That, that, that…

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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.

Any thoughts?

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.


  1. Ferdinand Cesarano said,

    January 24, 2016 @ 8:21 am

    A similar misunderstanding involving Korean was captured on video.

    The explanation is given in the clip.

  2. Keith said,

    January 24, 2016 @ 9:12 am

    When I started reading this post, I instantly thought back to a few elementary Korean lessons I took a while ago, where all the questions seemed to end in "sum ni ga".


  3. Doctor Science said,

    January 24, 2016 @ 10:00 am

    It's striking that the OP, despite zero knowledge of Chinese, was able to correctly guess that the word was probably the Szechuan or Mandarin equivalent of "I think…" or "Maybe…" — i.e., a filler. They couldn't tell if it was one word or several, but they could tell its basic grammatical function.

  4. Jason Cullen said,

    January 24, 2016 @ 10:26 am

    I used to teach at Purdue University, and they brought in a whole bunch of undergraduate and graduate Chinese students. They also thought it would be great to pair them with American roommates (black and white roommates) all in the same building. It took about a week before we had to organize a meeting to defuse the giant brouhaha that started when black students mistook 那个 nèige for 'nigger'. The funny thing is that the Chinese seemed to be more upset about the situation than the black American students, and I have often wondered why I haven't heard more about this from other universities. Well, now I have. ;-)

  5. julie lee said,

    January 24, 2016 @ 1:24 pm

    When I first read the complaint about the N-word, I thought the Chinese student might have been saying Cantonese "this", nigo (like nigaw). "Neige" is "that" in Mandarin.

  6. Bathrobe said,

    January 24, 2016 @ 3:41 pm

    Interestingly, the same form is used in Mongolian, where it doesn't mean anything at all. I can't help but think that it was simply copied from Chinese.

  7. Bob Ladd said,

    January 24, 2016 @ 4:38 pm

    The Japanese word for 'that' (ano) is also used as a hesitation filler. Is this true in other Chinese-influenced languages? I can't think of any European language where a word meaning 'that' is used as a filler.

  8. Guy said,

    January 24, 2016 @ 5:06 pm

    @Bob Ladd

    In English, we have "that is" as a sort of filler or linguistic repair expression. Given the relatively high level of optionality of the copula in Japanese, it's at least vaguely similar.

  9. Alec said,

    January 24, 2016 @ 8:55 pm

    @Bob Ladd

    And in Spanish "este" is a very standard pause-filler. Means "this" rather than "that", but close enough.

  10. FM said,

    January 24, 2016 @ 11:01 pm

    @Bob Ladd

    In Russian, это… "this…" is a common filler. The closest English equivalent would probably be "y'know".

  11. Yuval said,

    January 25, 2016 @ 2:04 am

    This, then that.

  12. Bob Ladd said,

    January 25, 2016 @ 2:58 am

    Thanks for the examples! I don't think that is really counts – for one thing, it's not used with anything like the frequency of ano or neige/zheige – but the Spanish and Russian cases do seem comparable. (However, in Italian, cioè 'that is' really is used as a filler.)

    I wonder if any of these languages have comparable effects to the difference between um and uh that MYL wrote about here a few months back?

  13. Michael Watts said,

    January 25, 2016 @ 3:13 am

    Why are we all transcribing 那个 as nèige? Surely nège is the more common (and more-easily-confused-with-nigger) pronunciation?

  14. John Rohsenow said,

    January 25, 2016 @ 4:09 am

    When my late father, who spoke no Chinese at all, heard me speakingChinese, he asked me what "neige, neige, neige.." meant. I hadn't realized I was doing it when I was 'groping for words", just as we sometimes do when we can't think of a noun, and say: 'y'know, that, uh, that…."

