I’m talking to you or about someone else

My daughter (PBS), now 8, has been Mommy’s girl since day 1. Sure, Dad is a reasonable substitute when Mom’s not around. And we did have a long honeymoon last year when I moved to Beijing after a several-month stint of separation. Still, I’ve got no illusions about where her center of gravity is.

Even so, I draw the line at being discussed as if I’m not there. So the other day after I’d told her to clean her toys off the stairs — and added a long, dull parental lecture about how someone might slip and break open their skull — and PBS responded by looking at her mother and saying…

Bàba zài shuō shénme?
What’s Daddy saying?

… I groused at her: “Why don’t you just ask me instead of talking to your mom as if I’m not here.”

“But Daddy,” she countered, “I was talking to you!”

Then it struck me: she could have been talking to me. That is, a perfectly grammatical translation could also be:

Bàba zài shuō shénme?
What are you saying? [where bàba is a title and used in place of “you”]

Substituting a title is a very common form of polite address. In some contexts, you’d never consider using even the polite form of “you” to address someone you want to show great respect for. But neither is title substitution [is there a set term for this?] an excessively formal usage. It’s quite common even within a family setting.

So how do you know if it’s third person used to address the person you’re talking to, or second person?

The short answer is, you don’t. Just a day later my wife came home from work and asked her mother:

Lǎolao zěnmeyàng?
ambiguously meaning…  “How is Grandma?” [i.e. my wife’s grandmother] or “How are you?” [where Lǎolao is a title referring to my wife’s mother by the name “Lǎolao” that PBS uses]

Because I’d just been talking with my wife, I knew that she was thinking about her grandmother, who had hurt herself a few days earlier. But by coincidence, my wife’s mother had also hurt her back a few days ago. So when she answered, it was regarding herself.

Ambiguity, the bigger picture

By categorizing this entry as “Mandarin’s ambiguities” I hope to make it part of something bigger. The interest I have is in the very common statement, from native speakers as well as from very advanced learners, that:

Mandarin is vague

At times, I’ve dismissed the statement categorically because it’s a vague statement in itself, wholly untestable — just the sort of thing that someone could spout off without support. But, but… So many people say it. Heck, I’ve even had the feeling myself. And so I start to wonder, would there be a way to put some scope on the statement and make it into a testable hypothesis, or at least make it interesting?

The perception of vagueness could certainly be social: maybe native speakers (for cultural reasons) tend to obfuscate in certain situations that would require clarity in other cultures. If so, it would seem appropriate to define those situations more clearly.

But maybe, just maybe, the vagueness is built right into the language. That is, where English grammatical structure might require an explicit understanding of X, Mandarin structure simply does not. That’s not to say that Mandarin is incapable of explicitly stating X, just that the grammar does not require it and therefore will naturally create a greater number of ambiguous situations than will English.

If that’s the case, a good starting point might be to outline specific examples, to show situations where Mandarin grammar is capable of ambiguity that English (or some other language’s) grammar is not.  Today’s post is intended as one such example, although it’s certainly not the best. One problem is that you can argue that exactly the same possibility exists for English grammar. That is, in English it’s possible to interpret “How’s Grandma today” as being about either

  1. the grandma you’re addressing directly, or
  2. some other grandma that you both know

Well, maaaybe. English can certainly use a third-person form of address for the person you’re speaking with, but it seems highly unusual — maybe even weird or socially distant or condescending or something. Whereas third person address is not unusual or weird in Mandarin; it’s quite ordinary. So I’m going to offer it up as the first possibility in the “Mandarin creates more opportunities for semantic ambiguity than English” line of thinking.


Back to PBS for a second. Was she really talking to me? She swore at the time that she was, and my wife just laughed. But later, when I was talking about the ambiguity of it all and they were both getting bored enough to give straight answers in order to let the issue die, my wife insisted PBS was actually doing exactly what I suspected: talking to her mother about me. PBS, under pressure, admitted as much.

