Standunder and grok

I just got back from a nice rainforest hiking trip with my kids in Wuzhishan, Hanian. We managed to hike up to the first peak and even got back down before eleven o’clock at night! The locals were very impressed that an eight- and a ten-year old could make it up there (and after sundown, they were kindhearted enough to call every 30 minutes to see if we were still alive).

When we were on the bus on the way to Wuzhishan City, the 车长 (bus stewardess?) looked at my kids and asked me “Tāmen dǒng tīng hànyǔ ma?”

My mind crunched up and in a few split seconds I went through:

“他们都听汉语吗?”  (Can they both hear (?understand) Chinese?)

That’s too strange.

But no, she distinctly said “dǒng” and not “dōu”.

Could she have said “他们懂听汉语吗?”?

With no more options coming up, in the present context I just guessed that she had made some weird kind of verbal disfluency (as we all do in our native languages here and there) and meant 听懂 (tīngdǒng, hear and understand).  I answered in the affirmative and she turned and started talking to the kids.  I asked my seatmate, with whom I had been in the middle of a lively conversation about what the best way to learn software programming in China might be (through school, or just practice — I advocate practice), and he said he didn’t hear what she said exactly, but that 懂听 doesn’t make any sense.  (He’s a native of Haikou, and often travels on business to Wuzhishan).

So I just chalked it up to disfluency and left it at that.

At Shuiman Village (水满乡, the village closest to the foot of Wuzhishan (五指山, Five Finger Mountain), I bought some fresh 槟榔 (bīngláng, so-called betel nuts).  The woman selling them looked at me askance and said “你懂吗?”, as if there were some arcane secret involved.  Yeah, I grok this, I thought.  She asked again “你懂吃吗?”  I told her I don’t usually eat them, but I’m eating some on vacation just for fun.  We don’t have any fresh ones in Xiamen (that I’ve seen at least).

Over the next few days I heard 懂 being used more in the same kinds of contexts, like using chopsticks, and finding the way.  They would use it in many of the contexts that 会 would be used in standard Mandarin.

My kids were looking through some toys later and there were several sellers around.  One of them ask me if they could speak Chinese.  This time it was 他俩懂不懂听汉语. I think I replied in the form of 懂听啊 to see if they would balk a little, or just accept the answer.  They accepted the answer and, as is often common in spoken Chinese, they all started repeating it to each other: 懂听啊,懂听啊.   他们懂听啊.

So it wasn’t a simple disfluency; it’s clearly a regional variation.

Variation abounds in any language, and that’s not strange at all, I wonder how this particular very strange variation came about.

The reason this variation is strange is because the verb and the complement of result have switched places.  The place for a complement of result in Mandarin is always after the verb, and you can put particles in between them: 我吃得太饱; 我听得很懂.  But with this variation, you can’t do that!  You couldn’t say 我懂得很听.

Has anyone else heard any other examples of this type of variation?

[Note:  I really wish I had time enough to do some work with the Li (黎) language down there.  I met lots of native speakers, but with two kids to constantly keep occupied, and with hiking as the main focus of the trip, I didn’t even try.  Someday I’d like to go back and stay for a longer time and do some work with that very interesting language, though.)

10 responses to “Standunder and grok”

  1. Karan says:

    Very interesting. Thanks for sharing!

    I think your analysis that this is a replacement of 會 is spot on, which is why I also think that trying to fit it into the verb-complement pattern is going to be fruitless. For example, as I’m sure you very well know, you can’t ask “你會得聽嗎?”.

    Also, 五指山 is not the only place in China where 會 is replaced by something else. In both 閩南話 and 廣東話, 識 takes the place of 會/懂. So, in Cantonese, the same question would be “你識聽呀?”.

  2. Tezuk says:

    Mandarin does have 懂得… Like 懂得去愛,懂得怎麼吃. Maybe it has originated from an ellipsis of the 得.

    Karan: Southern Min actually does use 會, but usually together with 曉: 會曉無 (你會嗎?) As far as I know 識 is not used for ability in Southern Min, in Taiwan at least.

  3. That use of 懂 is pretty cool. Since “grok” is still kind of limited in its social circles, maybe just “get”? Do they get listening to Chinese? Do you get using chopsticks?

    And am I understanding the betel nut vendor woman right: that her question was what a vendor in Beijing might have asked as, 你会吗?

    PS: Great post for pole position on 2012!

  4. Cui Runan says:

    “懂听”这种说法在spoken chinese中并不奇怪,在我们听来是没有问题的,这时候可以把“听汉语”作为一个词组,做“懂”的宾语。实际上我们说话都不注意语法的,相信在各个国家口语都这样的,就像“听懂”我们就把它作为一个词来用了,而不会去在意“结果补语”,还有像“扔掉了”,虽然掉是扔的结果,但我们一般把“扔掉”直接作为一个词来记了,并不去注意语法。


    [Translation added by Sima]
    My English isn’t great and I might not be able to express myself all that clearly, so I’ll just say it in Chinese.

    It’s really not that unusual to hear formulations like ‘dǒng tīng’ in spoken Chinese, and we don’t hear them as problematic. Here we can treat ‘tīng Hànyǔ’ as a phrase forming the object of ‘dǒng’. In reality, when we speak, we don’t worry about grammar, and I trust this is the same for spoken language the world over. It’s like ‘tīng dǒng’; we just treat it as a word and don’t think about things like ‘complement of result’. It’s kind of like ‘rēngdiào le’ (thrown away); although ‘diào’ is the result, but we generally think of it as a complete word to be remembered and don’t care about the grammar.

    I hope this has helped you. If there’s anything you don’t understand, do reply and I’ll try my best to help.

  5. Nicki says:

    I’m kind of in shock on this one… I had no idea that this use of 懂 was NOT standard Mandarin. I hear it all the time in Hainan, and so 他们懂听汉语吗? sounds pretty natural to me. I often hear it used in the sense of ability, for example a student with no confidence might mutter “我不懂说英文” or simply “不懂说” to say that he can’t speak English.

    I’m now wondering what other common phrases I’ve picked up that are NOT standard from living in Hainan for so long and having so little exposure to the Mainland…

  6. Lucy says:

    As someone brought up in a Hakka/Cantonese household, this sounded pretty normal to me, for the reason Karan above writes.

  7. Peter Nelson says:

    This sounds decidedly bizarre to my ears. For me, 懂 can only take noun-phrase complements if used as a verb. When I was in Jiangsu, I did hear a fair amount of “你能听懂汉语吗?” (or more redundantly: “你能听得懂汉语吗?”), which is interesting… but not nearly as interesting as what Randy’s talking about. Thanks for sharing Randy.

  8. michaelyus says:

    I also never found it a strange construction, though I do think there is certainly a difference of nuance between 他懂听汉语 and 他听(得)懂汉语. I think it is a case of 懂 moving into 会, though I think “懂 plus verbal predicate” is not a “new” thing as such; “dialectal”, possibly. At the very least I know that something like that “你只是一个饭桶,只懂吃饭” would not sound odd in my household.

    • michaelyus says:

      Eugh! It’s too late for me to be posting. Corrections:

      I *also* think it is a case of…
      At the very least I know that something like “你…

Leave a Reply