Mandarin shibboleths among foreigners Beer.

Class has just begun for me. Another fun year of too many credit hours and too many papers to write at the end. The good news is with the amount of exposure I’m getting, I damn well better be mistaken for Dashan’s (大山) Southern kid brother by the end of the year.

To jump start that exposure I’ve been listening to the BBC’s Mandarin broadcasts. There’s a podcast for it that you can find on the iTunes store if you’re interested. One of the things that threw me off is when they give the website address or email address, some people are saying 点 dian and some are saying 点儿, which sounds more like “deer” or “d. r.”. I hear people say “diar” often enough, but “deer” was new to me. Keep in mind I live in an erhua-free zone, and have made it a point in my own speech to never utter a single “-r” be it a 本儿 or a 块儿 or even telling him to stop 在这儿. The first time I heard it I thought they were saying

b. b. c. d. r. c. o. d. r. u. k.

This reminded me of hanging out with Syz and listening to his Beijinghuar a while back. It’s not something I hear too often. This, along with the comments on a post over at ChengduLiving got me thinking about shibboleths, specifically among foreigners.

From wikipedia:

A shibboleth is any distinguishing practice that is indicative of one’s social or regional origin. It usually refers to features of language, and particularly to a word whose pronunciation identifies its speaker as being a member or not a member of a particular group.

In my home town we don’t say soda. We say pop. I say soda, so when I’m there people sometimes think I’m a waidiren, an outsider.

In Shanghai you won’t hear 左 zuǒ or 右 yòu for left and right when in a taxi, at least not usually. Rather than taking a left turn you take a “big turn” (大拐 dà guǎi) or a small turn (小拐 xiǎo guǎi) to go right. I’m not sure how widespread it is, but it’s constant in Shanghai and it’s what I say 90% of the time. Nanjing has “啊是啊 a shì a” for “对吧 duì ba” while Shanghai has “对勿了 tɛ vəˀ lɑˀ”. But again I’m not talking about the local dialects as spoken by locals. I’m talking about local phrases that have made it into your Mandarin that, when travelling outside of your town marks you as an outsider. My 对勿了 tɛ vəˀ lɑˀ is not well received in Henan, just as 啊是啊 a shì a doesn’t get you far unless you’re with Nanjing transplants.

What’s more, I make great efforts to avoid 儿化音 erhuayin in my speech, never willing to say 冰块儿 or 本儿书. I soften my sh and have said 对 dui as dei since day one.

What do you say that you think is characteristic of your part of China? Do you do it on purpose, or is it just what you think good Mandarin sounds like? I for one find the Jiangnan dialects of Mandarin to sound better, but then this is the only place I’ve lived.

32 responses to “Mandarin shibboleths among foreigners Beer.”

  1. John B says:

    My wife and in-laws are born and bred 东北人, and obviously they’ve had a great impact on my speech. On the other hand, I’ve spent almost my entire China life in Jiangnan, first in Hangzhou and then in Shanghai, so I hear Wu-tinted Mandarin pretty much all the time. Most Chinese folks I meet ask me where up north I studied, so I guess my pronunciation leans that direction. I know I’ve picked up 对勿了 and ‘dei/dui’ and other bits and pieces, though, so real 东北人 probably think I’m hopelessly 嗲. Oh well….

  2. dlszho says:

    But again I’m not talking about the local dialects as spoken by locals.

    Did you just call Shanghainese a dialect?

  3. dlszho: Nope. I called the Shanghainese dialect of Mandarin a dialect, which it is. Shanghainese that is the non-Mandarin thing being spoken is also a dialect, of Wu, but that wasn’t what I was referring to.

    John B: Embrace it, man.

  4. Sascha says:

    Embrace it man. Sichuan dialect also has a bit of er in it, but it somehow doesn’t annoy me as much as the swalloed er in dong bei hua … has anyone heard the chongqing er before. very special.

  5. Just had an odd encounter with this last night. Talking to a waitress to ask after my food, I had to repeat myself a few times. Later I asked her if I wasn’t speaking clearly, or what. Turns out she was from Shandong, has been in Shanghai less than a month, and had trouble understanding me because of, as John B said, being “hopelessly 嗲”. She said she has trouble with Shanghai accents anyway and foreigners are supposed to sound like they’re from Beijing.

  6. zerv says:

    It’s an interesting sociolinguistic phenomenon that we expect foreigners to speak the standard (if accented) form of our own language. Imagine a Frenchman speaking with a full-on Brooklyn accent, or someone with only a so-so command of English addressing you as “yo, bro!”.

