Latte Natte

Syz and I were placing orders at a coffee house in Shanghai recently when we both heard something a little odd. I ordered my mocha and he a latte. The woman behind the counter repeated the order, speaking his instead as “natte”, at least how we heard it.

Sure enough, there on the menu it read “Latte 拿铁”, ‘na tie’. I’ve never really taken the time to learn much more than “mocha” when it’s come to coffee, so it wasn’t something I’d seen before. Firing up Karan Misra’s “Qingwen” CC-Dict on my iPhone, again we read 拿铁.

This got us thinking. Why did the infamous southern n/l reversal rear it’s ugly head here, at a Shanghai Coffee Bean? Surely it must be somewhat standard or it wouldn’t be in CC-Dict as well. Then we thought of Cantonese. Words like sofa and sandwich have made their way into Mandarin via Cantonese, adopting characters that match English well enough in the Cantonese pronunciation but not necessarily in Mandarin. And Cantonese, at least to my knowledge and at least in Hong Kong, exhibits the merging of /l/ and /n/ that we find in various Mandarin dialects. Nanjing, for example, is usually pronounced as “Laam4ging1“.

But here at Sinoglot we have standards to uphold, even if my recent posts suggest otherwise. So “yeah that might be it” isn’t going to cut it.

In Cantonese, at least according to my sources here in Not-Canton, the pronunciation should be something like na tiʔ. Switch out the /n/ for /l/ and we’re getting close. A quick check online provides “naa4tit3” as the jyutping spelling, the tones corresponding to ˨˩ (low falling / low level) and ˧ (mid level entering) respectively.

Meanwhile quick search on Google books returns a number of references from the 21st century but only one earlier than that, from 1987, written by a mainlander but about time spent in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

I figured another good place to look would be the internet itself, so I went cruising the Chinese language forums and found more than a handful of people asking this very question. Consensus: Blame the Deep South and their inability to distinguish /l/ from /n/. All signs point to Hong Kong.

As a side not, nciku does offer la1te4 拉特 as an alternative. I imagine it’s as standard as 萨拉 (sala) vs 色拉 (sela) for “salad”. 23,000 hits are returned on Baidu for “拉特” and 46,000 for “啦特”. However a whopping 769,000 come up for “拿铁”.

At this point, as I finish this post sitting in another coffee house and drinking my own 拿铁 (here said with an /l/), I think we can safely say that’s the case.

Linguanerd section:
For specific instances of the initial /n/ as /l/ not tied to the coffee drinking habits of Sinoglot staff, see the following:

Ho, M.T., (n-) and (l-) in Hong Kong Cantonese: A Sociolinguistic Case Study, MA Thesis, University of Essex, 1994.
Bauer, R.S. (1982) Cantonese sociolinguistic patterns: Correlating social characteristics of speakers with phonological variables in Hong Kong Cantonese. Dissertation, University of California, Berkeley.
Bourgerie, D.A. (1990). A quantitative study of sociolinguistic variation in Cantonese. Dissertation, Ohio State University, Columbus.

There’s also a paper by Wong Tak-Sum called “A Hypothesis on the Mechanism behind the Lateralization of the Alveolar Nasal-Initial in Hong Kong Cantonese” of which I’ve only read the abstract, but which gives an interesting model as to why we see /n/ > /l/ in Cantonese and not the other way, though I have heard more than a few Mandarin speakers do /l/ > /n/, making fun words like “snippers” as the things you wear on your feet when at home.

18 responses to “Latte Natte”

  1. Sima says:

    There must have been a curious alignment of the stars yesterday, because I found myself sitting in a coffee bar (actually, it was a famous pizza chain, but I want to sound more sophisticated) and ordering, for probably the first time in my life, a latte. This was in deepest darkest Dongbei. I don’t know why I chose the latte, nor do I know why I chose to read 拿铁 off the menu, but just as the waitress was about to walk off, she tunred back and checked, “Latte对不?”

  2. So you said “na tie” and she double checked with “latte”?

    Just today as I was getting ready to post this I was at a coffee house (there are no famous pizza chainse) and originally ordered a mocha. She asked “luanwei ma?” (原味吗).

    So when she came back to tell me they couldn’t make mochas today, I couldn’t let the chance slip by and went for the latte. Mostly just to hear her say it with an /l/.

  3. Sima says:

    Yes. I said “na tie” and she seemed to just note it down. Then, only after taking my friend’s order, did she come back to me, with a slightly confused look on her face and check “latte” with a reasonable English pronunciation. I didn’t pay too much attention at the time, but have a feeling that she actually went back to check the menu. It was almost as though she was surprised by the Chinese herself.

    The way some of these sounds get mixed up is fascinating to me. n/l seems impossible to confuse, until you sit down and start listening to isolated recordings and questioning yourself about them. The can quite quickly start blending into one.

    I’ve never noted anything like l/y as in your example, but a very common one in the NE is r/y. 热 is often pronounced 业 and even occasionally (maybe in certain places) more like 月. 日本 becomes 一本. Whilst I would never use the latter, the former does creep in to my speech from time to time. 软 I’m almost unable to realise as anything but 远.

  4. Today I didn’t really believe I had just heard the y/l one myself until I started to think of other times I’ve heard something similar. It wasn’t really [l] so much as an approximant that had l-coloring to it.

