I happened to have lunch the other day with some university students, a couple of Guangdongers and a Shanghainese, in one of those Rolex-Louis Vuitton malls that clutter central Beijing, the kind where shopgirls outnumber customers 23 to 1 on gleaming floor after floor of luxury goods, until you get to the food court and find yourself breathing into your tablemate’s ear, close enough to eat the shrimp out of his chopsticks and surrounded by wàidìrén [外地人, outsiders, i.e. people from outside Beijing] shouting order numbers and bussing tables. Astoundingly, we found seats for the whole group, and as the conversation turned to language, (inevitable if you lunch with syz), I asked if they’d been trying to learn any běijīnghuà [北京话, Beijing dialect] while going to school here.
I was rewarded with looks of confusion. Yeah, of course they felt like their pǔtōnghuà [普通话, standard Mandarin] was improving. But were they actually learning běijīnghuà?! Of course not. All běijīnghuà really means anyway, they said, is that you have to juǎn shétou [卷舌头, curl your tongue] when you’re speaking pǔtōnghuà.
This is typical. Non-Beijingers describe the pronunciation of the natives as tongue-twisting, and it’s pretty literally right. The Beijing retroflex is somewhat like the American Midwest R as in “car”; it gets tacked onto and into words and certainly isn’t suited to everyone’s second language tongue. (Listen to this post for some good examples)
The general perception among outsiders is that it’s just a way of speaking. It doesn’t really mean anything. HOWEVER, my two experts for today’s post, one six and one sixty-ish, say it ain’t so. There are words you can say with or without the Beijing-R (commonly called érhuàyīn 儿化音 or érhuàyùn 儿化韵), but often the different pronunciations really mean something different.
As a bonus, in one of the examples today, tāngr 汤儿, the Beijing-R fuses with an /ng/, turning it into a truly sublime consonant. Even the spelling /ngr/ doesn’t quite do it justice, because the /r/ is so thoroughly mixed in with the /ng/ that it really becomes it’s own special sound. When Dr. Seuss talked about the letters after Z, I’m sure this is what he had in mind. In fact: I’ll isolate it just so you can hear the two right next to each other, first tāng then tāngr:
But back to our story. The érhuàyīn 儿化音 really does change things. In the first example it’s an actual difference in meaning: tāng 汤 and tāngr 汤儿 simply refer to two different liquids. The former means broth/soup, while the latter is the liquid that comes with your non-soup dishes, something cooked out of the meat or vegetables that you might spoon onto your rice. Sauce / gravy, perhaps, but incidental — not consciously made for the purpose of being sauce by itself.
In the second example we get more of a qualitative difference, and I’d probably concede, as an academic might say, that this research would need to be replicated for us to have full faith in the findings. Still, it’s amusing and observant that the six-year-old thinks wán [play] is something you do the way the authorities want you to do it, while wánr [play] is actually playing and having fun. My guess is that this reflects what she perceives to be a difference in register – based on where she hears wán versus where she hears wánr. Because she’s growing up with Beijingers, the only place she hears wán is at school where they’re reading 玩 and the teacher is telling them to pronounce it wán because that’s how you’re “supposed to” say it. Her interpretation: wán is what you’re supposed to do; wánr is what you really do.
Exhibit 1: tāng v. tāngr, 汤 v 汤儿.
Six: tāngr gēn tāng bù yíyàng yīnwèiwei tāngr shì cài lǐ de, tāng shì zhǔ tāng de tāng. [burp*]
Tāngr is not the same as tāng because tāngr is in the dish, tāng is like the making soup kind of tāng.
tāngr jiù shì nèigè cài lǐ de nèi zhǒng tāngr. Ránhòu tāng jiù shì hē tāng de nèi tāng.[laughing]
Tāngr is that kind of tāngr that’s in a dish. And tāng is the kind of tāng you eat.
wǒ yào gē tāngr. wǒ yào hē tāng.
I want to put on some sauce (tāngr). I want to eat soup (tāng).
Sixty: yàoshi shuō “tāngr” jiù shì chǎo cài de chǎo biǎndòu de nèilǐtou de “tāngr”.
If you say tāngr it really is from frying vegetables or frying beans [for example], the kind of sauce (tāngr) that’s in there.
nà jiù shì … xīhóngshì jīdàn tāng, yígè rénr yī wǎn.
Then it really is …. tomato egg soup (tāng), one bowl for each person
Six: duì, huòzhě xīhóngshì jīdàn xiǎo miàn tiáor tāng.
Right, or tomato egg soup with little noodles
[note from syz: informant’s favorite soup, hence the enthusiasm]
Exhibit 2: wán v. wánr, 玩 v. 玩儿
Apologies for low volume of questions, but you don’t want to use them as a speaking model anyway because they’re syz, the non-native speaker.
wánr shì shénme?
What is “wánr”?
wánr shì zhēteng
“wánr” is playing crazy/running around
nà wán shì shénme?
Then what is “wán”?
wán shì zuò nèr wánr xiǎodōngxi
“wán” is sitting there playing with some little thing
Which one is better?
wánr-play is better
shéi shuō wánr hǎo?
Who says “wánr” is better?
wǒ shuō wánr hǎo
I say “wánr” is better
nà nǐ lǎolao ne?
Then what about Grandma?
lǎolao shuō wán hǎo
Grandma says “wán” is better
nà wèishénme nǐ juéde wánr hǎo?
Then why do you feel that “wánr” is better?
yīnwèi wánr hǎo wánr!
Because wánr-play is more fun!
- Let’s raise one up for Beijing Sounds’ first realtime belch