stating that the town has the world's largest number of vowels.

Five other large marble plates will be engraved with vowels from the dialect and some of its associated folk songs.

Construction is expected to last about two months.

Li Hui, a Jinhui native and an anthropologist at Fudan University, welcomes the plan for the park as he has been appealing to authorities to set up such a facility for years.

The Jinhui dialect caught public attention in 2012 after a team led by Li published its findings in the journal Science, stating that it had 20 vowels — overshadowing Mandarin with 10 and Swedish with 16.

The findings were based on a dialects survey carried out since 1998 across Shanghai and on research on 579 languages all over the world.

Li told Shanghai Daily that complicated reasons lie behind the large vowel diversity seen in the Jinhui dialect.

It has preserved Liangzhu culture dating back to more than 4,000 years ago and some of Shanghai's current residents are descendants of the inhabitants from that time. The dialect has been passed down the generations.

"But people around Jinhui are all migrants from other places," he said. "Our research found that there were at least seven dialects spoken by the migrants, which also permeated into 'dang dai hua,' when migrants communicated with local people."

Despite its uniqueness, the Jinhui dialect faces the risk of vanishing, as do many other languages. "Most people are getting used to speaking Mandarin," Li pointed out. "Even my parents could not say pure 'dang dai hua' now."

There are also many intangible cultural heritages based on the dialect in Fengxian, such as the Baiyang Village folk song, which includes thousands of lines, and is usually sung on wedding ceremonies, he added.

"The most effective way to protect a language is to let children learn and speak it," he said.

"That's why we published a textbook about 'dang dai hua' and use it in local schools as a compulsory course."

"We found that many migrant children are interested in learning the dialects so as to integrate into local culture," he said. "But some native children don't like speaking it, believing it a language for country bumpkins."

With the future vowel park, Li hopes people will develop self-confidence in their own dialect. "And the vowels, words and folk songs engraved on the plates can also help local residents to learn the dialect unconsciously when they pass by," he said.

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