    As for your server thinking it was odd herself, there’s certainly no shortage of forum threads of Chinese people asking why it’s 拿铁 with an /n/.

    In a lecture i attended recently there was one word that kept being repeated that I could not for the life of me find in any of my digital dictionaries at the time. I really couldn’t tell if the sound in question was /r/, /l/ or /n/, though I was pretty sure it wasn’t /n/ because I knew the lecturer was otherwise a Wu speaker.

  5. Julen says:

    I am surprised that you are surprised about 拿铁. It is a very common word and it is the standard for Latte, at least in Shanghai.

    The case for salads is different, because all 色拉 and 萨拉,or even sometimes 沙律, are common. But 拉特 I don’t think I have ever seen it used.

  6. I was surprised mainly because I’d never bothered to learn it. I hardly ever drink lattes and so like some other coffee drinks, I’m completely oblivious to the name in Mandarin. For the most part when I enter a Starbucks I’m bombarded with English. Even still, it being 拿 and not 垃 is of some note, surprising or not.

    But yeah I should have known. I’ve since realised just how standard it is. As for 拉特, it seems to be one of those dictionary entries that doesn’t seem to appear in the real world. Not sure what their source is for that one.

  7. Kaiwen says:

    There’s also the Taiwan Mandarin standard for salad, 沙拉 (not to be confused with girl name 莎拉). It brings up more hits than 色拉, though not as many as 薩拉 (also a component in names).

    Do I just hang out with the wrong people, or is 色拉油 used more frequently in the mainland than 色拉?

    I’ve never seen 拉特 either.

  8. Zev Handel says:

    Great post.

    There’s a problem with the Hong Kong hypothesis, and that’s the pesky -t at the end of the Cantonese pronunciation of 铁. It would be very surprising if a Cantonese speaker transliterated “latte” using a t-ending syllable.

    But of course it doesn’t have to be Cantonese, as n/l variation is rampant throughout so much of China.

  9. Karan Misra says:

    Incidentally, I don’t think this one can be blamed on Cantonese. My theory is that this is a Taiwanese import. In 閩南話-influenced Mandarin, tiě is pronounced as těi ( And, of course, just like most southern speakers, the n/l/r indistinction is present in Taiwanese Mandarin in great abundance, which would mean that 拿鐵 in Taiwan might be pronounced as “látěi”, which sounds *very* close to “latte”.

    (Oh, and glad to see you use Qingwen =])

  10. Unless the -t was simply a glottal stop.

    We thought Canto because so many other English words come to Mandarin via Yue, and less often through Chongqing.

    I so want to name someone Salad now.

  11. Karan: Yeah we were wrong to be so quick to skip over Taiwan. The Cantonese pronunciation of 鐵 was unsatisfying. I kept hoping it would turn out to be těi. Taiwan is a pleasant solution.

    (I’ve also sent a number of friends over to Qingwen upon purchase of their iPods. I’ll let you repay me with a free copy of whatever you make next :) )

  12. Danielho says:

    Some words people attribute to Hong Kong probably come from Taiwan instead.

    Even the word “sandwich” in Chinese (sanmingzhi 三明治) is usually saam1 man4 zi6 in Hong Kong Cantonese (三文治).

    By the way, the -t/-p/-k endings in Cantonese are pronounced; they are not aspirated but they certainly aren’t glottal stops.

  13. The glottal stop thing was more a hypothetical. I wasn’t under the impression that they weren’t pronounced beyond that. But I make no claim to knowing the first thing about Cantonese either way.

    Yours it the first reference to aspiration I’ve seen on the topic.

  14. John B says:

    For what it’s worth, in Hong Kong (in my relatively limited experience) it’s called 鮮奶咖啡 [sin1 naai5 gaa3 fe1 — sorry, I’m pants with IPA], or just ‘latte,’ in English, because nobody seems to like to speak their own language down there anyway 😉

  15. That certainly supports Taiwan as the origin.

    It makes me feel a little better that we’re no better at guessing origins in English. Like plenty of other people I spent a while saying cadre as /kadrei/ as a Spanish word instead of /kadrə/ as the French word that it is. Most people I know still say /kadrei/.

  16. Louis says:

    In Taiwan, there are two common ways to say latte:

    (1) 拿鐡


    I think(1)is primarily written and (2) is primarily spoken. I’ve seen variation, though.

    I’ve never noticed variation between initials n- and l- in these words and I drink a latte everyday :)

  17. Louis says:

    拿鐵 — [na³⁵ tiɛ ²¹]

    那提 — [na⁵¹ ti³⁵]

    [ corrected as per your third comment, then deleted the correction comment. -KP ]

  18. Claw says:

    The distinguishing feature of the final stops is not that they’re unaspirated, it’s that they’re unreleased (though all unreleased stops are also unaspirated). See:

    In any case, I’m pretty certain that it’s not from Cantonese. I find it pretty hard to believe that a Cantonese speaker would transliterate the final syllable with a word that has a pretty clear final -t sound. Glottal stops do not occur in Cantonese.

    By comparison, 沙律 (which Julen mentioned) does come from Cantonese. It is pronounced /saːlɵt/, which has the final -t used to transcribe the final -d in the word ‘salad’.

Leave a Reply