Honest language informants are few and far between.

16 responses to “I’m talking to you or about someone else”

  1. Gary says:

    Could be a topic-comment structure, where baba is the topic, and the comment is “[你]在说什么” with the subject dropped. In writing this would almost require a comma after baba, though we all know punctuation is a western thing.

  2. Zev Handel says:

    I think the polite use of titles as forms of second-person address is an interesting sociolinguistic feature of Mandarin — one that is shared with a lot of other languages. Your post is interesting because it ties this usage in with the larger question of vagueness and ambiguity.

    All languages differ in what must be encoded syntactically. For example, English grammar requires singular/plural marking on nouns. You can’t do without it. This is true whether or not leaving off number marking would be ambiguous. Thus even though “I have three book” clearly must refer to a plural, the grammar will not allow it — we must say “books”.

    But all languages are ambiguous. Or, put another way, all languages permit utterances that have multiple interpretations. And all languages rely on real-world and conversational context to clarify intended meanings. Think about all the meanings “I saw her duck” might have without a context!

    One cannot therefore speak of languages as more or less vague; only about languages being more or less vague when it comes to certain aspects of syntax and semantics.

    Chinese is “vague” about number, in that there is no singular-plural marking. On the other hand, if context is insufficient, Chinese has optional ways of indicating plurality (yìxiē, hěn duō, etc.).

    English is “vague” about distinguishing dual from plural. But if context isn’t sufficient, we can always specify “two”. (If you think about it, plural is pretty darn vague — but we are used to it, so the vagueness doesn’t bother us.)

    English is vague in distinguishing deontic from epistemic modals: Does “He should be there by 5:00” mean he has an obligation to be there at 5:00, or that I am surmising that he will arrive by 5:00?

    And so on and so forth.

    In the specific case of your daughter’s comment, I think what we’ve got here is an intrusion of Chinese’s politeness strategy into the pronoun system. You can’t actually use a third-person pronoun to refer to someone you are talking to: tā never means nǐ. But politeness or deference often requires that a title be used in place of the “blunt” pronoun, so people are addressed as Wáng Xiānsheng, or Lǎoshi, or Bàba, where English would use a pronoun. Probably “titular address” is a more accurate term for this than “third-person address”.

    I think we should put our heads together to come up with a nice big list of examples of syntactic structures where Chinese is more precise than English.

  3. John says:

    I think the key point in your story was the PBS was looking at her mother while asking the question. If she had been looking at you, her claim the she really had been addressing you would have been credible. You doubted her claim instinctively because she wasn’t looking at you when she asked the question.

    As for ambiguity (歧义), that’s one area of their language the Chinese have pretty exhaustively researched, categorized, discussed, etc. If you’re really interested, you’ll have to check out the Chinese language literature on the subject, though.

  4. Zev Handel says:

    You know, Y.R. Chao has a very nice article on kinship terms, discussing different usages for terms of address and terms of reference.

  5. Syz says:

    @Gary: I thought about invoking topic-comment structure myself but I think that would involve some kind of pause (like your comma would indicate) that wasn’t present at the time.

    @Zev: Don’t get me wrong, I agree with all your pts about every language being ambiguous. I think you hit the nail on the head with that last paragraph: let’s find some counterexamples. Otherwise this could be a dangerous exercise in confirmation bias.

    BTW: I don’t suppose you have a royalty-free copy of the YR Chao piece you mention?


    As for ambiguity (歧义), that’s one area of their language the Chinese have pretty exhaustively researched, categorized, discussed, etc.

    So are you saying all the answers are out there? To be clear, my interest is not so much ambiguity per se. As Zev implied, you could spend a lifetime with any single language documenting the ambiguities it offers.

    I’m more interested in cross-linguistic comparison: where L1 is ambiguous and L2 isn’t and vice versa. Have you come across any good papers on that?

