I’m not trying to pick on Mandarin, cuz surely every language has free variation in the pronunciation of certain words. Tomato/tomahto, right?

Well, what if we narrow it down to mean specifically free variation within a pretty homogeneous group of speakers. That would probably eliminate tomato/tomahto, at least among American English speakers from the West like myself, where tomahtos are an affectation. But you’d still have words like “either” [ee-ther / I-ther], with genuine free variation. And maybe I’m not thinking objectively. Maybe there are loads of them. Realtor / re-la-tor? Noocleeur / nookyulur?

But is it possible that free variation in Mandarin (or within Beijing Mandarin) is just higher? Or free variation is more common on high frequency words? Continue…


From the Sinoglot mailbag:

Hello !
My name is Minkyu and I’m from Korea.
I am enjoying your blog a lot. I am currently learning Chinese as my fourth language and I am very interested in linguistic view on Chinese language.

I was randomly looking up for a Kana (Japanese phonogram) transcription chart of Mandarin Chinese by their pinyin (Romanization of Mandarin) [Link] and I came up with this question.

But here, you can see (I suppose you can read Japanese at least its Kanji (Hanzi) parts) that “you, miu, diu, niu, liu” are transcribed into “イウ/iu/, ミウ/miu/, ティウ/tiu/, ニウ/niu/, リウ/riu/” when it has either First tone (high) or Second tone(rising), and transcribed into “ヨウ/you/, ミョウ/myou/, テョウ/tyou/, ニョウ/nyou/, リョウ/ryou/” when it has either Third tone (dipping) and Fourth tone (falling).

I knew that the vowel part “iou” can be pronounced either way, [jow] or [jiw]–or even their middle– but I was never heard that this variation is according to their tones.

Could you tell me how “iou” varies in modern Madarin phonology please? Or is this difference just based on hearing cognition of Japanese-speakers?

And could you also tell me why “jiu, qiu, xiu” have no difference in their transcription and are transcribed into “チウ/chiu/, チウ/chiu/, シウ/shiu/” solely?

Thank you.

Best Regards,
Minkyu Kim

The Japanese Wikipedia page to which Minkyu directs us has two tables – the upper one for first and second tones and the lower one for third and fourth tones. Move over to the right to see the entries for pinyin iou.

Would any of our readers like to offer an explanation?

Disco-polo and a Polish transcription of Mandarin

In one of the most important Polish newspapers, Gazeta Wyborcza, I encountered an article about the introduction of disco-polo to the Chinese music market. In case you don’t know what disco-polo is (and I’m pretty sure you don’t, unless you are from Poland), check out this Wikipedia entry. Basically, it’s a music genre that had its golden age in the ’90s and that some Poles adore, but for others it’s a synonym for bad taste, kitsch and “redneckedness” (most of the bands originated from small villages where they played at weddings etc.).

I have absolutely no idea why someone would try to sell this kind of music in China. And while in Poland it is (or, hopefully, used to be) popular mostly in rural areas and among less-educated people, the Chinese target is “between 25 and 40 years old, higher education, big city resident, high professional and social position, incomes much higher than average”. At least that’s what the producer says.

In autumn a disco-polo band BayerFull (in Polish bajer is a slang word meaning gimmick or sweet talk) is going on a tour in China. Its leader says “We’re entering the Chinese market professionally. Everything is arranged legally. We’ve had our Chinese costumes tailored, our dragons are ready. Our image is going to get people interested. But we’re not deceiving ourselves, we know we’re going to be treated as an oddity.”

And finally comes the language part: Continue…

Double tone syllables?

If you’re one of those phonetic savants who thinks that the four(ish) tones of standard Mandarin are starting to feel a little dull — mā, má, mǎ, mà, mamahuhu, whatever — maybe you can venture into this part of China, if the PKUCN* rumor is true.

Are there any Chinese dialects with a type of “double tone”**?

我好像在哪本书上看到过某些方言中有双曲调型(即先降后升再降,或先升后降再升)。不知是否真有这种调型?具体是哪种方言。最好能有native speaker的录音


A bossible trend

For some reason I had the dictionary open the other day to 乒乓 (from the game: ping pong), that lovely pair of flip-flop characters that I’ve always pronounced as bīngbāng.

So what was my reaction when the ABC Dictionary told me the pronounciation is pīngpāng? Continue…

Final nasal consonants in Jiangnan

This is a tangentially relevant response to Syz’s “Tang minus -ng, Tan minus -n“. More so it’s an addition to the comments on that post. Make sure you’ve read that and heard the audio.

Jiangnan (江南) is the name of the region around Shanghai. It’s every speck of Sunan (苏南, Southern Jiangsu province) south of the Yangtze (长江 chang jiang), plus Shanghai and northern Zhejiang province. It’s alternatively called Huaiyang, but more so as a cuisine and with less connection to language than the name Jiangnan. People from the area are traditionally Wu speakers, and as such their Mandarin is heavily tainted by Wu. One of the characteristics of a Jiangnan accent is an inability to distinguish between the nasal consonant sounds (/n/, /ŋ/, /ɲ/) in word endings. Thus for many speakers, words like “tang” and “tan” might be spoken exactly the same, however it’s far less common with -ang/-an endings.


Tang minus -ng, Tan minus -n

With a first-ever (experimental!) poll at the bottom of the post, and with apologies to Garfield minus Garfield

If Mandarin lost its -n and -ng suffixes overnight, would we all be eating phlegm and spitting candy tomorrow? It sure looks that way if you’re relying on a superficial view of Pinyin. I mean, once you take off the -ng and -n, what’s to stop you from doing tricks like this?

吃糖 = chī táng, eat candy
吐痰 = tǔ tán, spit phlegm / spit

morphs into

吃痰 = chī tán, eat phlegm / spit
吐糖 = tǔ táng, spit candy

But as any student of Mandarin phonetics knows, the /a/ in táng is not the same as the /a/ in tán. So as the -n or -ng fade out, which they are fond of doing in some people’s speech, the listener still has the vowel to help make the distinction. Continue…

Latte Natte

Syz and I were placing orders at a coffee house in Shanghai recently when we both heard something a little odd. I ordered my mocha and he a latte. The woman behind the counter repeated the order, speaking his instead as “natte”, at least how we heard it.

Sure enough, there on the menu it read “Latte 拿铁”, ‘na tie’. I’ve never really taken the time to learn much more than “mocha” when it’s come to coffee, so it wasn’t something I’d seen before. Firing up Karan Misra’s “Qingwen” CC-Dict on my iPhone, again we read 拿铁.