The Language of Wuhan

The Wuhan dialect is often described as a “southwestern mandarin variety” of Chinese. For over a century foreigners, especially missionaries who lived in the city, were alternately fascinated and frustrated by the challenge of pinning down a dialect seen to be in the process of transformation on the one hand, but also showing such variation across the three historical cities, Wuchang, Hankou, and Hanyang that make up the tricity of Wuhan, that missionaries trained on one side of the river faced challenges in understanding what was said on the other.

For the British consular officer and amateur linguist Edward Harper Parker, who dedicated his first signed publication to the dialect, his primary observation seemed to be that the dialect was, “very poor, consisting of only 316 syllables, against the Pekingese 420.1 Elsewhere, he complains that, “this dialect is one of the most unsatisfactory to deal with…the dialect in Hankow is in a transitory state…and is moreover largely affected by the speech of the numerous traders who congregate at that centre.”2 In 1899 James Addison Ingle (1867-1903), a missionary and first episcopal bishop in Hankou published his Hankow Syllabary, some eight years after he arrived in China. It represents his attempt to capture the “sounds and tones as heard in Hankow.”3 For Ingle, “Hankow is such an omnium gatherum of all the eighteen provinces, that its speech is very impure, with sounds confusingly mixing into one another, even as they do so in different ways on the opposite banks of the river in Wuchang.”4

Ingle warns his reader already on the first page that “It has not seemed practicable to embody even the Wuchang pronunciations which differ from those in Hankow. Wuchang students will easily learn from their teachers what those differences are.” Wuchang, the provincial capital and an old city dating back to its time as a capital of Wu in the three kingdoms period, is now just Wuchang district in Wuhan. It had its own group of foreign missionaries analysing the local language over a period of some decades, and their work would find a home in the 1925 dictionary produced by Mary Donald Grosvenor, A Colloquial Chinese Pocket Dictionary in the Hankow Dialect.5

Looking back at the history of research on the Wuhan dialect in 2009, W. South Coblin and 柯蔚南 note that Chinese linguists observed major sub-types in the Wuchang and Hankou/Hanyang dialects, but also significant variation across generations, with a “old group”(老派) preserving more of the distinctions found by the sources above, and everyone else a new speech group, with the latter also showing the infuences of standard Mandarin koine.6

According to the Coblin and 柯 article these are some of the phonological features of the dialect (see the article for the full list, more details on each, and what differences are found with the older sources):

  • A voiced velar nasal ŋ before mid and low vowels (at least among the 老派, and this seems to have been true in the 1930s)
  • Initial l- and n- in standard northern Chinese are represented by one phoneme, transcribed as n-, but Coble and 柯 argue that the sources suggest that there has been a transition over time and that there was a distinction in the nineteenth century. Depending on the older source referred to initial r- is also often missing or becomes l- in many cases, though the sources are mixed in what they find over time.
  • In modern Wuhan dialect, the “er” of standard northern mandarin comes out as a ɯ (Close back unrounded vowel)
  • Modern Wuhan dialect lacks “retroflex initials” 張 (zhang) and 車 (che) begin with “ts” and 殺 (sha) comes out “sa” – but the article suggests that at least some of these are present in the Parker source. There is further discussion of the “destinations” of other missing retroflex initials in modern Wuhanese.
  • In modern Wuhan dialect, final -u does not follow coronal initials and are replaced with “palatal plus” -y – I don’t understand the phonetic explanation here, but apparently 賭,土,努,路,初,and 蘇 come out as if they are “ou” instead of “u” on the end.
  • -n and ŋ are distinguished in northern standard mandarin (-en/-eng, -in/-ing) but apparently these are not distinguished in Wuhanese and all become -n.
  • After dental initials, -uan, -un, -ui become unrounded so that 短,乱,算 all end with -an instead of -uan.
  • Over time an earlier fifth 入声 tone has merged into the 杨平 tone so that the dialect now has only four tones.

These are just some notes from the article’s discussion on phonology, and says nothing of the rich vocabulary of the dialect. Below are a few links to videos where you can listen to 武汉话 being spoken and sung.7

Test your Wuhan dialect listening skills:
武汉话听力考试对话版

Two songs showcasing the Wuhan dialect here:
段思思 – 信了你的邪
武汉方言说唱《噶事》

Here is a nice video discussing the changing demographics and efforts to preserve the dialect. After the virus outbreak in Wuhan late last year, medical teams from all over China have been flown in to work in Wuhan and elsewhere in Hubei. Apparently, Shandong University’s Qilu hospital created a Wuhan Dialect Handbook (《国家援鄂医疗队武汉方言音频材料》) which went viral throughout China in February.

One thing I would love to know more about is to what degree other aspects of the dialect’s idiomatic expressions and vocabulary etc. confirm or dismiss the romantic notion of Wuhan’s dialect as a melting pot of languages, an “omnium gatherum of all the…provinces.” Its geographical location and central position on the infrastructure network of China certainly give the idea a nice starting point but I doubt that languages evolve in quite so simplistic a manner.

Update: Here is another song passed on by Chris Courtney: Let it Go in Wuhan dialect (turn off the crazy text on top by unchecking 弹 below the video).


  1. E.H. Parker, “The Hankow Dialect,” The China Review 3, no. 5 (1875). See also David Prager Branner, “The Linguistic Ideas of Edward Harper Parker,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 119, no. 1 (1999): 12–34.  

  2. E.H. Parker, “The Comparative Study of Chinese Dialects” Journal Of The North-china Branch Of The Royal Asiatic Society xii (1878): 29.  

  3. Ingle Hankow Syllabary, 1.  

  4. ibid, 3.  

  5. She was the daughter of a medical missionary in Wuchang who would later go on to win prizes for her studies in Hebrew and Greek and then work with a team of classicists at Oxford on biblical texts. See Zerwick Maximilian and Grosvenor Mary, A Grammatical Analysis of the Greek New Testament (Gregorian Biblical BookShop, 2010).  

  6. W. South Coblin and 柯蔚南, “Glimpses of Hankou Phonological History / 漢ロ方言語音歴史的幾點認識,” Journal of Chinese Linguistics 37, no. 2 (2009): 188-189.  

  7. thanks to Wuhan historian Chris Courtney for one of the songs!  

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