Slang dictionary records changing landscape of Beijing

Updated: 2011-01-13 16:03


Twitter Facebook Myspace Yahoo! Linkedin Mixx

When you hear an old Beijinger say that someone "listens to the song of lalagu," it doesn't mean the guy is a fan of a famous singer namely lalagu.

In fact, it is a humorous and euphemistic way of saying "to die" in the Beijing dialect.

However, the expression seemed unintelligible to 21-year-old Yuan Hui.

"I don't even know what lalagu is," said the Internet-savvy Beijing native, who preferred buzzwords like "gua" ("to kick the bucket" in English) when she joked with friends in online chat rooms.

As someone who could not distinguish ploughs from hoes, Yuan could be pardoned for not knowing lalagu, or mole cricket, a notorious crop pest in the eyes of many Chinese peasants. And given the tunnel-digging habit of lalagus, their ugly chirpings were, in the old language, reserved for those who "bite the dust."

Such slang, albeit archaic, has been compiled into a dictionary, which was published on Monday. The author, Dong Shuren, is a retired professor of linguistics at Beijing Language and Cultural University. He has spent over 10 years collecting old Beijing words and phrases.

"Slang words are the fossils of history; I try to record them so that later generations could better understand life in old Beijing," said Dong.

The New Beijing Dialect Dictionary, which includes 10,200 entries of words and slang, is the first of its kind published in recent years, after Xu Shirong's Beijing Local Dialect Dictionary (1990).

But Dong said the tremendous changes in Beijing dialect in recent years have outpaced China's meager work to document it.

"China is changing so fast, and so is the Beijing dialect -- new slang keeps popping up while old ones are quickly disappearing," said Dong. "But the efforts to collect those obsolete slang words still lag behind."

In the eyes of Dong, many slang words have pedigrees in customs and cultures that were once widespread in Beijing. Their lifespan, from emergence to extinction, well bespeaks the changes in the city.

"For example, the popularity of cricket fighting in Beijing's hutongs brought about the slang term 'to return with antennas and tail' to describe a person who is 'safe and sound' after a dangerous event," said Dong.

"Beijing families used to ask 'quankouren,' or "complete-family women" to give a hand in wedding preparations, viewing them as auspicious and a blessing to the marriage, and one standard of 'quankouren' is to have at least one son and one daughter," said Dong.

But this slang term, along with the custom, has slipped out of vogue since few women now qualify as "quankouren" following the implementation of the "one child policy".

"It's difficult to preserve them in real life since the social phenomena they're linked to have disappeared," said Dong. "But a comprehensive recording will benefit future interpretations of literary works of our times."

The Beijing dialect is the phonological basis of Standard Mandarin, and its status as the tone of the Chinese capital also makes it popular in the literature and pop cultures. Novels of Lao She and comedy films by Feng Xiaogang all feature a vivid use of Beijing-flavored language.

But due to the influx of immigrants as well as the promotion of Standard Mandarin in China's education, Dong said, the demographic basis of the Beijing dialect is quickly shrinking.

Usually the more education a Beijing native receives, the less dialect he or she speaks, said Dong.

Linguists and sociologists say dialects across China, and even around the globe, are under similar succession crises.

"Many local dialects are slowly dying as the fast economic growth results in the unification of communication forms," said Xiang Daohua, who teaches linguistics at China Foreign Affairs University.

Liu Tieliang, professor of Chinese folklores at Beijing Normal University, also sees this as a natural trend.

"Patois are endemic for a relatively closed region, but as local people interact more with the outside world, local dialects will submit to a common language," said Liu.

But to Liu Yun, who was born and lived in Beijing for 20 years before moving to the southern Chinese city of Xiamen, the retroflex-rich Beijing dialect was never lost, even though she now speaks accent-free Mandarin most of the time.

"Old accents came back to me whenever I chat with someone from Beijing, and we would feel so close (with that common tone)," said Liu. "The familiar tone also reminded me of the hutongs, the poplars, and my life in the old Beijing."

Liu's nostalgia is echoed by many young Chinese, who are now brainstorming for new ways of promoting "the tone of home" in a move to cherish the memory of their hometown or to display the pride on their identity.

On China's Internet, many dialects have opened postbars or forums, where posts aimed to combat "dialect illiteracy" or to mock the "Grade Six Test" attracted the most hits.

Netizens also collected ballads and riddles from different dialects to share with each other.

In China's economic hub Shanghai, old slang has been listed in the middle school literature textbook to let students better understand the history of the city through its language.

Also, it has become a trend in recent years to have the heroes and heroines in films talking in dialect. A new version of the latest blockbuster "Let the Bullets Fly" has just hit the screen in Sichuan dialect from the beginning to the end.

On China's video platform, the American animation Tom and Jerry has at least 15 dialect versions, spontaneously dubbed by enthusiastic netizens.

"It's a shame that many children can no longer understand that," commented one netizen under a Fuzhou dialect dubbed Doraemon episode. "It's a fun experience exclusively enjoyed by we 'Fuzhounese'-speaking people." Enditem


Sindberg leaves lasting legacy

China commemorates Danish hero's courage during Nanjing Massacres.

Crystal Clear
No more tears
Road to the Oscars

European Edition


NPC & CPPCC sessions

Lawmakers and political advisers gather in Beijing to discuss major issues.

Sentimental journey

Prince William and Kate Middleton returned to the place where they met and fell in love.

Rent your own island

Zhejiang Province charts plans to lease coastal islands for private investments

The green lantern
Adventures of Pierre
Inland interchange