  6. John says:


    I’m not saying all the answers are out there and there’s nothing left to discover. I just meant that if you’re interested in ambiguity, there’s a lot of interesting literature out there. I was fascinated by what I read during my studies. Unfortunately it wasn’t terribly relevant to my main interests, so I couldn’t justify spending too much time on it.

    And no, I haven’t come across any interesting papers on cross-linguistic comparison. I’ll keep an eye out!

  7. Chrix says:

    It seems to be an areal feature of many East and Southeast Asian languages that titles and names can be used to refer to speech act participants, which seems tied to the fact that in fact a large number of pronouns in these languages can be traced back to nouns. So the use of nouns to refer to speech act participants naturally leads to situations where referents and participants might be confused. I don’t know however, if this is really a sign of greater semantic vagueness of Chinese.

    The idea of grammatical indeterminacy, though, might actually really play an important role in Chinese:

    One area of typological research of interest here would be the idea of cool and hot languages developed by C.T. Huang in his 1984 paper in Lingistic Inquiry (based on remarks made by J.R. Ross in 1982). This ultimately goes back to media theory, where hot media require little recipient participation while cool media do a lot (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marshall_McLuhan#.22Hot.22_and_.22cool.22_media) Accordingly, a cool language would require the listener to understand a lot of what is said from context and thus put less burden on the speaker, while in a hot language a lot would need to be spelt out, even if it’s clear from context.

    You can generalise this to talk about indeterminacy in general. For instance, Walter Bisang in his 1993 dissertation on verb serialisation in Chinese, Hmong, Vietnamese, Thai and Khmer, lays this out in the framework of the Cologne UNITYP project, based on the areas of tense/aspect/mood (TAM) and “participation” (roughly including parameters such as valency, voice, transitivity, role assignment, causation etc). It is one of Bisang’s main points that the indeterminacy of Chinese and the other languages in these areas has paved the way for the important role verb serialisation plays in these languages.

  8. GAC says:

    My girlfriend and I will do this to each other. It took me a while to get used to it, as it felt very cutesy/awkward. I would lean against the topic-comment hypothesis — in IM she never puts a comma after 亲爱的 in this kind of sentence. But then, Chinese punctuation is a fuzzy thing.

    As far as Chinese being more ambiguous — I’m not sure. I have heard both Chinese and Japanese described as depending heavily on context, but I feel it could be a combination of cultural factores and unfamiliar features like pronoun-dropping and verbs that do not inflect for person and number of the subject. But then I also see Mandarin going out of it’s way to address those ambiguities, sometimes further than English would.

    Example: Chinese has one third person pronoun. I’ll ignore that it’s actually three characters, as my own experience with Chinese people’s mistakes in English shows me that they probably map it to one word that has no gender. However, in other ways, Chinese will go out of their way to mention gender. On the back of a Chinese card I remember the name of the person who made the art on the cover came after the words 女画家. I have no idea whether her gender would have been guessable by her name, but it was explicitly stated nonetheless, whereas in English, labeling that person “female artist” would have been considered redundant and possibly offensive, even if the artist had a gender-neutral name.

    I’m not sure if this is what you’re looking for, though. I can’t think of syntactic examples at the moment.

  9. I’m going to start signing my emails with “Kellen, a dude”.

  10. Chris says:

    I personally also am inclined to invoke the cultural card rather than the purely linguistic/semantic card concerning this question. Asian Culture in general likes vagueness and understanding through omission.
    I used to have these discussions on a previous job where my Chinese employer would say one thing and expect me to understand all of the things he implied by not saying them, leading to a lot of trouble with my chinese colleagues who all seemed to clearly understand the message, and me afterwards asking them to translate what was actually (not) said.
    I have had a similar run in with Japanese people, so these days in any official circumstance I am not as much listening to what is being said as to what is not being said and drawing conclusions up on that, which admittedly is a risky business, not being Chinese.
    I have also encountered instances where the vagueness was specifically abused to retract what was not said, something similar to your daughter asserting that she was talking to you, just using the ambiguity or using the ambiguity of characters to mess with your head, no I meant that hua, not that hua…

  11. Syz says:

    @Chrix: I’m going to have to check out Bisang. Do you know if it’s around online? Also, I like the phrase “grammatical indeterminacy” — I think that’s what I’m trying to say. But maybe that’s too specific, if titular address wouldn’t be an example.