  7. pc says:

    @zerv on that note:

    [removed duplicate comment. -kp]

  8. Syz says:

    pc: lol — perfect example for zerv’s comment, especially when you contrast the accent in the cop’s practiced lines with the typical chinese-tinged english of the other parts of the interview.

    Kellen: the trouble with all the shibboleth stuff for locals is that every time I think I’ve found a “beijingers would never say X” or “always say Y” shibboleth, someone will come along and violate it. For foreigners, well, since I never really get out of 上地, where the foreigner population is limited, I’m not qualified to comment. If I had to venture a guess at what would qualify, it’s that long-time foreign residents know to pick 燕京 over 青岛 beer when those are the only options…

    “foreigners are supposed to sound like they’re from Beijing” — uh, of course. :)

  9. Even in Shanghai I always choose 燕京 over 青岛 when 燕京 is an option.

  10. Syz says:

    shoot. maybe the yanjing choice is a shibboleth of having spent enough time in China to realize there are choices beyond qingdao

  11. I learned about 燕京 o a 2008 trip up north. You can find it around here at some stores but it’s not common. Definitely a northerner thing.

  12. Chris Waugh says:

    You gotta be careful with that 燕京, it’s of quite variable quality. Their green and white striped half-litre cans and their black beer will leave you with a nasty formaldehyde hangover. The 燕京干啤 that I drink up in my in laws’ village (and I’ve only ever seen it there), on the other hand, is pretty good.

    Down here in Beijing, my local beer man stocks 燕京 and 青岛. I don’t mind the 燕京 cans, and buy them when I’m too lazy to go home and get my empties first, but I’ll take 青岛 over bottled 燕京 every time simply because it’s cleaner and less likely to leave me feeling like I’ve been pickled the next morning. Sorry, Syz, another shibboleth gone?

  13. 天目湖 was the local beer in Changzhou. It was made from the local lake water, which they proudly put on the label. I stopped drinking it after a weekend at the lake. I guess the Shanghai equivalent of a beer shibboleth is to drink Dead Guy?

  14. Chris Waugh says:

    Ah, 天目湖! I have fond memories of that! When I worked on a high school programme that had conferences in Changzhou’s new north district at the start of each semester, myself and the younger/younger at heart men on the programme would disappear as soon as possible, find a local restaurant and proceed to… not get wasted. I remember it having a very low alcohol content. Foul stuff that, almost as bad as Taiyuan’s 迎泽 Cleaning Flavour Beer (yes, it did have a slightly soapy feel to it). I have long suspected local variations in water quality to be responsible for a lot of the differences in beer quality. The 雪花 sold here in Beijing is pretty good, and I would buy that over 青岛 if my beer man stocked it, but out in Linfen I bought a few bottles – exactly the same label as the stuff I’d drink here – and it was rough as guts. Your weekend at the lake sounds like another perfect example of water quality translating into beer quality.

    Have we stumbled onto a general laowai shibboleth – comparing the worst beers we’ve consumed? A similar one may be swapping baijiu stories…

  15. I like to think of myself as a China beer snob, sampling the local brews wherever I go. Someone recently mentioned on Twitter that there needs to be a baijiu version of the Grape Wall of China. I say a beer one is just as necessary.

  16. Syz says:

    Nice nuance on the local lager choices there, Chris. I’ll take to heart your point about the cans and keep an eye out for the 燕京干啤, which I don’t remember coming across. Maybe the shibboleth morality tale is getting deeper: that all these shibboleths are fallible and none are substitute for true knowledge of whatever it was we were trying to acquire knowledge about… or something like that.

  17. Chris Waugh says:

    Kellen, totally agreed on the beer and baijiu. I just wonder if my wife would let me take on any of that responsibility….

    Syz, let me emphasise I have only ever seen the 燕京干啤 in one village by the side of the old G110 in the northwest of Yanqing County, and I only ever buy it from one particular shop (the only exception being one time when they ran out of stock just as I arrived in the village – one of those Murphy’s Law things). Back when I first started going out there, the labels contained a clear notice to the effect of “for sale outside Beijing only” – although Yanqing is within Beijing municipal limits. The labels have since changed, but the beer hasn’t. But I would say that if you’re going to hunt down a Chinese beer (and the 燕京干啤 may be my brew of choice out there, but it’s not so great as to warrant a guided tour of my wife’s home village), aim for the 青岛黑啤. It seems to be very rare outside Qingdao, and a little expensive, but certainly worth it.

