New blog address

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Grammar notes: 是 … 的 without the 是?

A while back, I wrote about how the 是 … 的(shì … de) construction is used for focus. I even went so far as to look it up in a grammar book, where I was informed that this construction could be used without the 是(shì). I was not the only one to find this claim a bit sketchy. So, for our further edification, here’s an example of a sentence where 的(de) is used for focus without a 是(shì).  The following two sentences are identical except for the final 的(de). (For the non-character-readers among you, please note that this is not the same character as the medial 得(de).)

房间 打扫 干干净净
fángjiān dǎsǎo de gāngānjìngjìng de
she ba room clean (v.) de clean (adj. red.) DE

‘She cleaned the room until it was REALLY CLEAN.’ (focus on really clean)

房间 打扫 干干净净
fángjiān dǎsǎo de gāngānjīngjīng
she ba room clean de clean (red.

‘She CLEANED the room until it was really clean.’ (focus on cleaned)

In the first sentence, the final 的(de) places the focus on 干干净净(gāngānjìngjìng) ‘very clean’, the result of the action.  In the second sentence, the focus falls instead on the action itself, 打扫 (dǎsǎo) ‘clean’.  I assume that this is the natural place for the focus to fall in this sentence. The 把(bǎ), I think, takes emphasis away from 房间(fángjiān) ‘room’, and 她(tā) ‘she’ is presumably given information, so also a poor candidate for focus. So the added 的(de) in the first sentence is a focus marker; it draws the focus away from its natural placement–and in this case, at least, places it on the information that immediately precedes it.

So it looks like the book was right about one thing.  的(de) can be used for focus without a 是(shì) in sight. But is this in fact an example of a 是 … 的(shì … de) construction without the 是(shì)? If it is, then we should be able to add 是(shì) into the first sentence somewhere and (and this is the really important bit) the meaning and focus should be the same. How does our example sentence measure up? It is possible to put a 是(shì) into the sentence, but only in one location, at the beginning. The resulting sentence does have a good focus-shifting 是 … 的 (shì … de) construction. However, the focus falls, not on 干干净净(gāngānjìngjìng) ‘very clean’, as it did in the first sentence, but rather on 她(tā) ‘she’:

房间 打扫 干干净净
shì fángjiān dǎsǎo de gāngānjìngjìng de
be she ba room clean (v.) de clean (adj. red.) DE

‘SHE cleaned the room until it was really clean.’ (focus on she)

So, grammar book, I hate to say it, but I think you’ve got it only half right. There is a 是 … 的(shì … de) construction, and it is used for focus. 的(de) can also be used for focus, but it doesn’t come from an underlying 是 … 的(shì … de) construction where the 是(shì) just happens to be omitted, or at least, not always. The two might be related, but they’re not the same thing.

Undoing the erhua

A while back, I mentioned in a comment that relating an erhua-ized word to the standard pronunciation you were taught isn’t so hard. But I should clarify–this only applies if you know what the “correct” pronunciation is or how to guess it. It’s not always straightforward. Some time ago, my teacher taught me the word for braid. It sounded like xiǎobiàr. Now I’d been studying the language long enough that I was pretty sure that neither bia nor biang were possible syllables, and so the biar had to have come from bian.

You might at this point be wondering why I care, since as long as I stay in this city, I’m highly unlikely to hear the standard pronunciation anyway. (Surely there wouldn’t be any other reason you’d wonder, right?) Dear reader, today is your lucky day, for I am about to explain. I wanted to make a flashcard on my computer with the characters on it. However, in order to type in Chinese, you need some method of transforming the 26 letters that show up on your keyboard into the thousands of characters in Chinese. The easiest method, at least for a beginner like me, is to use pinyin. My computer takes the (toneless) pinyin I type and generates a list of corresponding characters for me to choose from. I select the correct one, and presto, Chinese characters appear on my screen. But it only recognizes standard pronunciation. And now, back to the the erhua.

I dutifully typed xiaobian into the Chinese field of my flashcard and was given only one choice for characters: 小便. “Aha!” I thought to myself, “an easy one,” and I hit tab so that my nifty plugin would fill in the other fields for me. Unless you read Chinese, you too can imagine my surprise when the definition that appeared was not ‘braid’ but rather ‘urine’. Clearly something had gone drastically wrong. I tried searching a few dictionaries and found the same thing: xiaobian only yielded one word, and ‘braid’ wasn’t it.

