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All dictionary entries put 什么 as shen2me0, but I am quite sure that in fluid speech I've only ever heard shen3me0. What's going on here? Is this a dialect/regional accent thing? For context, I grew up in Beijing.

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    Well, I barely heard shen3me0. shen2me0 is what I suppose to hear.
    – dan
    Aug 4, 2022 at 8:45
  • In southern parts of China shen2 is often heard in the locals' Putonghua. Personally I only picked up the shen3 sound during my college in Beijing.
    – lilysirius
    Aug 5, 2022 at 11:45
  • As a standard chinese (putonghua) speaker, I, only say and hear shen2mo, and like many of my peers, would consider saying shen3mo as 嗲or做作。
    – ALife
    Aug 16, 2022 at 11:26
  • @ALife, interesting! Where are you from?
    – Buddy L
    Aug 17, 2022 at 14:35
  • I was born northern china but I grew up with friends mostly from southern china, including sichuan, jiangxi, zhejiang, hunan, etc. so I am reasonably familiar with how (well-educated) southern Chinese speak putonghua as well.
    – ALife
    Aug 17, 2022 at 15:12

6 Answers 6

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Yes, I can attest that the sound exists in the southern provinces, though I couldn't pinpoint those locations other than Taiwan. I personally pronounce it both ways.

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  • Thanks for the confirmation, I thought I was going crazy! An interesting test: would you ever pronounce ”你什么时候去?“ as "ni2shen3me0...". Ie, does the third tone pronunciation of shen, when you do use it, apply a tone sandhi to a preceding 3rd tone?
    – Buddy L
    Aug 4, 2022 at 15:39
  • Yes, that's the way I pronounce it - "ni2shen3me0..." with a lighter sound on 么.
    – r13
    Aug 4, 2022 at 16:53
  • You can play the recorded sound on the linked site below. But note that the tone indicated by the text wasn't correct. zdic.net/hans/%E4%BB%80%E4%B9%88
    – r13
    Aug 4, 2022 at 17:13
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什么 shénme, this is the standard pinyin for 什么. As to 什么 sounds like shen3me, it is used to get other people's attention, to emphasize being surprised, amazed. Since it is not a standard usage, you can not find this in dictionary.

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From Shenyang, Liaoning here: I'd say you'd have to go very very rural and fairly elderly people would say shen3mo0.

I think you'd struggle to find a northerner speaking with such a strong accent that they do shen3 nowadays. However, you will find people from Taiwan mostly saying shen3.

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Many times, different intonations in spoken Chinese express different meanings. For example, to express one's surprise or doubts

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I was born n raised in Beijing. I would say shen3me is resoundingly non-standard in PTH. Whenever I hear it, I feel the speaker is either from Taiwan or some southern provinces speaking PTH with a local accent.

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The shen3 is in fact not a shen3, but an unstressed shen2. Its tone numeral is 35, but weakened to a 3.

The me0 is a weakened me1. Its tone numeral is 5 (the so-called neutral tone, essentially an unstressed 55).

So the "shen3me0" is in fact 3->5.

The unstressed 3 sounds close to the third tone with tone numeral 214. The overall contour of the third tone is a dipping one but 214 is sometimes weakened to a flat 3.

Meanwhile, shen2me0 is 35->31.

So why not just pronounce it as 35->31?

  1. A possible reason: shenme is often used to raise a question.

When raising a question we unconsciously raise the tone of our voice. This in turn makes the pitch of syllables at the beginning of a sentence/phrase lower than the pitch of those at the end. When the first syllable is a 35 (the second tone) and second syllable a 5, the first syllable is lowered and weakened to a 3, making it sound like the unstressed third tone.

  1. Another possible reason: shenme appears in weishenme.

The standard pronunciation for weishenme is wei4shen2me, but it is often pronounced as wei4shen0me0. The shen is weakened to shen0. Its tone numeral is 3 and again, close to the weakened version of the unstressed third tone. Some would consider the pronunciation of every shenme to be the same as the pronunciation of shenme in weishenme.

  1. A third possible reason: the speaker's native tone.

In some languages/dialects such as Lower Yangtze Mandarin, Gan, Xiang, Southern Min, Cantonese, and a few Wu varieties, either 什 or 甚 has a relatively low and flat pitch and sounds similar to the unstressed third tone in Mandarin.

Note that these 2 different characters with different pronunciations 什 甚 are used for the same meaning. That's a whole other story.

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