  18. pc says:

    I dunno, I think the beer selection at the Japanese grocery store under 静安寺 and the Century Mart at 世纪公园’s subway stop have a pretty large selection of beers. I got a Swedish import at the Century Mart. I mean, yeah, it was 11元 but still, I was surprised to see it. If 青岛黑啤 is the same as 青岛Stout (I didn’t look at the Chinese label at the time of purchase) then the Century Mart definitely stocks it. They even have 台湾啤酒 which is a personal favorite.

  19. 青岛黑啤 is great. There was this place in Changzhou that was really just a whole in the wall with two massive Tsingtao kegs. They had the normal pils and then QD stout. On tap and only 20rmb for a pitcher. Next door was a chuarwalla with tasty cicada kebabs. We spent many a night hanging out there, keeping a look out for the chengguan in case we had to run. Outside seating was illegal until 1030pm.

    pc: I’ll have to check that out. If you’re going out for the night (in Shanghai of course) you can’t really argue against the selection at 南蛮子 Southern Barbian. My folks had their credit card number swiped from the wait staff there though, so I pay in cash these days.

  20. Cant say i was a fan of 台湾啤酒 last I had it. Guess I need to give it another try.

  21. pc says:

    Thanks for the tip, I’ll have to check it out when I get back to Shanghai! @台湾啤酒 Maybe it was just that it was a hella hot day and that was the only thing I had in the fridge. Also, not to put this further off topic, but before I forget. I thought this might be of particular interest of you, but at the very very end of the 5 (you know how it switches colors when you go far enough south on the 1) there’s a web-barish thing that has its signage all in shanghainese, i.e. a huge sign that says 农好 (err..or however you’re supposed to spell it….)

  22. The end of line 5, as in the very very end stop at Minhang Development Zone?

  23. pc says:

    Maybe? I couldn’t tell you since I was following a friend to a friend’s house. If there’s a fair amount of Western-style development (i.e. gated communities etc.) in Minhang DZ area then yeah, it’s probably that. All I know is if you go out of the exit at the end of line 5 and take a right away from the taxi stand it’ll be right there across the street.

  24. I spend a fair amount of time in Minhang these days. Maybe I’ll take a tip out there and check it out. Thanks.

    Now back to the beer. : )

  25. Tim says:

    If in Zhejiang, don’t get the 千岛湖 beer, AKA Cheerday. That was tasteless and made me sick. Not that 西湖啤酒 is much better… Their main notable point is they use “Siwo”, the Hangzhouhua way of saying 西湖 as I understand, for their English name.

  26. John B says:

    Oh god, 千岛湖啤酒. When I was living in Hangzhou back in 2003-2004, 千岛湖 blanketed the city with these radio ads that were just: “喜欢喝啤酒?千岛湖啤酒!好喝!” I’d hear it five times per taxi ride, at least. I guess it worked, though, because I still remember the ad — vile stuff though. Thinking about it, there wasn’t a single non-vile beer choice available in most bars in Hangzhou then — it was either 千岛湖, 西湖, 中华, or Budweiser.

  27. “Siwo” is just the kind of gimmick that would get me. Once.


    I got one for you. 我吃我吃我吃吃吃.

  28. Sascha says:

    528! 重庆山城!

  29. 周銳(Louis) says:

    As for Taiwan, it’s best to do what the locals do — drink whiskey. However, with that said…

    The Taiwanese government runs the 臺灣啤酒 breweries. The equipment they use is imported from Germany. Their goal at the brewery is to model mid-range German beer. Although the standard 臺灣啤酒 is nothing to write home about, I think it’s consistent (probably it’s best quality).

    The 臺灣啤酒 breweries actually produce a wide selection (don’t think you can find all of these in China):

    I prefer the 金牌台灣生啤酒 and 全麥啤酒 over almost anything — except some European beers and microbreweries in NW Washington, and of course beer Lao.

  30. Chris Waugh says:

    And now my question is: Is that 金牌 pronounced properly with an 儿 on the end?

    And actually, I’m curious about your shift from 臺 to 台.

  31. Dan says:

    I’ve only tried 燕京啤酒 and 重庆山城啤酒 when I was in Beijing and Chongqing, respectively. I think Yanjing was pretty clear, not too dark. Well, as for Shancheng, it was our favorite beer in Chongqing, but it was also pretty much the only beer they sold there. That’s what I had on my birthday though.

  32. 周銳(Louis) says:


    I don’t know about páir as Taiwanese Mandarin lacks érhuà.

    Why I shifted from 臺 to 台 is a mystery you’re going to need to solve yourself.

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