# Why is 的 (de) sometimes pronounced “di” even though it is used as a possessive particle?

I've noticed sometimes the word 的 is pronounced as "di" rather than "de". I'm aware that there is a valid use of 的 with pronunciation "di", which means "really and trully". However for the sentence: 你的錯 (your fault), I've heard it pronounced "nǐ di cuò" instead of "nǐ de cuò" from several sources, even though here 的 is definitely being used as a possessive particle (for 'your'). The last example I've heard is in the song "忘不了" (a.k.a. "不了情") sung by Lin Dai (林黛).

Is there some rule for this (and I assume other examples with other words)?

None of the other answers are really relevant to the question asked. The poster asks WHY the word 的 is sometimes pronounced "di"; not when and how you use it. And saying that "some people just do it" is not an answer, it's a tautology.

The true reason why there are many distinct pronunciations is a historical/cultural phenomenon called 文白异读 (literary-colloquial distinct readings). This refers to the phenomenon that "formal" words or words used in "elegant" settings are pronounced in a (slightly) different way than the same words in "vulgar" or "ordinary" settings. This most often occurs in southern languages such as Cantonese and Hokkien, where the literati often imitated Mandarin sounds (of the Song-Ming variant) for some "cultured" phrases but retained most of the local pronunciations for other uses.

But this phenomenon happens occasionally in Standard (Beijing) Mandarin too. During most of the Qing dynasty, Nanjing Mandarin was the official language of the court, so many of the Northern Mandarin speakers tried to follow the Nanjing sound. The word 的 was pronounced as "di" or "dih" (with h representing a glottal stop/入声) in most of the southern dialects of Mandarin. At the same time, it was being "merged" with the sound of 得 in Beijing Mandarin. Thus two distinct pronunciations came into place - it retained the "di" pronunciation for more cultured usage (such as transliterated names, or in singing) while it changed into "de" for more popular uses such as possessive particle. This is the theory at least; in the actual world, phonological shifts are often highly confusing and convoluted.

For much of the last century the "di" usage has been losing popularity, particularly because the Communist Party took a very practical approach to pronunciation (by trying to merge redundant sounds), but it is still used from time to time. You'll see it used particularly often by older speakers or more traditional singers.

Here are some examples of literary-colloquial differences (c=colloquial, l=literary):

Standard Mandarin (Pinyin):

Standard Cantonese (Jyutping):

Taiwanese Minnan:

As you can see, literary readings tend to be pretty similar across languages (because they arise from cross-language borrowing). Colloquial readings, on the other hand, are the result of sound change, so they are (predictably) different across dialects. Here are some examples of usages for 血 in Mandarin:

(C) xiě: 血淋淋, 鸡血, 流血

(L) xuè: 血汗, 血缘, 血案

In general, you have to follow your intuition. More "formal" phrases tend to use literary readings; single words tend to use colloquial readings.

• 给 bei (C), kap (L) 給 is never pronounced bei2. Cantonese has two characters for this: 俾/畀. Likewise, 的 ge (C), dik (L) is incorrect. 的 is dik1 (C), di1 (L). 嘅 is ge3. – dda Oct 11 '12 at 6:21
• That's incorrect. The new characters were invented for the sole purpose of representing the informal pronunciation; they cannot be understood as actual words. Since the two characters are in fact used equivalently, the linguistics convention is to consider them the same character with a formal and an informal pronunciation. – Yang Dec 8 '12 at 22:44
• There's no such thing as an "informal" pronunciation. Characters like 俾/畀 and 嘅 are nowhere near "new" are are actual words. Cantonese is not a variant of Mandarin that can gets dismissed in a corner. – dda Dec 9 '12 at 3:36
• After giving it more thought, now I think this answer is wrong. This answer gives a description of 文白异读 (literary-colloquial distinct readings), but the de/di phenomenon is not 文白异读. See my answer below for more. – Betty Dec 27 '12 at 10:39
• Shouldn't /ɪ/ be the short vowel and /iː/ be the long vowel? – mic Mar 29 at 5:08

First, the de/di phenomenon is not 文白异读 (literary-colloquial distinct readings).

