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.

A. 那是你的
nà shì nǐde
that is yours

B. 那件大衣是你的
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.

5 responses to “The Nèis have it”

  1. Carl says:

    I’m proud of any website willing to take a bold, counter-conventional, pro-greengrocers’ apostrophes stand. I’m tired of people bending over backwards for the Lynn Truss mafia.

  2. I had to google Lynn Truss, but yeah: exactly. Now I’m sorry I didn’t change it, just for you, Carl! Maybe we can start a movement to liberate the apostrophe from its possessive, elliptical drudgery…

  3. pot says:

    For me the two pronunciations nà and nèi of the demonstrative 那 belong to two different registers (rather than parts of speech), the latter being the colloquial form of the former. Example A sounds as if the speaker is reading aloud a text. “Nèi shì nǐde” and “Nèige shì nǐde” are more common in the spoken language. On the other hand, I doubt if anyone would read the adjectival 那 in 那河畔的金柳 as nèi.

    The situation is similar for the interrogative determiner 哪 “which”. Nǎ is the literary reading and nǎi is the colloquial form.

    那 is also a conjunction meaning “in that case”. When used as such, it is always pronounced nà.

    • Peter Nelson says:

      I think the claim that Syz is making–and which is, in my experience, accurate–is that 那 has (at least) two uses, and allowable pronunciations differ between the two. When a pronoun, its only allowed pronunciation is “nà” (I know I have never come across “Nèi shì nǐde” or the like). When it comes right in front of a measure word, it can be pronounced either “nà” or “nèi” (“nèi” being much more common). In that pre-measure-word case, the “nà”/”nèi” distinction is, I would agree, a matter of register.

    • [apologies for repeat comment; the comment system is too smart for me, apparently]
      No doubt there’s a register difference: I’ve had native speakers cringe when I read a text using nèi. But I’m in agreement with Peter that, as pronoun, 那’s only allowed pronunciation is “nà” — at least here in Beijing, and that’s always my disclaimer. Pot, I wonder if the nèi you’ve heard in pronouns is from some other region. Could you identify a particular region as the source of most of your Mandarin?

      Re register in particular: in my experience the nà reading (when 那 is an adjective) is extremely formal. It’s only used in some sort of academic or official context. It’s not the kind of “formal” you might use, for example, when talking to the CEO of your company.

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