Elementary humor: Mr. Countless

The other day we were talking about how Chinese puns work, playing on tones vs other phonemes or both. Here’s one from my daughter’s math book that tickled my nine-yr-old funny bone. It depends on a tone change and a phoneme change, but since in this case it’s a phonemic distinction that exists only for some versions of Mandarin, it works that much better as a pun.

(As with the last joke, translation after the break in case you’re practicing character recognition)




And now some translation: Continue…


Here’s a word-order-changes-grammar-and-semantics riddle to spice up your January, courtesy of some schoolbook of my daughter’s I’ve now lost track of. If you know Chinese, it’s only amusing, not difficult. But in case you’re in the process of learning, I’ll not translate till after the break so you can have fun with the original:

有一个人请三个朋友吃饭,他问:“你们怕不怕辣?” 这几个人立即自夸起来。





OK, and now for translation and discussion: Continue…

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?

English-Pinyin abbreviation games

My nephew suddenly piped up as we were driving down the road yesterday:

Ài cún bù cún!
“See if we care if you don’t want to save”*

Sure enough, we were passing


one of the largest banks in China.

The joke requires rudimentary knowledge of both Pinyin and English, which elementary students have in spades. It’s a play on ICBC, of course, where the I is read as the sound of the letter in English (same as Mandarin for “love”, 爱=ài) and CBC is made into an abbreviation for 存不存 = cún bù cún. Continue…

Character math

On my second-grade daughter’s worksheet the other day.


Is this common in Chinese classes for foreigners? There’s also something like an oral version of this that I’ve heard her playing (with her mother or grandmother) from time to time. If I ever get a good recording I’ll post it.

It’s kind of amusing, but pedagogically it strikes me as a waste: awfully rote compared to much of the stuff they do and are capable of at this age.

If anyone has different versions of this, you can send them to me (bjshengr <at> gmail <dot> com) and I’ll add them to the post.

Chinese picture puzzles in Tibetan book

I recently found a stash of Tibetan books in my local Xinhua. By ‘stash’ I mean four different books: two grammar readers, a children’s puzzle book and a Tibetan/English translation of Buddhist poetry. But beggars cannot be choosers, especially when it comes to Tibetan books outside of Tibet proper.

The puzzle book, published by the Tibetan People’s Publishing House in 1996 for the grand old price of 2.2 RMB is extremely cool; it’s bilingual Tibetan/Chinese, and full of little games no doubt designed to entertain Tibetan kiddies (with the aim of helping improve their Chinese literacy, it would seem).


Fake/(Real) Chinese

I’ve always wanted to fake people out like this:

(We’ve all got monolingual friends, and some of those might not know that we’re bilingual.)

At a gathering of friends who are monolingual and don’t know you can speak Chinese, announce that you can speak Chinese fluently.  It’s best if you’re with a crowd that wouldn’t suspect that you could do such a thing.

Then say something that to an English speaking monolingual person sounds like fake Chinese, but to a Chinese person sounds perfectly reasonable.  My best attempt (in a pseudo-Beijing-Opera voice):

经常上长城! (jīngcháng shàng chángchéng, Go to the Great Wall often!