The words of Shanghlish

Shanghai language or Shanghainese is notoriously difficult to understand and even more to speak for non Shanghainese Mandarin speakers. It has been studied as a language and its origin have been well documented (click here to see the Wikipedia article on the topic).

The influence of foreign languages on the Shanghainese is a much less studied topic. Although there are books in Chinese on “How to learn Shanghainese”, I have not found any article in English about absorption of foreign words into Shanghainese language… but ask Shanghainese people and they will tell you. Here comes the word of Shanghlish, coined after Singapore local version of English, Singlish. Foreigners in Old Shanghai brought many symbols of modernity with them including cloths, food, cars and many more. The vocabulary to described them simply did not exit so foreign words were incorporated into Shanghainese, later on moving to Chinese. I have found a few examples about those below, but I am still looking for more:

Sofa (沙发): Although pronounced “Shafa” in Mandarin, it clearly first came through Shanghainese were pronounced litteraly “Sofa”. As most traditional Chinese furniture were hard wood, this kind of comfortable seat was probably such a novelty that it became a word of its own.

Cementing (水门汀): Technical term: “To prepare and pump cement into place in a wellbore”. In Shanghainese, these are the front of a house that is covered with concrete. This feature was clearly introduce for the foreign style house, that had a concrete (cement) entrance to avoid the damp of Shanghai soil.

“Modeng” (摩登): Direct transposition from “modern” in English, with a slightly different meaning. “Modeng” is not modern, but fashionable. At the time of old Shanghai (just like today), what was fashionable was modern, so it became “Modeng”.

“On Sale” : A typical Shanghai expression. The original discounted price in English became a (not very nice) adjective for people. Somebody “on sale” is somebody that is not reliable, that could mislead or hide truth. Could also be translated as “cheap”. It is funny how the cheap price transformed to mean “cheap person”.

“Assai”: Supposedly coming from “High Sir”, it was used in the expression “Hong To Assai” (red head high sir, 红头阿三)   which designated the sikh policemen that were brought from India by the British empire to rule the traffic in the foreign settlement. They wore a red hat… and were saying “High Sir”

Foreigners also introduced a new way to count time. It seems that using quarter of an hour to tell time like in “Qi Dian San Ke” (7点3刻)= 7 hours 3 quarter (three quarter past seven) is only used in Shanghai. “Quarter past” or “quarter to” is often used in English, but I made not sure about “three quarters” being used in English. However in French it makes perfect sense. This is probably another Shanghainese expression that came from foreign languages.

The last two one I found seems a little too good to be true, but I cannot resist mentioning it. I read somewhere that the current world for street in Shanghai (lu, 路) could be a transformation of “rue” (street in French). Although I am sceptical about it, that would explain why lu is in use mostly in Shanghai. This little French touch in old Shanghai sounds very nice, though it still seems a little far fetched to me.

If you know other examples of Shanghlish words, please write to me as I am very interested in the topic.

3 thoughts on “The words of Shanghlish”

  1. I knew the rest words have their origin in English. But never knew until I read your entry that Qi Di Se Ke is probably from the quarter sense used in English/French. No wonder when I explain to my Swiss friend how to say 7:15, 7:30 and 7:45 in Shanghainese, he laughed like hell…hahaha
    Great sharing. Cheers,

  2. Good evening!
    I was born in Shanghai in 1930 and left it in 1947, learned at Ecole Remi… and I do have several words and phrases in Zong He Ewo only don’t know how to transliterate them, the sounds are so different from English..

    Hope to hear from you,

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