Hěn chōngming? or: Where have all the retroflexes gone?

The other day, I heard three people pronounce 聪明(cōngming) as chōngming.  So far as I know, all three are southerners.  This surprised me.  I’m not sure how widespread the retroflex initials (except r?) actually are, but I had been under the impression that southern dialects don’t have them.  My guess is that I didn’t actually discover a heretofore unobserved pronunciation of 聪明 but rather something like this:

Southerner #1–possibly a native Cantonese speaker–is reading a text out loud, gets to the word 聪明, and thinks to herself “how is this word pronounced in Mandarin?” She comes up with chōngming.  Southerner #2 continues reading and thinks to herself “phew, now I know I have to pronounce that word with a ‘ch'” and does likewise.  Southerner #3 is now really confident of her pronunciation and does the same.

But I’ve also been wondering lately–where do the native retroflex distinctions (the ones they insist all foreigners, and presumably all school children, learn to pronounce) actually exist?  I’m at the very edge of Dongbei, and my observation is that they come and go around here.  Sometimes, at least, they come for my benefit, but I think not always.  I’ve been wondering if there might be a sociolinguistic effect going on (e.g. retroflexes prove you’re educated, so use them when you want to impress someone.  Lack of retroflexes prove you’re cool, so don’t use them when you want to impress a different someone.  That sort of thing.)  Maybe someday when my Chinese is much better I’ll be able to answer that question.

But in the meantime, I’ve heard that retroflexes are a northern thing, and really, you can’t get much further north than Dongbei.  I’ve heard they came into the language under Manchurian influence–though I have no idea if this is true–but you can’t get much more Manchurian than Dongbei.  So if they’re not here, where are they?  Beijing? (A quick survey of recordings over at Beijing Sounds suggests that the answer is probably yes.) Anywhere else?

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