Dictionary brings dying Beijing slang back to life

08:30, December 31, 2010      

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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 named Lalagu.

In fact, it's 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 prefers buzzwords like gua ("to kick the bucket" in English) when she jokes with friends in online chat rooms.

As someone who can't distinguish ploughs from hoes, Yuan could be pardoned for not knowing a lalagu, or a mole cricket, is a notorious crop pest in the eyes of many Chinese peasants. And given its tunnel-digging habit, their ugly chirping was, in the old language, reserved for those who "bit the dust".

Such dying slang, so to speak, has been included in a dictionary published on Monday. The author, Dong Shuren, is a retired professor of linguistics at Beijing Language and Culture University. He has spent more than 10 years collecting old Beijing words and phrases.

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

The New Beijing Dialect Dictionary, which includes 10,200 entries, is the first of its kind published since Xu Shirong's Beijing Local Dialect Dictionary (1990).

But Dong said the tremendous changes in the 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 effort to collect those obsolete slang words still lags behind."

To Dong, many slang words have their roots in customs and cultures that were once widespread in Beijing. Their lifespans, from emergence to extinction, speak of 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 a quankouren, or 'complete-family women' to give them a hand in wedding preparations, seeing them as lucky and a blessing to the marriage," Dong said.

Yet since one "qualification" for a quankouren is to have at least one son and one daughter, the slang term, along with the custom, has slipped out of vogue since few women now qualify following the implementation of the family planning policy.

"It's difficult to preserve them in real life since the social phenomenon they're linked to has 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 literature and pop culture. 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 forms of communication," said Xiang Daohua, who teaches linguistics at China Foreign Affairs University.

Liu Tieliang, professor of Chinese folklore at Beijing Normal University, also sees this as a natural trend. "Dialects are natural in 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, her retroflex-rich Beijing dialect was never lost, even though she now speaks accent-free Mandarin most of the time.

"Old accents come back to me whenever I chat with someone from Beijing, and we feel so close," said Liu. "The familiar tone also reminds me of the hutongs, the poplars and my life in old Beijing."

Source: China Daily(By Yao Yuan and Bai Xu)
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