    @GAC and @Chris: I’m sure there may be many cases where, sociolinguistically, vagueness works in one culture but not another. But I’m explicitly trying NOT to talk about that because it is so easy to assert that such a difference exists but so hard to prove it. Cross-cultural situations are almost never comparable and one person’s vagueness is often another’s perfect clarity.

    That’s what’s so appealing about the grammatical approach. If you could show that language A offers lots of opportunities for structural ambiguity but language B doesn’t, that might be reasonable support for this overall perception of vagueness.

    @GAC: 女画家 is very interesting. My guess is it’s due to the widespread difficulty in sexing Chinese names. Of course in her note above, Kellen mentions that’s not a difficulty limited to Chinese. 😀

    But tā also reminds me: sometime I’m going to post about the phenomenon that I’m pretty sure is true, that I (as a non-native speaker) am unable to hold tā as an ambiguous he/she in my mind during a conversation in Mandarin. Somehow, my brain decides that I know whether tā is a he or a she during conversation, whether I actually know or not. Many times this has led to misunderstandings and embarrassments at the point that it becomes clear my assumption was wrong. My suspicion (based on he/she mistakes made by native Chinese speakers in English) is that this is NOT true for native speakers. If you could just devise the right cool test this might be a fun bit of research.

  12. GAC says:

    @ Chris2 Maybe it’s not that your boss is being more vague, just that his cultural assumptions are not the same as yours.

    On a similar vein, many people think of Asians as “indirect”, but English speakers can be indirect as well. How often has someone made a comment about the general situation as a way of telling you to do something? (“It’s cold in here.” “I’ll turn up the heat.”) Or made an excuse to talk to someone alone? Or even made a compliment with a transparently obvious criticism embedded in it?

    On the other hand, I have known Chinese to be very direct, saying things like 你很胖 (and not as a compliment) and 多穿衣服,多吃饭. This might be Frequency Illusion, but I have a feeling close Chinese friends use very direct suggestions as much as many anglophone parents would with their children (hence my common reply 别做妈妈!).

    Indirectness isn’t exactly the same as vagueness, but I have a feeling that it, too could have overlapping needs in different cultures.

  13. Chrix says:

    OK, I’ll just go by my screen name I use at chinese-forums.com then…

    Don’t think Bisang’s work is online, but if you read German I highly recommend you to order the work, it was regarded as one of the most brilliant dissertations of his generation.

    He also has co-edited a book in English on grammaticalisation, and in one of his articles there he also seems to recount some of the arguments he makes in his dissertation, which you can find in parts on Google Books: http://books.google.com/books?id=M1t0sYFOLXMC&printsec=frontcover&dq=what+makes+grammaticalization&source=bl&ots=dE2nTex0Jr&sig=jyKhDisNc85dHKn5IEu5myqxHxk&hl=en&ei=w2ClS-f-JIHY7AOa3NCMCQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CAsQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=&f=false

  14. Chrix says:

    hm, so the link didn’t come out right. It was supposed to directly link to the beginning of Bisang’s article, starting on p. 109, sorry about that…

  15. Syz says:

    Chrix, WordPress doesn’t seem to want to let me edit your comment, so the link will have to remain ugly. But I think the problem of not going to p.109 is a problem with Google books. At least at the moment, it won’t let me see p.109 at all. It says something like the book is only available through p.91.

  16. Chrix says:

    that’s odd. Maybe you have to do it this way: scroll forward a couple pages until the table of contents and click on the link to Bisang’s article starting on page 109, that’s how I got it to open…

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