Back Up

In the earlier post, 3Q, we looked at the seven Mandarin dentals, z, c, s, d, t, n, l. Three sounds, z, c, s are classified in Chinese as 舌尖前 or front apical, dental. The remaining four are 舌尖中 or mid-apical, and might be called denti-alveolar.

Let us be clear, the Mandarin affricates zh and ch, known as 舌尖后音 (rear apical sounds) are indeed back from their flat-tongued (or front apical) cousins z and c. The tongue tip might indeed be said to kind of curl up…a little bit. For the purposes of phonetics, retroflex might be a suitably sciencey description. But this is kind of missing the point. Continue…


In the earlier post, Shurely Shome Mishtake, I talked about how I came to pronounce the Mandarin sounds, zh, ch, sh too far back in the mouth. This is basically not a good thing. But before moving on to just how those sounds ought to be produced, I’d first like to draw your attention to the Chinese dentals.

Many people will be aware that Chinese students of English initially have considerable difficulty with the two English dental fricatives /θ/ and /ð/, the ‘th’ sounds in ‘thin’ and ‘then’. Indeed, many Chinese students are very aware of this, and use the humorous Chinglish abbreviation, 3Q (sān – Q  = thank you). Continue…

Shurely shome mishtake!

If you’re reading this blog you’ve already heard that Chinese is So Damn Hard, but I sometimes wonder whether we make it more difficult than it need be.

Getting it wrong from the start

One of my clearest memories of those early baby steps in Pinyin was the strange obsession some teachers had with the difference between two groups of easily distinguished sounds:

zhi chi shi

zi ci si

Obviously, these syllables seemed pretty exotic with the so-called vowel represented by the letter ‘i‘ being nothing like any vowel I’d ever heard. But even as I started to make that fricative-cum-vowel, I was regularly reminded that the distinction between the 平舌 (píngshé, flat tongue) and 翘舌 (qiàoshé, cacuminal or retroflex, sometimes called 卷舌, juǎnshé) sounds was terribly important. Continue…

Trilingual blogs (中韓英)

My university had a language centre as all modern universities do. In addition to the required X hours spent doing coursework there, you could borrow DVDs in various languages. Most were outdated or over-watched VHSs converted into DVDs, so the quality wasn’t the best, but then again we were listening to Umm Kuthum at the time anyway so lo-fi was the way to go. The only real problem was the student workers. I remember quite clearly going in one day and asking to borrow an episode of افتح يا سمسم, call number AS-03 or something like that. “AS-03?” she asked, critically, while shooting a glance to her friends standing nearby. “You want to watch Sesame Street?” Chuckles all around.

Yeah, you jerk, I do. Sorry I don’t want to pretend to understand every nuance in the dialogue of La Haine just to look cool in front of the other language students. Give me my damn muppets and leave me alone.

I’m still working through some stuff from when I was younger.


The Elderly

note: Sinoglot readers rock. Seriously. You guys have consistently provided good discussion, which is what we talked about wanting, what seems like ages ago, when we decided to put this site together. We’ve all been a bit busy these days so the posting has slowed down. To remedy that, I have a few quick posts I’m going to throw up here in hopes of getting some more discussion going. This is the first. Thanks for kicking ass.

I’ve written elsewhere about trying to talk to the elerly in China. On a trip to Henan province last year i was somewhat surprised by the fact that I could actually understand people and communicate with putonghua. I thought that this was a strictly southern phenomena, being unable to talk to anyone over 50, but today it seems to have crept further north than I’d otherwise thought.

Today I was talking to a friend of mine from northern Jiangsu province about dialects and communication. She was saying that her parents, not yet 50 years of age, cannot speak standard Mandarin. I figured it was not a big problem since it was still beifang-hua, so to test I had her run through the usual phrases I make everyone say. Not terribly surprisingly, it didn’t sound much like Mandarin. It was clearly a northern dialect but one that I’d have a hard time to understand in the context of a real conversation. Not yet 50.


Minzu Accented Mandarin

I was recently speaking to a woman (in English, for what it’s worth) about her own language use. She was raised in Northeast China, though in a Korean speaking household. School was in Mandarin until university which was in Mandarin fading to Japanese, thanks to her major.

I usually have great faith in polyglots when it comes to pronunciation, but in this case she kept saying things in a very Korean way. “Sue” would come out ㅅㅠ xioo instead of su as in Suzhou. The su pronunciation was easily enough elicited, but not her default. so i asked her if, when speaking Mandarin, she had a distinctly Korean accent, to which she said yes. I found it a little surprising, but of course if most of the peers of her youth were also primarily Korean speakers, it makes sense.

I’m writing about it now to as the readers if you have had similar experiences with people among the less obviously peripheral minzu.

Have you typically found it to be the case than people of Zhuang, chaoxian or Hui backgrounds have exhibited different accents than their Han peers?

Mandarin vs English speed race?

The author is a postgrad in Asian Studies at the University of Western Australia. He received a “2nd Class Prize” in the 2010 Chinese Bridge, a worldwide Mandarin speaking competition heavily rigged in his favour. He is also an occasional contributor at

As Sima and Syz’s recent pieces have noted, written Chinese is a wonderfully compact language. Indeed, as the huge wave of microblogging (微博/wēibó) swelling in China reminds us, you can say much more in 140 Chinese characters than 140 letters.

But how compact is spoken Chinese?

There’s a post on ‘Baidu Knows’ titled, “Do foreigners speak English at the same speed we speak Chinese?”. The “Best Answer” goes as follows:


Is Mr. Ma throwing a fit?!

You might remember the discussion we had last year about the peculiar usage of the exclamation “!” and other punctuation marks in modern mandarin. I bring this up again because in yesterday’s news there was a remarkable piece of writing that illustrates the phenomenon.  Interesting too because the author is an admired member of the internet elite, speaker of English and used to working with foreigners: none other than Jack Ma, the founder of the Alibaba empire.

You can read all about it in this Forbes blog post. To make a long story short: Mr. Ma was slightly annoyed when he found that dozens of his employees were using the company to collude with outside swindlers, and he wrote a circular letter containing, in its Chinese original:

– 11 periods
– 21 exclamation marks.

In the first half of the letter it is even more pronounced, with a total of 12 exclamations for only 4 periods, and then those 4 look like they’ve been forgotten there  at the end of the paragraphs. Continue…