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… Continue…

shuí yě bù zhīdào

Victor Mair received this message from a former student of his, and sent it in to us:

I just remembered one other question I’d been meaning to ask you. It’s about the character 谁. When I started taking Chinese years ago, my teachers and textbooks all told me to pronounce it “shei.” This spring, I was speaking to a visiting Chinese professor from Dalian who was teaching elementary Chinese, and she and her textbook teach the pronunciation of the same character as “shui.” When I asked her about this, she said that “shui” was more standard, and “shei” was a local variation used mostly around Beijing. Is that right? Among native speakers, who uses “shei,” and who uses “shui”?

This is a very interesting question. Continue…

Desperately seeking: descriptivists in China

Reading this pitch-perfect account of prescriptivist and descriptivist collision

When my History of the English Language professor observed that the distinction between lay and lie was being lost among younger speakers (good luck asking a twenty-year-old to run the paradigms), I had the poor enough judgment to share this insight with Grandmother. Since I could never keep straight what was laying and who was lying, this was a lesson that resonated with me. I might as well have told her that going out in public without a bra had become the vogue. (h/t Literal-Minded)

… made me recollect a recent conversation in which I was trying to find out the word for saturated fat. I had looked up the nutritional term for fat and gotten 脂肪 but wasn’t sure about saturated fat. Since Grandma’s a medical doctor, why not ask her? Continue…