As we say in The Hanmoji Handbook, “Here’s the thing about spoken Chinese: it refers to many different languages — dozens, in fact — used by people in various parts of China, today and throughout history.” So when we discovered that the United Nations created an official, singular Chinese Language Day (celebrated annually on 4/20 of all days), we were a little perplexed. But here’s an idea for next year: let’s call it Chinese Languages Day instead, and use the event to highlight the plurality of Chinese expression around the world.
To that end, we wanted to share the hard-to-find resources that enabled us to show the breadth of spoken Chinese in our book: the online dictionaries for the regional, non-official languages of China and its diaspora. These spoken languages are increasingly sidelined in the recent standardization and nationalization of Mandarin, as Oiwan Lam notes in Global Voices. Keep in mind, though, that the standardization of written Chinese started millennia earlier than the spoken form, so all of these non-Mandarin languages are still written with either Simplified or Traditional Chinese characters. There are some variations in specific words and phrases chosen for written expression, especially in colloquial, but for the most part, the written script is the same. These dictionaries can help us understand the nuances and variations.
Our favorite go-to when it comes to looking up Cantonese words is definitely the Pleco mobile app. Pleco is a tried-and-true powerhouse for your Chinese learning needs. At its core, it’s a Chinese-to-English dictionary, but it also sports features for flashcard memorization and OCR (optical character recognition) document reading. Most importantly, it ships with Cantonese support that can be easily turned on, along with add-ons (both free and paid) that bolster its Cantonese vocabulary. For more details on how to use Pleco for Cantonese, check out Cantoblog’s How to make Pleco into a Cantonese power tool.
潮州音字典 (czyzd.com) comes in both mobile app and website form. The iOS mobile app is available on the Apple App Store, though the Android version only comes via a download-at-your-own-risk file on their website. Their website on the other hand, is accessible to all, though it unfortunately runs through an unencrypted HTTP connection.
Audio pronunciation: Shanghainese (and sometimes others)
Launch date: 2016
Creators: Language enthusiasts across China (see origin story)
吳語學堂 [Wu Language Academy] is an expansive resource that’s working to capture an entire language group under one roof. It might not have as many features (or audio clips) as some of the other dictionaries, but its breadth of coverage, as shown in the screenshotted map above, is an astounding achievement all on its own.
Phonetic guides: Mandarin, Cantonese, Hakka, Jin, Min Bei, Min Dong, Min Nan, Wu…
Audio pronunciation: Mandarin
Launch date: 2002
Creators: Wikimedia Foundation and volunteers
Because of its breadth of coverage, Wiktionary is a great place to start. But because it rarely ever cites its sources for pronunciation data, it’s hard to figure out how verified the information is or what the intent of the volunteer editors/writers is. Having said that, the quality of data on there is still very high in our experience, so we recommend using it in conjunction with at least one other source.
Know of other Chinese language dictionaries that you think we should know about? Let us know by dropping a note below in the comments.