Tone vs other phonemes in Mandarin punning

To native Mandarin speakers (NSs), how salient is tone vs other phonemic features?

The question comes up a lot for me, a non-native speaker (NNS), just because tone is an order of magnitude less salient. That is, if I miss any feature of a word, it’s almost sure to be the tone before, say, whether the beginning sound was a /ch/ or /s/.

But I’m pretty sure it doesn’t apply to NSs. An incident I heard about had the NNS mispronouncing shòu as shǒu when attempting to say “她很瘦” (she’s so thin). What came out, then, was “tā hěn shǒu” which was unhappily understood as “tā hěn chǒu” (她很丑 = she’s so ugly) by the NS.

Still, I have some vague intuition that NSs are more flexible on tone than on other features. In that vein, this quote in China Media Project caught my eye the other day. It’s referring to how an online commenter sneaks in a reference to the Nobel peace prize by substituting characters:

the user replaced the characters for “peace” + “prize”, or hépíng jiǎng (和平奖), with the same-sounding characters “crane” + “level” + “palm”, or hè píng zhǎng (鹤平掌). [tone marks added to original Pinyin]

So here we’ve got a tone switch with matching phonemes, hé vs hè, but we’ve also got a phoneme switch with matching tone: jiǎng vs zhǎng. This is new for me. Of the online puns I can think of off the top of my head, all rely on matching phonemes with mixed-up tones, e.g. cǎo ní mǎ. But new-to-me doesn’t mean much. Anyone else have examples of phoneme-switching-tone-preserving puns?

4 responses to “Tone vs other phonemes in Mandarin punning”

  1. Julen says:

    I think it depends very much on the geographic areas and local dialects. I hear generally the North and West has less prominent tones than the South and East. From my experience in Shanghai (in mandarin) tones are really important, perhaps as much as the letters themselves. In fact, some puns that work for me don’t work for them at all because of a tone difference, they are not even funny.

    I think your example online is a bit different because when you type IME you don’t really use the tones, the characters just pop up as you type, and people chose them for their humour value rather than for sound (see 草泥马 case for example)

    But there are exceptions in speech as well. For example one of my favourite expressions I got from the guys in the 拉面馆:When your friend feels somewhat “controlled” at home, like he is not allowed to go out for a beer or something, you would rub your throat pretending to be in pain, and go “Ouch, sore throat!, 气管炎”, a very common pun for “妻管严”,”my wife controls me strictly!”… :)

    Tones 1 and 4 are reasonably similar I guess. And since the other 2 tones are the same, the general contour of the phrase remains very similar… as with the letters, for the tones too there are some that are easily exchanged and some not.

    PS. Apologies to the feminists around.

  2. Syz says:

    @Julen: nice one. I don’t think you need to apologize — just a cultural observation, not an assertion of philosophy, right? :) I meant to mention that I’ve heard of native speakers not getting the 草泥马 joke until it was explained to them, which speaks to the importance of tones too.

    @Randy: You’re not talking smack about my meow meow, now, are you?

  3. pott says:

    There are plenty of puns that switch phonemes and leave the tones intact. Here is one example to match the cursing in the previous comments.

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