So what happened? I had forgotten a couple of key facts. First, the r isn’t just a random sound; it’s actually a diminutive ending. As such, it often replaces another diminutive ending, -zi (子). In other words, it can wipe out an entire syllable and the end of the preceding syllable with one fell curl of the tongue. Fact number two: there’s a very strong preference in Chinese for two-syllable words. The result is that, if they knock a syllable off the end of the word, they’ll often tack one on to the beginning just for good measure. The syllable of choice? You guessed it: xiǎo(小) ‘small’. Once I looked up bianzi instead, I got the expected result.

In fact, I suspect some native speakers–specifically, those who aren’t highly educated and haven’t traveled widely–also have a bit of trouble with this in the opposite direction. For example, my husband, who speaks erhua-less Chinese, was inquiring in a restaurant about a fish that didn’t have too many bones (yúcì), and he wasn’t understood until he tried yúcìr. So next time your Chinese isn’t understood, try throwing in a few more r’s. Who knows, it might work. Unless you’re in Taiwan, in which case, I imagine it will just make things worse.

A useful verb they’ll never teach you: 摁

Lugging a one-year-old around with you is useful for language learning in any number of ways.  One of them is that people will verbalize things to a child that they wouldn’t otherwise bother to say out loud.  Not only that, but they’ll often repeat a word several times, using a short, simple phrase.  Thus it was that I learned the verb 摁 (èn) ‘to press’.

I have yet to come across this word in a textbook, and I can understand why.  After all, people don’t typically sit around talking about pressing things.  News articles aren’t written about the topic.  You don’t walk down the street and overhear someone saying “I pressed a really cool button the other day.”  No one updates their social media of choice with “Just pressed the button in the elevator.”  (Actually, they probably do.  This is why I don’t use Twitter.)

Just how uncommon is this word?  According to handy character frequency lists compiled by someone named Jun Da, it ranks number 4705 in general texts, showing up 249 times.  Other characters with the same frequency include 苁 “Boschniakia glabra” (whatever that might be), 铤 “ingot, big arrow, to walk fast”, and 涔 “overflow, rainwater, tearful”.  I don’t know how many characters were in the corpus he used, but for comparison, some higher ranked characters with their frequencies:

1 (的)- 7922684
10 (他)- 1595761
100 (实)- 368494
500 (列)-    82418
1000 (顶)- 31318
2000 (泡)-    7046
3000 (忖)-    1890
4000 (坂)-    576

Incidentally, the last one isn’t given a definition in Da’s list.  My own little pop-up dictionary defines it as a Japanese or non-standard version of another character.  And this character _still_ shows up almost twice as often as our poor little 摁. In what he terms informative texts, it fares even worse, ranking only #5907. It doesn’t make the HSK list. No wonder it’s not in my textbook.

My guess, though, is that it ranks much higher in actual spoken Chinese–just not in the type of spoken Chinese that anyone is likely to be able to collect for a corpus study.  Since I learned this word about a month ago, I’ve heard it in some number of situations:

-Press the button (in an elevator)
-Which button should I press? (on a cell phone, to take a picture)
-Do not press this button (on a remote control–the big red one that looks like it should be a power button.  I still don’t know what that button does, but I won’t press it.)
-Press the clasp to open it (on a necklace)

See?  Useful!  So … anyone want to borrow a one-year-old?

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?

Beware of Chinese grammar

Some time ago, I started a series about common pitfalls for beginning Chinese learners.  I haven’t abandoned it.  I’m just a little slow.  I think point 2–assuming Chinese grammar is like English–doesn’t require a lot of elaboration.  This is a mistake made by beginning learners of any language.  This is the stage where learners wonder why they haven’t yet learned how to make plurals (Chinese doesn’t have them) or specify verb tenses (Chinese doesn’t have those either) or gender (nope, not obligatory anyway), or they insist on forcing these things into the language, since they are expressible.  Incidentally, I think this is the exact error that programs like Rosetta Stone make, but that’s another post for another time.

