Fengxian to build a vowel park to protect local dialect with largest vowel diversity in the world

A park will be built in Jinhui Town of Fengxian District to show the local dialect as the world's most vowel-diversified one so as to protect the dialect in risk of vanishing.
Ti Gong

Vowels and words in local dialect

Construction of a vowel park will kick off at the end of this month to show its vowel qualities and awaken public awareness to protect the dialect known as the most vowel-diversified dialect in the world, local authorities told Shanghai Daily recently.

The small park will locate along a downtown walking and jogging path with a stone tablet stating that the town has the largest number of vowels in the world, while five other large marble plates engraved with vowels of the dialect and some of its folk songs.

The construction is expected to cost about two months.

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

The Jinhui dialect, known as "dang dai hua" or Dondac Wu, first caught public attention in 2012 as a team led by Li published their findings on the famous journal Science that it had 20 vowels, overshadowing Mandarin with 10 and Standard Swedish with16.

The findings were made based on a dialects survey since 1998 all over Shanghai and researches on 579 languages all over the world.

Li told Shanghai Daily that the large vowel diversity of Jinhui dialect was formed due to complicated reasons. It has preserved Liangzhu Culture dating back to more than 4,000 years ago and some of the current residents are descendants of original inhabitants at that time, which passed on the language well.

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

Despite its uniqueness, the Jinhui dialict also faces the risk of vanishing as many other languages.

"Most people are getting used to speaking Mandarin," Li pointed out. "Even my parents could not say pure Dondac Wu now, not mention the children."

Meanwhile, many native residents have moved to the city and more migrants are coming to the town, making the situation worse.

Li also pointed out that language was a carrier for culture and protecting a language is also to protect its culture. There are also many intangible cultural heritages based on the dialect in Fengxian, such as the Baiyang Village folk song, which is includes thousands of lines and is usually sung on wedding ceremonies.

"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 Dondac Wu and use it in local schools as a compulsory course."

But Li confessed that it was not enough.

"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 would not like speaking it, believing it as a language for country bumpkins."

With the future vowel park, Li wished people can develop self-confidence in their own language, which had the largest number of vowel qualities compared to other languages.

"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.

Ti Gong

The design picture of the vowel park's stone tablet 

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A nursery rhyme in Jinhui dialect

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Excerpts from a local folk song for weddings

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A table showing phonetic information of Jinhui dialect

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The textbook of the dialect co-edited by Li

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