shuí yě bù zhīdào

Victor Mair received this message from a former student of his, and sent it in to us:

I just remembered one other question I’d been meaning to ask you. It’s about the character 谁. When I started taking Chinese years ago, my teachers and textbooks all told me to pronounce it “shei.” This spring, I was speaking to a visiting Chinese professor from Dalian who was teaching elementary Chinese, and she and her textbook teach the pronunciation of the same character as “shui.” When I asked her about this, she said that “shui” was more standard, and “shei” was a local variation used mostly around Beijing. Is that right? Among native speakers, who uses “shei,” and who uses “shui”?

This is a very interesting question.

I’ve only heard shuí twice in spoken communication in my almost 8 years of living in northeast China.  I don’t have much idea of what newsreporters say because I only watch or listen to the news accidentally — if someone else has it on, but I’m pretty sure I’ve never heard it on TV or radio during those secondary-exposure moments.   However, early on, I noticed that kids will read 谁 in isolation as shuí (for example if you point to the character and ask how to say it).  When teaching English to elementary school level students, showing them a flashcard of “who” and asking them to translate, they almost invariably say “shuí”.

谁 is an extremely common word, and in the places I’ve been, I’ve never heard it pronounced shuí.  Does anyone know of a place that usually pronounces it that way?  Or even a certain kind of situation where it is normally used?

If anyone has experiences that are different from mine, please chime in.

19 responses to “shuí yě bù zhīdào”

  1. Kellen Parker says:

    There’s a reporter, I think on CCTV, who is known for using shui, though I can’t remember who. Also I have a friend who does it regularly, probably originally as an affectation but now as habit.

  2. Aaron says:

    The teachers at my language school consistently say shéi, but my conversation partner from northern China (Shenyang?) repeatedly said shuí when I first met her. She seemed surprised that I was more familiar with the shéi reading, and either she started correcting herself or I’ve gotten used to shuí to the degree that I don’t notice it anymore.

    My conversation partner grew up in China but is ethnic Korean, and spoke Korean at home during childhood. I don’t know if that has anything to do with shéi/shuí, but a mutual Han Chinese friend (also from northern China) blames this multilingual childhood for my conversation partner’s lack of ability to distinguish z/zh, s/sh, etc.

  3. André says:

    I have only runinto the pronunciation, shei, a couple of times. But my dictionary says:

    “谁 is sometimes pronounced shéi, especially in 北京 Běijīng colloquial, but the more standard pronunciation is shuí.”(Defrancis, ABC Chinese-English dictionary)

    Mandarin is after built on the Beijing dialect, so one would supposed that the Beijingers really are the exception in this case. If it was half, half I would assume that they would go for the Beijing variant, right?

  4. Daan says:

    I think I’ve only ever heard shuí used in CSL contexts, or when speakers felt anxious because they were speaking to a foreigner and thus started to hypercorrect.

  5. Duncan says:

    I have heard that in putonghua shui is the older, more literary form (书面语) and shei is a colloquial, vernacular form (白话). This would explain why it is usually read as shui in old poems and when read alone, and as shei in simple sentences and ordinary speech.

    I often hear shui used for special emphasis, like when you would say something along the lines of ‘Who’s eaten my porridge?‘

    The shuowen fanqie is “示隹切” (shi, zhui)

  6. Here are some comments that VM forwarded to me:


    From, Melvin Chih-jen Lee, one of our Chinese language teachers who recently went back to Taiwan for a month:


    Greetings from Taiwan. I personally always say SHEI2, and I believe most of my Taiwanese friends say SHEI2 as well. I just checked Guo2yu3 Ri4bao4 Ci2dian3, which is used as a standard Mandarin dictionary in most schools here in Taiwan. According to it, SHEI2 is the modern standard pronunciation, while SHUI2 is used when reading Chinese idioms (such as she3wo3qi2shui2) or poetry (such as shui2zhi1pan2zhong1sun1, li4li4jie1xin1ku3). Just for your information.


    From Xue Li, a Fulbright Language Teaching fellow who hails from Lanzhou:


    I also learned that SHUI is more formally used, for example in written chinese, while SHEI is more colloquial. My teacher of teacher’s Language told us this, and it is also the way i used it. The other FLTA fellows also agreed on this point.


    From Zhou Yunong, one of our most experienced Mandarin lecturers:


    The question you brought up here is very interesting! I actually had the same question before, it’s very long time ago…I was about 7 or 8 years old, just starting school, and it was from then, I began to learn mandarin.

    Before that, I spoke Suzhou-hua dialect. In school, I learned from our textbook and the teacher, that the character 谁 is pronounced shui2. Since the teacher taught us this, as a result, all my classmates pronounced it shui2. I didn’t know it might be pronounced in another way until one day we watched a movie and I heard it was pronounced shei2 by the people in that movie. It did make me surprised!

    At that time, I was only 7 or 8 years old. I just started to learn mandarin. I was very sensitive to each and every pronounciation. But soon, I got used to hearing various accents/pronuciations for a same character. For example, some people pronounce “V”, instead of ‘W”, when they say the word “wen问” or “wei为”. For another eample, 什么 is pronounced “shenme”, “sheme” or “shenmo”. I think most people pronounced it sheme (neutral tone for both characters)

    Come back to the question about 谁, I personally think the better pronounciation for it is shui, beacuse 锥 and 椎 are pronounced zhui, I think 谁 at least should share a same vowel final sound (ui) with 锥 and 椎.