The term "文白异读 (literary-colloquial distinct readings)" have strict academic definition. Not every homograph is 文白异读 (literary-colloquial distinct readings). Not every literary-colloquial distinction is 文白异读 (literary-colloquial distinct readings).

Books on Chinese phonology do not list de/di as 文白异读 (literary-colloquial distinct readings).

The differences between 文白异读 (literary-colloquial distinct readings) are systematic in nature. For instance, there is an (u)o/ao relationship:

Such a systematic relationship is not a coincidence. This is so because 文白异读 (literary-colloquial distinct readings) reflects the contact of two sound systems. It is systematic in nature.

But it is not the case with de/di. There is no systematic relationship with the e/i pair.

So what is it?

"De" is just a weak form of "di". In Chinese, words seldom have weak form. But "的" is so common (it is the most commonly used character in modern Mandarin, both oral and written), and its meaning is so not concrete (it has no real content meaning; it is a function word that serves a lot of grammatical functions), it has a weak form. It takes the schwa sound, just like the typical weak form of an English word, because the schwa sound is the most neutral, some would say the easist sound that a human mouth can make.

Its written form is stabilized only recently. In 1940s, some writers still use "底" (di).

Two other similar words are "着" and "了". Both take the schwa sound as the weak form: "zhe" and "le". Note that the "proper" pronunciations or strong forms of these words, "di", "zhuo" and "liao", have no similarity at all. Their common feature is in there grammatical function.

In older songs (songs in the 1980s for instance), you can still hear singers use "zhuo" and "liao" respectively. But as I have noticed, these two pronunciations are fading more quickly than "di". You can still hear "di" occasionally in new songs, but "zhuo" and "liao" can only be heard in really old songs.

Naturally, weak forms are commonly used in colloquial occasions, and strong forms are used in more formal and literary occasions and in emphasis. Songs, of course, are more formal, literary and emphatic. (Yes, there is also a literary-colloquial distinction here, but it is not 文白异读 (literary-colloquial distinct readings).)

And don't forget the influence of dialects. Speakers of non-Mandarin dialects often have difficulty learning 轻声 (the neutral/fifth/zeroth tone) and weak forms. They may just stick to the strong form "di".

The two forms are more or less in in free variation. That means both pronunciations are right. It is not wrong to say "some people just do it". If you say "di", people may think you are stilted or having an accent, but they won't think your pronunction is wrong.

My recommendation is to use "de" in daily speech and "di" in songs. That way, you talk naturally and sing with refinement. :)

Some people pronounce this as "di" all the time and some people say "di" to just add some spice (or sound cool) or add a little bit of emphasis.

Example of this I have heard people say something simple as：

Tāmen shì wǒ di hǎo péngyǒu

I've also heard it sang in songs just to match other parts of the song or to fit in well with the rest of the song.

It is a tradition from theatrical performances (such as Chinese Opera) to replace vowel 'e' with 'i' or other vowels for quality and clarity of the tone. It's even true for pop music until the late 1990's.

Good question.

the examples of pronouncing "di" are:

• can you go in to more detail about the third area you describe above? – tbaums Dec 18 '11 at 7:11
• @tbaums OK.一语中的 means making a pointed comment, 目的地 means destination, 众矢之的 means a target of public attack. – macskuz Dec 18 '11 at 11:34
• The example in the question is about the possessive particle 的, which sometimes is pronounced as "di". This answer doesn't address that at all. – Derek Ploor Apr 12 '12 at 13:18

Sometimes it is because of where the person is from (different accents and proununciations), other times is that the person speaking is joking (I have friends who do this) but for songs, I think its just because of making it fit in with the other lyrics.

• Hi user4633 and thank you for your answer. Can you please improve it by explaining what you mean in further detail? What local accents do you mean? What contexts? Short answers are not considered very constructive and could be downvoted and consequently removed from the site. – bytebuster Dec 31 '12 at 3:06