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.


3 Responses to “Undoing the erhua”

  1. 1 Randy Alexander July 30, 2010 at 12:15 am

    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).

    I would hesitate to say “replaces”. Some syllables can have erhua, some can have 子, and some can have either one; so I believe it would be more accurate to say that these situations form three categories.

    As far as dictionaries lacking an entry for 小辫儿 is concerned, I think that is a lexicographical problem. Lexicography still has a long way to go in Chinese.

    • 2 Katie Tang July 30, 2010 at 10:09 am

      Fair enough. I probably should have said ‘sometimes’ instead of ‘often’. There are plenty of r’s that don’t replace -zi’s. I don’t have as good of a feel for how many -zi’s can’t be replaced by r’s. It could be lexical frequency that makes me think the number is higher than it actually is: one of the words I hear most frequently is child, which is inevitably 小孩儿, not 孩子. (I think it’s pretty clear that the 小 is just there to make it bisyllabic since 男孩儿 and 女孩儿 both drop the 小.)

      Incidentally, I just figured out that my pinyin input doesn’t lack that entry after all. I just didn’t know how to enter it. If I type in xiaobianer, I get 小辫儿 (but of course, unless this word is an exception, the 儿 isn’t usually written, so that’s still of limited helpfulness). The dictionary still doesn’t register it though.

  2. 3 Dr. Nyberg April 16, 2011 at 9:45 pm

    Sometimes, I think I have the same problem in rural Texas. Of course, the solution to being understood is to leave out the Rs, or other hard consonants…

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