The Nèis have it
Nèi doesn’t get much respect. Here in Beijing it’s undeniably the pronunciation of choice for 那 except when 那 is a pronoun*. But you wouldn’t know that by looking at most books: 那 maps to nà as surely as Beijing will officially meet its air quality goals for 2011. If you say it often enough it must be true, right?
It’s a dumb habit made even worse by the fact that the nèi/nà distinction in everyday speech so nicely shows different grammatical usage. Where 那 is a pronoun (A, below) it’s pronounced nà. As an adjective (B), though, it’s pronounced nèi.
nà shì nǐde
that is yours
nèi jiàn dàyī shì nǐde
that overcoat is yours
So why mix things up by pretending that it’s always pronounced nà? It’s not as if there’s no precedent for a Chinese character having more than one pronunciation…
Enter book #1 from the birthday box I just received yesterday (thanks, Mom & Dad!): Chinese, A Comprehensive Grammar, by Yip Po-Ching and Don Rimmington. So far, I’m liking it. All the nèis just where they should be, and an explanation to boot (p.49):
Note that 这 ‘this’ and 那 ‘that’ are always pronounced respectively as zhè and nà when used as demonstrative pronouns on their own. However, as demonstrative adjectives, when they are followed by a measure, they are also pronounced zhèi and nèi by many speakers. This is almost certainly a phonetic fusion of zhe + yi ‘one’ and na + yi ‘one’. Even when yi ‘one’ is present in its own right in an utterance, the pronunciation zhèi and nèi can still be used…
Nice. Thumbs up for reality. I’m going to quit feeling ashamed when I transcribe nèi and zhèi on Beijing Sounds.
*The situation is parallel for 这 as zhè or zhèi. And actually it’s a wee bit more complicated than this, but this works as a quick rule of thumb.
PS: Re another bad pun in the title. Sinoglot’s been making a run of these. I guess it’s just a price you have to pay for the lack of quality headline writers on staff. Maybe Santa can loan us an elf after the holidays.
PPS: And speaking of titles, here’s fair warning that one of these days I’m going to pull out all the stops and start using the green grocer’s apostrophe-s to mark unusual pluralizations. It’s only some vestige of the subservience that was educated into me that I don’t go right now and change “Neis” to “Nei’s”. Why shouldn’t I? We’re all adults here (or really precocious and bored youth). We could as easily take ‘s to mean “indication of plural” as we can take it to mean indication of possessive, and that would keep people from trying to read the whole thing like, well, gneiss.