  7. One more comment forwarded by VM:

    Here is a wonderful, precise reply from my first teacher of Classical Chinese, Haitao Tang:


    Just saw your e-mail. The visiting professor is right. According to the fanqie ( 反切:蜀帷切 ) spelling, it should be pronounced “shui”. you can compare it with other words having the “zhui 隹” as the phonetic element, such as: 帷、惟、維、惟、唯、雖、催、摧、崔、睢 etc., these words are all pronounced with lip rounding vowels “ui,” not “ei”. Traditionally this is a case of Hekou vs kaikou. (合口、開口).

    As for how it came to be pronounced “shei” in Beijing and many other northern dialects, my interpretation is that “shei” is easier to pronounce, so it is due to articulatory laziness. If you listen to Peking opera, it is still pronounced “shui.”


    VM comments:

    I think that Tang Laoshi’s notes on SHEI vs. SHUI also explains a lot of other features that are peculiar to Pekingese speech.

  8. Chris says:

    I’ve had the same experience as the author, and don’t have much to add to the discussion about 谁. I’d like to point out a similar parallel in English – the word “a”.

  9. I had a teacher once, young, nearly certain she was from the northeast, who used shui when teaching us most of the time, but sometimes stopped (if we all looked at her, or all used shei when we spoke). Outside of formal contexts (teaching, reading text, etc) I remember hearing it occasionally, most likely from older people.

  10. Sima says:

    From my experience in the Northeast, it would be very unusual to hear shuí, though, on several occasions, I’ve been informed that, “The ‘correct’ pronunciation is shuí, but nobody ever says that.” I would think it very odd if I heard this ‘formal’ pronunciation in conversation.

    On a related note, I often hear 对不起 as dèibuqǐ and, occasionally, perhaps mostly from young women and girls, 对呀 as dèiya. The latter would seem to be somewhat affected, but the former is pretty normal to my ears. Does anyone else hear either these pronunciations or other dropped [u] sounds?

  11. Syz says:

    Kids here in Beijing (at least at my daughter’s elementary school) learn shuí as the formal pronunciation when reading, but that pronunciation, as far as I’ve heard, stays in the classroom, never to be heard in casual speech.

    I’m also interested in the -ui changing to -ei point that VM’s Tang Laoshi brings up and Sima expands on. VM said it “explains a lot of other features that are peculiar to Pekingese speech” but I would have said just the opposite, that I think Beijing dialect seems to be retaining the -ui feature more than other regional Mandarins do. For one, Sima notes the dèi in Dongbei that I don’t recall ever hearing from a Beijinger. Secondly, when I went to Shanghai a few weeks ago, one of the first things I noticed was the widespread pronunciation of dèi for 对 duì.

    But these are just guesses — I really don’t know much about the regional variation. Maybe some of you folks from further south (Shanghai and beyond) can chime in?

  12. At least one of the places Syz heard that dèi pronunciation was me. No matter how hard I try, I can never seem to convince myself that duì is correct. It just feels wrong. At times you’ll head dei və tɕi for 对不起, but that’s only with older people who are less comfortable with Mandarin.

    This is a big Wu thing in general. Even 头 gets “tei” in some Northern Wu dialects. 上海 is sɑng hei and so on. I can’t off the top of my head think of any common words aside from 对 that in Shanghai Mandarin take -ei, but I’m sure 对 can’t be the only one.

  13. Just remembered another. in Changzhou, which speaks a northern Wu dialect as well, they say “fèi” for 烦 when speaking Mandarin. In the local Wu dialect, it’s /v̥ʓ/ or I’ve also heard it as /v̥ɛ̃/ when sung. So in Changzhou Mandarin it’s common to hear people say “fèi si le” for 烦死了

  14. Syz says:

    Just came across this video (via ChinaHush). Near the beginning the news anchor very clearly asks “shuí gèng niú”. It’s from 南方电视台 “Southern Television” which seems to be in Guangdong, so maybe it’s not only a “proper” putonghua thing but a southern thing? Since I don’t usually watch any tv I’m not qualified even to compare to northern anchors.

  15. AcidFlask says:

    In Singapore and Malaysian Chinese, it’s definitely shuí, except because of the infamous conflation of /sh/ and /s/, often is pronounced like suí instead.

  16. That’s interesting, because up here in Siberia Dongbei, especially among the less educated, /sh/-/s/ conflation often produces séi. On a recent trip into the deep countryside, a waitress asked us (not the “royal us”; I had a friend with me) “ní sǎng cī sén me?” for 你想吃什么?

  17. Zev Handel says:

    Randy, that sǎng for 想 (xiǎng) is really interesting. Is that an accurate representation of the pronunciation? No medial -i- sound?

  18. It’s possibly not entirely accurate, but 差不多. I wrote it that way to emphasize the 平舌-ness of the utterance. I’ll try to bring a recorder next time. It was very curious that there wasn’t a 翘舌 to be heard around there.

  19. I’ve wondered about that xi- sans -i-. Seem’s like it’s got to exist in someone’s dialect.

Leave a Reply