  15. Victor Mair said,

    January 25, 2016 @ 7:54 am

    @Michael Watts


    The only Mandarin words and particles I know of that are pronounced "ne" in one of the four tones or with a neutral tone are these:

    吶 nà,nè
    呐 nà,nè
    呢 ní,ne
    哪 nǎ,něi,na,né
    抐 nè,nì,ruì,nà
    疒 nè
    眲 nè
    訥 nè
    讷 nè
    XX nà,nài,nè
    XX nè
    XX nè
    XX chuáng,nè

    The last four characters are very rare and didn't show up here, but you can find them on zdic by searching under "ne".

    那 has the following MSM pronunciations: nà nǎ nèi nā

    See here and here.

    Maximally (including some Mandarin colloquial pronunciations) these: nuó, nuò, nà, nèi, nǎ, něi, né, nuó, nā

    See here.

    I'm curious to know where you found that 那 pronounced as nè that you're so sure of.

  16. Eneri Rose said,

    January 25, 2016 @ 8:00 am

    I often see articles educating Americans about what to do or not do in other countries. I am surprised Chinese visitors are not warned about using this filler.

    I had a friend whose first language was Arabic and she would use the filler "yanni". I would say to her "No, I don't yanni" because I assumed yanni meant "you know". But, she translated it as "I mean."

  17. Michael Watts said,

    January 25, 2016 @ 8:33 am

    I'm sure of it (the vowel, not the tone) because that's how I hear it pronounced 100% of the time (in Shanghai). I even had someone explain to me, when I asked, that while the "full pronunciation" would be "nà ge", nobody does that. It would appear to be a case of vowel harmony.

    Arguing that "那 has the following MSM pronunciations: nà nǎ nèi nā" seems similar to arguing that there's no such English form as "gonna". The facts on the ground are that the filler expression is written 那个 and pronounced nege; dictionary entries can't change that.

  18. Victor Mair said,

    January 25, 2016 @ 10:17 am

    @Michael Watts

    Ah, so that's the way they say it in Shanghai.

    Our citations on Language Log are for MSM, unless otherwise specified. When you wrote that you were certain it is pronounced nè, you should have noted that you were talking about what you hear in Shanghai.

    You asked, "Why are we all transcribing 那个 as nèige?"

    Because we're not all there with you in Shanghai.

  19. Kyle said,

    January 26, 2016 @ 11:57 pm

    If I am not mistaken, the pronunciation of nèi is a shortened form of 那一 nàyī.

    Also, is it possible that the pronunciation of 那 as nè has something to do with its association with 這(这) zhè "this"?

  20. glenf said,

    January 28, 2016 @ 3:11 am

    @Bob Ladd

    In Finnish, "tuota" ("that" in its partitive form) is a very common filler word.

  21. Jichang Lulu said,

    January 28, 2016 @ 4:23 pm

    @Michael Watts

    What vowel do you mean? Pinyin final -e after a consonant is [ɤ] or [ə]. I don't think I've heard 那 pronounced [nɤ] in Shanghai, or elsewhere, often enough to notice it, let alone "100% of the time". What you're hearing (and the motivation for this post) is most likely [e], i.e. just -ei [ej] without the offglide. That's quite common and not limited to either Shanghai or that word, but the best spelling pinyin has got for that is indeed -ei. Plenty of people will monophthongise pinyin -ai into [ɛ] as well, especially (but not only) when unstressed, but again the closest pinyin approximation to that is still -ai.

    One reason such monophthongisations are common among (but not restricted to) those of Shanghainese background is that the (younger) Shanghai topolect has no diphthongs. Thus Mandarin (pinyin) -ai often corresponds to Shanghai [ɛ], Mandarin -ou to Shanghai [ɤ] (i.e. a vowel close to pinyin -e, and another reason you're unlikely to hear pinyin -e for -ei). 那 nà/nèi doesn't occur in Shanghainese, at least not with the functions it has in Mandarin. Shanghainese has its own demonstrative(s).


    The proximal demonstrative 这 zhè (where again -e means [ɤ]) also has a variant pronunciation zhèi (where again -ei means [ej]), presumably a contraction of 这一 just like 那 nèi is supposed to be from 那一.

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