Archive for the 'Pronunciation' Category

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.

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?

So I think I’ve found it …

… the most difficult syllable to pronounce in Chinese. My vote? lüè (as in 略). Individually, none of the sounds are so bad. The /l/, so far as I know, is just like English [l] (though I’m sure someone will come along and tell me otherwise–and yes, for the phoneticians among you, I do know that it’s a bit misleading to say English [l] and leave it at that). The /ü/ is like German ü. The /e/ in this context is, I think, somewhere between [ɛ] (like ‘bet’) and [æ] (like ‘bat’). The tone is falling, which I think is the easiest one to pronounce. You can hear a slowly and clearly enunciated example of the syllable on this page, second column, third row. (Please don’t take that as an endorsement of their website–I can’t say one way or the other because I haven’t looked at it beyond the page I linked.)

I know what I need to do, I think. Just take those sounds and squish them into one syllable. It doesn’t seem so horrible. I can pronounce, at least passably, all sorts of other words ending in [üe]. No one complains much about my xue or yue or jue. And no one has ever complained about my ‘l’s. But this one, for some reason, I just can’t get.

Update: about that [l]. I thought maybe my problem was that it’s not in fact an apical [l] like I was using, so I made my husband pronounce his Chinese [l] for me. Sure enough, it’s a laminal dental. So was his English [l], incidentally, even in a word like ‘leaf’. The tongue/lip gymnastics seemed easier to me this way, so I tried it again, but no luck. My husband tells me he doesn’t even hear an [l] when I attempt the syllable, he hears an [n]–and he’s a northerner, not a native speaker of one of those dialects of Chinese that doesn’t distinguish [l] and [n].


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