Archive for July, 2010

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.

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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?


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