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…

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…


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…

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?


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?

Fishcakes and 7up

The following is from the Twitter stream of @newsshanghai and it was too interesting to pass up. I’ve added spaces between the characters to keep it from triggering the NetNanny.

The tweets are in regards to some flowers left at the site of the recent fire in Shanghai that cost the lives of many of its residents. It’s been said that the fire was preventable, and many are pointing fingers in a specific direction, which we’ll see below.



Accent pop quiz:

You go to one of the many offices at your school or workplace. These are offices that deal in official business. Administration type stuff.

The nice but somewhat overly energetic woman behind the counter makes demands regarding an item referred to as “fuzao” (IPA: /fuˈʦɑʊ/)* which she’s expecting you to produce.

1. What is it she’s asking for?
2. Where is she from?