From a colleague:
A friend who has little or no exposure to Chinese language and culture posted the following on Facebook:
In the office where I work, there is a Chinese grad student having a phone conversation. I have no idea what he's saying. But what's striking is that, every so often, he drops a phrase that sounds uncannily like the N-word.
No, I don't think he's bitching about American ethnic groups to his friends. It's probably shop talk in his research field. It's just the way my ears process what are probably the Szechuan or Mandarin equivalent of "I think…" or "Maybe…"
But two things are kind of striking. The first is how much my ears ping when the phrase happens. (I don't think they'd ping the same way if he dropped soundalikes for other Certain Words.) The second is that I start wondering how many fights or attacks may have happened because someone else overheard an equally mundane conversation, and thought that the word was being tossed around casually.
As soon as I read "a phrase that sounds uncannily like the N-word" in the first paragraph, I knew exactly what my colleague's friend was talking about. The Chinese grad student was saying "nèige 那个 (that)".
Grammatically, "nèige 那个" begins as a demonstrative, but it is frequently attenuated to become a pause particle or filler word. It is often uttered many times in succession, thus "nèige nèige nèige…", and people who have a tendency to stutter may get stuck on it for an embarrassingly long time. Even individuals who are not actually stutterers may have an excessive addiction to such words. One can also say "zhèige zhèige zhèige… 这个 这个 这个… (this this this…)". I've even heard people say "zhèige zhèige zhèige… …nèige nèige nèige…" and vice versa.
A close Chinese relative of mine was fond of filling her speech with empty verbiage like this: "Zhèige rén zěnme nàme nèige? 这个人怎么那么那个? (how can this person be so [like] that?)", though she would draw out such sentences and speak them in such a manner — filled with hints and innuendoes — that one might suspect she was actually saying something of grave significance.