A Look at the Dônđän Wu Language

Method and Conclusion. See here.

Results. A ratings system was designed in terms of how difficult it would be for an English-language speaker to learn the language. In the case of English, English was judged according to how hard it would be for a non-English speaker to learn the language. Speaking, reading and writing were all considered.

Ratings: Languages are rated 1-6, easiest to hardest. 1 = easiest, 2 = moderately easy to average, 3 = average to moderately difficult, 4 = very difficult, 5 = extremely difficult, 6 = most difficult of all. Ratings are impressionistic.

Time needed. Time needed for an English language speaker to learn the language “reasonably well”: Level 1 languages = 3 months-1 year. Level 2 languages = 6 months-1 year. Level 3 languages = 1-2 years. Level 4 languages = 2 years. Level 5 languages = 3-4 years, but some may take longer. Level 6 languages = more than 4 years.

This post will look at the Dônđän Wu language in terms of how difficult it would be for an English speaker to learn it.

Dônđän Wu

A recent 15 year survey out of Fudan University utilizing both the departments of Linguistics and Anthropology looked at 579 different languages in 91 linguistic families in order to try to find the most complicated language in the world. The result was that a Wu language dialect (or perhaps a separate language) in the Fengxian district of southern Shanghai (Dônđän Wu) was the most phonologically complex language of all, with 20 separate vowels (Wang 2012). The nearest competitor was Norwegian with 16 vowels.

Dônđän Wu gets a 6 rating, hardest of all.


Wang, Chuan-Chao et al. 2012. Comment on ”Phonemic Diversity Supports a Serial Founder Effect Model of Language Expansion from Africa.” Science 335:657.


Filed under Applied, Chinese language, Language Families, Language Learning, Linguistics, Sinitic, Sino-Tibetan

6 responses to “A Look at the Dônđän Wu Language

  1. James Schipper

    Dear Robert

    I think that German has 18 vowels, if you take length into account.

    long a – Rat
    short a – Katze
    long closed e – lebt
    short closed e – sekundär*
    short open e – fest
    long i – Tier
    short i -ist
    long closed o – Tor
    short closed o – Problem*
    short open o – Kost
    long closed ö – blöd
    short closed ö – ökologisch*
    short open ö – Löffel
    long u – Mut
    short u – Mutter
    long ü – Grüße
    short ü – müssen
    schwa – Porsche

    The ones with an asterisk are only found in words of Latin or Greek origin. They are like the close French e, o and eu.

    Regards. James

  2. Johnny

    Is this dialect considered part of the Han continuum at all? I didn’t realize it wasn’t mutually intelligible (is this Shanghainese?) with Han or Cantonese. Curious that a Chinese language is so different in ways that I don’t recall hearing about it specifically before, but is sounds familiar like I heard Anthony Bourdain bring it up when he was in China.

    • What is Han? You mean Mandarin? Wu is not part of the Mandarin continuum at all. If a Wu speaker was talking, a Mandarin speaker could not even understand one word he said. In fact, most Wu speakers can’t even understand each other! There are probably at least 30 separate languages even inside Wu! This is Shanghaiese Wu, but I do not even think it is the same language as Shanghaiese! I heard that Fengxian Shanghaiese cannot be understood by Shanghaiese speakers!

      • Johnny

        Yeah my bad I typed Han when I meant Mandarin. Wow, that’s amazing. And the Wu speakers having different dialects to the point that they can’t understand each other is surprising. I appear to have severely underestimated the diversity of Chinese languages. I know some local dialects are very different but I always assumed they could speak to each other for the most part.

        I’ve learned a little about Chinese languages from friends, but they always spoke of Mandarin vs Cantonese. What’s more I had a Czech flatmate when I lived in the UK and he was studying Chinese and explained there were many dialects, some of which are very different, but I didn’t know they couldn’t understand each other.

        Very interesting stuff. They all probably speak to each other in Mandarin then if they can’t understand their distinct Wu languages. And I mean do we call these Wu languages?!

        • Yes nowadays most all of them will speak Standard or Official Mandarin (Putonghuas) each other if they cannot understand each other. Unfortunately, some of the regional Putonghua’s are getting so different from each other that they can’t understand each other either! For instance, Taiwanese Mandarin is not fully intelligible with Putonghua (maybe 85%).

          Ethnologue only lists one Wu language, so that is all linguist recognize officially at the moment. However, in my opinion, there are many Wu languages and difficult intelligiblity among Wu dialects is the norm.

          Even Mandarin itself is split into many different dialects, and many of them cannot understand each other at all. A friend of mine told me you go three cities over and it’s a new Mandarin language.

          A friend of mine who is one of the top Sinologists in the world told me that using my 90% intelligibility for separating language and dialect, he could split Macro-Chinese into 2,000 different languages. The famous Sinologist Jerry Norman once said that there were 300 different languages in Fujian alone!

      • Johnny

        Yeah that surprises me at times, but not about Mandarin variations. My ex-girlfriend is half Taiwanese and she was telling me that while she can understand most of what standard Chinese Mandarin speakers say some of it she has no clue about.

        This layered information about Chinese languages is interesting and maybe not that surprising given that they have nearly 1.4 billion people. I guess you can literally retreat to an enclave and have your own dialect or language and millions around you also speak it.

        Yeah my only information on the Wu languages was regarding the distinct tongue of Shanghai. And the Mandarin variations by city is interesting. I’m just wondering what happens when all the cities become mega-cities!

        Holy crap 2,000 languages?! Man, so there probably could have been multiple Chinas just based on language alone then. I’m looking up this stuff as we speak and I had no idea. I mean by certain measures China is indeed as diverse linguistically as India (or maybe moreso since most stats I’ve seen list Indian languages at 1,500 or thereabouts). Cool reveal man. Thanks!

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