The Beijing Accent
In the past three months, experience has taught me that accents in Beijing are greatly varied. That’s mostly due to the fact that a good number of Chinese people living in Beijing originate from other places. For instance, the people I’ve so far befriended in Beijing come from Henan, Shandong, Jiangsu, Sichuan, and Zhejiang. I enjoy this diversity for two reasons: it allows me to satisfy my geographically curious mind, and it subjects me to a range of Mandarin Chinese accents. If I’m really motivated, perhaps I can chart out my own accent map of China by simply interacting with people living in Beijing and learning where they’re from.
I suppose there are many ways to categorize the different accents one will encounter in Beijing. Part of the fun of learning Mandarin is to try to develop an ear for these accents. My current level of Chinese only allows me to distinguish between a few groups, but it’s a start.
The Beijing accent, as is consistent with native Beijingers, heavily employs the “er” sound at the end of words which wouldn’t normally make use of them. Aside from this most conspicuous trait, Beijingers tend to enunciate their tones with what I can only describe as authority. In a sense, it’s a melodious way of speaking Mandarin, although many Beijingers may likely refer to their spoken tongue as Beijing Hua (the language from which Standard Mandarin is based). The most obvious way to sample this accent is to ride a taxi, seeing as most taxi drivers are from Beijing. If you’re on the lookout for Beijing Hua, your ears will also often perk up in the streets of Beijing.
Other Northern Chinese accents are similar in that they do include many words casually ending in the “er” sound, as well as share similar idiomatic words or phrases. It would seem for instance that anyone from the North often utters “mei shi’er” as a manner of saying “mei guan xi” (people from the South may find this perplexing). Despite the similarities, each region in the North is adorned with its own characteristics, and from my personal experience in interacting with the Chinese, all these Northern accents constitute some sort of a family in which Beijing is the “er” epicenter.
Many Southern Chinese also live in Beijing. Besides the absence of excessive “er” use, people from the South utter unmistakable sibilant consonants: where Standard Mandarin and Beijing Hua employs the “sh” sound, Southerners utter it as “s”; and where one would normally hear “zh”, Southerners utter it more as if it were a “z”. This giveaway is fairly easy to pick up on, and I’ve found it rather amusing that Southerners are amazed at my knack for identifying them as such. Adding to this, many people from the South pronounce the “r” sound very differently (think of words such as “ren”, “rong”, or “rou”). The “r” sounds more like a “y”.
Let us get back to the Beijing accent. I find the most important and interesting distinction in spoken Mandarin is the difference between what one would call Standard Mandarin and Beijing Mandarin (Beijing Hua). Most students of Mandarin Chinese decide to come to Beijing in order to immerse themselves in the environment where it began. I don’t disagree with this logic seeing as I am myself studying Mandarin in Beijing. That being said, I would point out that Standard Mandarin — the version of spoken Mandarin ubiquitous in schools all across the Mainland — is what is usually heard in any official or formal capacity, whether it be news reports, speeches, announcements, meetings, etc. The universality of Standard Mandarin was politically thrust following the founding of the People’s Republic, no doubt as a means to further unite the land. This version of spoken mandarin is bereft of any local flavor, but has the advantage of being the most understood. Therefore, although many people rightfully encourage the student of mandarin Chinese to immerse him/herself in Beijing, he or she should be informed of the advantages of being able to speak Standard Mandarin. Luckily, in Beijing, anyone with a higher education has the ability to discourse in this very neutral sounding Chinese, so there is ample opportunity for practice. Please note however that I am in no way knocking Beijing Hua, as I do find it no less interesting or appealing as a language.
In short, whereas Beijing Hua can be recognized as the root of Standard Mandarin, its greatest use as a tool to communicate fluently with the locals is limited to the confines of the municipality of Beijing. The sheer practicality of Standard Mandarin throughout the country, as well as overseas, cannot be overlooked.