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I know there are some words in which the use of neutral tone distinguish them the word from their non neutral equivalent, like:

东西 - dong1xi1 - from east to west
东西 - dong1xi - thing

虾子 - xia1zi3 - shrimp hatch
虾子 - xia1zi - shrimp

I also know erhua most of the time is just an accent thing and doesn't make much difference on the word's meaning. But are there any erhua-ed words that have a different meaning from the "erhualess" word?

Is there any list with these neutral/non-neutral and erhua/non-erhua (if they do exist) pairs?

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Are there any erhua-ed words that has a different meaning from the not "erhualess" word?

Yes, many, categorized as follows:

  1. Nominalization (convert to noun), e.g. 盖 (to cover) -> 盖儿 (lid), 尖 (pointy) -> 尖儿 (tip)

  2. Generalization, e.g. 眼 (eye) -> 眼儿 (hole),

  3. Derivation, e.g. 白面 (white flour) -> 白面儿 (drug)

  4. Word simplification by replacing the last character with 儿, e.g. 把手 -> 把儿 (handle), which is different from 把 (to hold).

  5. Changing tone, e.g. 脸蛋 (cheek, neutral tone) -> 脸蛋儿 (cheek, loving tone)

Is there any list with these neutral/non-neutral and erhua/non-erhua (if they do exist) pairs?

Not aware of any. I am curious to see a comprehensive one, too.

  • Thank you for you answer. Is there any hint to know if the 儿化 is absolutely necessary like the 盖儿 example? I'm looking at the 现代汉语词典 from 商务印书馆 and they just put: 盖 1 (~儿) 名 器物上部有遮蔽作用的东西。 But there is no explanation if it's obligatory or not (can I just say 盖 meaning "lid"?). I know in some words it's completely unnecessary, like in 花儿. – Enrico Brasil May 19 '15 at 18:07
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    @EnricoBrasil In spoken language it is absolutely necessary. People who don't prefer 儿化 will use replacement words like 把盖子盖上. 把盖盖上 (without 儿 or 子) sounds awkward to both 儿化 lovers and haters. In written language though, omission is acceptable when there is no ambiguity. – NS.X. May 19 '15 at 19:33
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Does the Beijing-R mean anything?

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:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

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.

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Six: tāngr gēn tāng bù yíyàng yīnwèiwei tāngr shì cài lǐ de, tāng shì zhǔ tāng de tāng. [burp*] 汤儿跟汤不一样因为汤儿是菜里的,汤是煮汤的汤。 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]

汤儿就是那个菜里的那种汤儿。然后汤就是喝汤的那汤。 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. 我要搁汤儿。我要喝汤。 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”. 要是说”汤儿”就是炒菜的炒扁豆的那里头的”汤儿”。 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. 那就是 [unclear]。西红柿鸡蛋汤,一个人儿一碗。 Then it really is …. tomato egg soup (tāng), one bowl for each person

Six: duì, huòzhě xīhóngshì jīdàn xiǎo miàn tiáor tāng. 对,或者西红柿鸡蛋小面条儿汤 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.

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wánr shì shénme? 玩儿是什么? What is “wánr”?

wánr shì zhēteng 玩儿是折腾 “wánr” is playing crazy/running around

nà wán shì shénme? 那玩是什么? Then what is “wán”?

wán shì zuò nèr wánr xiǎodōngxi 玩是座那儿玩儿小东西 “wán” is sitting there playing with some little thing

nǎyīge hǎo? 哪一个好? Which one is better?

wánr hǎo 玩儿好 wánr-play is better

shéi shuō wánr hǎo? 谁说玩儿好? Who says “wánr” is better?

wǒ shuō wánr hǎo 我说玩儿好 I say “wánr” is better

nà nǐ lǎolao ne? 那你姥姥呢? Then what about Grandma?

lǎolao shuō wán hǎo 姥姥说玩好 Grandma says “wán” is better

nà wèishénme nǐ juéde wánr hǎo? 那为什么你觉得玩儿好? Then why do you feel that “wánr” is better?

yīnwèi wánr hǎo wánr! 因为玩儿好玩儿! Because wánr-play is more fun!

  • Let’s raise one up for Beijing Sounds’ first realtime belch
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    Thanks for the answer, mate, but I think it's too much of a chit-chat and not too much of an explanation. – Enrico Brasil May 19 '15 at 3:16
  • i find this a very informative and well-done piece indeed! – flow May 22 '15 at 12:54

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