In a recent LL post, I wrote about Northeast and Northwest Mandarin borrowings from Russian that — in the mouths of those who are not highly literate in characters — seem to have escaped the phonotactic constraints of the sinographic script. In this post, I write about a Beijing street name that began as a sinographically writable expression, but which — again in the mouths of those whose speech is not strongly conditioned by the characters — devolved into a form that cannot readily be written in characters.
We start with the book form of the name: 大柵欄. The "proper," Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM) pronunciation of this name should be Dà Zhàlán, which means "Big Paling(s) / Railing(s) / Bars." This is the name of one of the oldest commercial streets in Beijing, which lies in the Qianmen ("Front Gate") district to the southwest of Tian'anmen (Gate of Heavenly Peace — made especially famous by the events of June 4, 1989).
Some years ago, probably about ten, I set out to find this street and its hutongs (alleys) about which I had heard so much. Armed with a map, and already knowing my way around Beijing fairly well, I headed in the direction of Dà Zhàlán. When I got near where I thought it should be, I began to ask the people on the street, "Qǐngwèn, Dà Zhàlán zài nǎr?" 請問，大柵欄在哪儿 ("Please tell me where Dà Zhàlán is"). Every single person looked at me uncomprehendingly, even though I very carefully and deliberately enunciated my question in the best MSM I could muster. After about 20 minutes of circling around in the area where I knew the street must be, I became more and more frustrated. My failure to find Dà Zhàlán was particularly galling, inasmuch as I had prepared so thoroughly for finding it (bringing a map, reconnoitering the area, making sure I knew how to pronounce the characters with the proper tones, being careful to say nǎr 哪儿 ["where," with the Pekingese retroflex ending, instead of MSM nǎlǐ 哪裡], and so on).
At my wit's end, and surmising from all of my focused wanderings through the hutongs that I must already have been on Dà Zhàlán street for some time, I decided to change my tactic. So the next person I met, who looked like a real local who surely ought to know, I asked, "Qǐngwèn, zhè tiáo jiē jiào shénme míngzì?“ 請問，這條街叫甚麼名字? ("Please tell me the name of this street.") The answer I received almost made me keel over: "Dashlar!" Whereupon I mentioned that I was looking for Dà Zhàlán street — enunciating very carefully and with restrained exasperation, to which my interlocutor replied, "I don't know where that street is, but this is Dashlar."
Finally, I saw a couple of Americans and went over to ask them where Dà Zhàlán street was, to which they replied, "You're on it."
How did this happen? How did Dà Zhàlán become Dashlar?
The main problem lies with the second syllable. For some reason, the local Beijingers don't want to be troubled to articulate zhà as is when it is sandwiched between dà and lán. The phonological transformations of the name seem to have proceeded thus: Dà Zhàlán –> Dà Shàlán –> Dàshílàn / Dàshilàn –> Dàshílànr / Dàshilànr –> Dashlar.
Here is the name as pronounced by a highly character-literate Beijinger:
The person who spoke this would romanize it thus: Dàshilànr. But I can barely hear the [i] after the [ʃ], If it's there, it's present only as a somewhat elongated (140 msec.) [ʃ] segment, a tiny (15 msec.) voiceless [i] that is hardly distinguishable from the inevitable transition between [ʃ] and [l], and perhaps a pitch contour a bit different from what would unexpected in a true disyllable. This is same sort of process of high-vowel devoicing and assimilation to a preceding fricative which creates the typical Japanese pronunciation of e.g. "sukiyaki", where the first two syllables become [ski], with the only evidence of the /u/ vowel being an elongated [s] and a moral commitment to the lack of consonant clusters.
Here's a spectrogram of the above pronunciation of Dà Zhàlán, illustrating the point:
I'm certain that I didn't hear even that ghost of the -i sound after the sh- when it was spoken to me on the street: Dashlar!
Such phonological transformations are profuse in Pekingese speech, making it very difficult for outsiders to understand what the locals are saying. The permutations of Gē'ermen 哥儿们 ("brothers, buddies, pals…"), for example, in increasingly less formal levels of speech, all the way down to gangster talk, are truly astonishing. And that's not even to broach the matter of unique lexical items in Pekingese, which are totally opaque to all but native speakers of the colloquial language (e.g., cuibenr ["toady, sycophant"].
In fact, in all of the many varieties of Mandarin, the phonological expectations embodied in the writing system seem to have a much stronger effect on speech perception than on speech production. That is, native speakers produce all sorts of phonologically interesting forms which literate native listeners have a very hard time hearing. As a result, these phenomena have been much less widely documented and studied than might be expected, given how striking they are to learners. The widespread lenition and even deletion of the medial consonant in two-syllable words is another example. Presumably the failure to hear such things is related to the well-known phoneme restoration effect.
[Thanks are due to Jing Wen and Zhao Lu]