Wu (also “Wu language”) is one of the major divisions of the Chinese language. It is spoken in most of Zhejiang province, the municipality of Shanghai, southern Jiangsu province, as well as smaller parts of Anhui, Jiangxi, and Fujian provinces. Major Wu dialects include those of Shanghai, Suzhou, Wenzhou, Hangzhou, Shaoxing, Jinhua, Yongkang, and Quzhou. The traditional prestige dialect of Wu is the Suzhou dialect, though due to its large population, the Shanghai dialect is today sometimes considered the prestige dialect.
As of 1991, there are at least 77 million speakers of Wu Chinese, making it the second most populous Chinese language after Mandarin, which has 800 million speakers, and the 10th most populous language in the world.
Among speakers of other Chinese languages, Wu is often subjectively judged to be soft, light, and flowing. There is even a special term used to describe these qualities of Wu speech (). The actual source of this impression is harder to place. It is likely a combination of many factors. Among speakers of Wu, for example, Shanghainese is considered softer and mellower than the variant spoken in Ningbo, although some Wu speakers still insist that old standard Suzhou dialect is more pleasant and beautiful than the dialects of Shanghai and Ningbo.
Like other varieties of Chinese, there is debate as to whether Wu is a language or a dialect. By the standard of mutual intelligibility, Wu is a separate language; however, socially it is considered to be a regional form of the Chinese language. See Identification of the varieties of Chinese for the issues surrounding this dispute. In terms of written communication, there is a great but not complete degree of mutual intelligibility between Wu and Mandarin within the People's Republic of China as both are written in the current Vernacular Chinese, which uses Simplified Chinese characters as well as grammar and vocabulary centred on Standard Mandarin with a few allowances for "regional variation".
Like most other branches of Chinese, Wu descends from Middle Chinese. Although Wu represents the earliest split from the rest of these branches, and thus keeps many ancient characteristics, it was influenced by northern Chinese (Mandarin) throughout its development. This was due to its geographical closeness to north China and also to the high rate of education in this region. During the time between Ming Dynasty and early Republican era, the main characteristics of modern Wu were formed. The Suzhou dialect became the most influential, and many dialectologists use it in citing examples of Wu.
After the Taiping Revolution at the end of Qing dynasty, in which most of the other Wu-speaking regions were largely destroyed, Shanghai became an important city with immigration from other Wu-speaking regions. This greatly affected the language of Shanghai, making it a language island compared to the surrounding area. In the first half of the 20th century, before Mandarin was strongly promoted in the Wu area, Shanghainese played the role of a regional lingua franca and gradually replaced the influence of the Suzhou dialect.
After the founding of People's Republic of China, the strong promotion of Mandarin in the Wu-speaking region influenced the development of the language. Wu was gradually excluded from most modern media and schools. Public organisations are required to use Mandarin. With the influx of a migrant non Wu-speaking population and the near total mandarinisation of public media and organizations, as well as the radical Mandarin promotion measures, more and more children of Wu descent cannot speak Wu anymore, even within their families. Instead, Mandarin has become their mother tongue.
Many people have noticed this trend and thus call for the protection of this language. More and more TV programs in Wu appear although they are mostly comedies rather than formal programs. Roughly speaking, modern Wu is a leftover of the Chinese dialects – Chinese language tree.png starting from 1500 BC with Wu's position relative to other dialects.
Many Wu dialects are diverse and not mutually intelligible with each other. However, all Wu dialects including Oujiang can understand the Taihu dialect, while Taihu speakers find the other dialects unintelligible or intelligible only to a small extent.
According to Yan (2006), Wu is divided into six dialect areas:
The Wu pronoun system is complex when it comes to personal and demonstrative pronouns. For example, the first person plural pronoun differs when it is inclusive (including the hearer) and when it is exclusive (excluding the hearer, such as "me and him/her/them not you"). Wu employs six demonstratives, three of which are used to refer to close objects, and three of which are used for further objects.
In terms of word order, Wu uses SVO (like Mandarin), but unlike Mandarin, it can also be spoken in SOV.
In terms of phonology, tone sandhi is extremely complex, and helps parse multisyllabic words and idiomatic phrases. In some cases, indirect objects are distinguished from direct objects by a voiced/voiceless distinction.
Yan, M.M. (2006). Introduction to Chinese Dialectology. Munich: LINCOM EUROPA
A BBS set up in 2004, in which topics such as phonology, grammar, orthography and romanization of Wu Chinese are widely talked about. The cultural and linguistic diversity within China is also a significant concerning of this forum.