This quickly leads to the next problem–assuming Chinese grammar is like English, only easier.  You might even come across a more bizarre assumption: Chinese has no grammar.  Do yourself a favor and ignore all such statements.  Sure, if you’ve ever tried to learn a European language, then you rejoice in the fact that there’s no subject-verb agreement, no case marking, and no grammatical gender.   But there is grammar.  Basic word order is the same in Chinese and English–subject, then verb, then object.  Adjectives and possessives come before nouns.  So do relative clauses–that’s a bit different, but manageable.  Also, you’ve finally been convinced that you can leave out all the things I mentioned in the previous paragraph and still end up with a grammatical sentence, so you pretty much stop bothering to pay attention to them.   And since half the words, or pieces of words, in a sentence don’t really seem to be necessary anyway, you begin to think to yourself “Chinese is just like English, only I don’t have to worry about grammar, and I can leave half the words out of the sentence.  This is great!”  This causes you to quickly gain confidence and start practicing your newly acquired language skills.  Incidentally, that’s a good thing.  But beware–the day is coming when, unless you’re a language genius, you’ll realize that it’s not actually that simple.  You begin to realize, for example, that you consistently pick the wrong half of words to leave out when your teacher tells you things like “I can understand your meaning, but Chinese people wouldn’t say it that way” on a pretty much daily basis, and then she provides you with a correct sentence that is twice as long as the one you just uttered.  Your minimal language abilities are further confirmed when someone else you’ve been practicing on for a month suddenly tells you “You said that very clearly!” (你说得很清楚/nǐ shuō de hěn qīngchu) and you wonder to yourself what this says about everything else you’ve said to them.

And then there’s the grammar.  Basic Chinese grammar is quite similar to English.  But non-basic grammar, you begin to realize, bears much less resemblance (see, for example, my grammar notes series, or the aforementioned disappearing words phenomenon).   The more you see, the more you think–well, if you’ve taken syntax classes, anyway–that if Noam Chomsky had been born in China, minimalist syntax would never have come to be.   Things that ought to be units just don’t seem to behave like units.  Not only that, but all those grammatical things you decided you could just ignore … it turns out that people actually use them!  Sometimes there’s good reason to communicate some idea of how many nouns were involved in some action.  Sometimes there’s good reason to communicate some idea of whether that action is completed, recently started, in progress, or ongoing for a long time.  And guess what … Chinese lets you do it!  Or it would, anyway, if you hadn’t ignored that lesson since you assumed it was useless.

Again, there are no magic answers here–just a warning to keep an open mind and avoid being lulled into a false sense of language mastery.  The good news is, as I mentioned before, that most Chinese speakers seem to be remarkably willing to listen to their language being butchered, so don’t wait until you master it all to start practicing.  Butcher away!

Does Mandarin have dual pronouns?

Am I way off base in my analysis here, or does Chinese have dual pronouns that they just don’t ever teach you?  Since Mandarin has a perfectly good distinction between inclusive we (咱们/zánmen) and exclusive we (我们/wǒmen)–which I also have yet to come across in a textbook–I guess it shouldn’t surprise so much if other pronouns pop up too.

The words in question:

咱俩(zánliǎ) ‘we two, inclusive’–or more naturally, the two of us (you and me)

你俩(nǐliǎ) ‘you two’

他俩(tāliǎ) ‘they two’

So, are these words pronouns?  They are single words, as best as I can tell.  They sure look like pronouns to me.  But then why don’t they show up in any of the nice charts of Chinese pronouns I recall seeing?  I suppose it may be because their use isn’t obligatory–as far as I know, I can use 咱们/zánmen to refer to just you and me and no one else.  For that matter, I’ve used 我们/wǒmen plenty of times with this intended meaning, and no one seemed to be confused by it–maybe because not all dialects of Mandarin actually use 咱们/zánmen.  The other possibility is that they’re not actually pronouns–but if not, what are they?

For the record (these claims always get me in trouble, but I’m going to go ahead and say it anyway): there is no first person dual exclusive  pronoun–that is, there’s no such word as 我俩 (wǒliǎ).  If it did exist, it would mean something like the two of us (s/he and I, not you).  But it doesn’t exist.


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