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After reading "A new English word" (11/30/16), Yixue Yang sent me the following interesting note on "lihai" ("awesome / awful") in action in China today:

There is a buzz-phrase on the Chinese Internet these days:  "lìhàile, wǒ de gē 厉害了,我的哥!" [ VHM:  "Really lihai, my brother!" — that's a tentative translation which I will discuss extensively below; Google Translate impressively gives "Wow, my brother!"].  It is used to show admiration, exclamation, irony to other people. The gē 哥 ("brother") can be substituted by any appellation, for example jiě 姐 ("sister"), shū 叔 ("uncle"), shěn 婶 ("aunt"), xuě 雪 ("[Yi]xuě"), which undoubtedly would add to the humor. So, “Lìhàile, wǒ de Méi 厉害了,我的梅!” [ VHM:  "Really lihai, my Mair!"].

What's interesting is the grammar structure:  the subject is put after the adjective and interjected by a comma. To me, this sort of rearrangement of the normal order is more often seen in literature (poetry). But it has gone viral rapidly in everyday baihua [VHM:  vernacular]. This phrase is omnipotent.

"Lìhàile, wǒ de gē 厉害了, 我的哥!" ("Really lihai, my brother!") is not normal grammar.  Because the wording is so unusual, it is arresting and powerful.

Wanting to nail down the precise nuance of the unusually placed le 了 in "厲害了, 我的哥!", I asked a number of native speakers from Taiwan and the PRC how they would interpret the meaning / effect of 了 in that sentence.  How can we convey the force / implication of this le 了 in English?  In other words, how can we bring out the difference between "厲害了, 我的哥!" and "厲害, 我的哥!" (the latter without the le 了 particle)?

Several of my informants said that they felt le 了 in this atypical position was being used for emphasis, but they didn't have any idea how to convey the effect of this le 了 in English.

A senior lecturer in Mandarin with long experience in America remarked:

Without further context, my feeling is that it has a similar effect to the modal particles la 啦, ya 呀, a 啊 — enhancing the tone of admiration / astonishment, etc. of the speaker. If the dàgē 大哥 ("big brother") used to be less capable, then this le 了 would imply a change of state.

A senior lecturer in Mandarin from Taiwan observed:

I think the sentence "lìhàile, wǒ de gē 厉害了, 我的哥!" ("Really lihai, my brother!") is colloquial and actually NOT a sentence with good grammar. Since lìhài 厉害 is an adjective, in a sentence like this, there should be a degree adverb used with it, such as zhēn lìhài 真厲害 ("truly lihai"), hǎo lìhài 好厲害 ("really lihai"), tài lìhàile 太厲害了 ("too lihai"). Le 了 is not needed unless the adverb tài 太 ("too") is used. I would say that both "lìhàile, wǒ de gē 厉害了, 我的哥!" ("really lihai, my brother!") and "lìhài, wǒ de gē 厉害, 我的哥!" ("lihai, my brother!") sound weird to a native speaker. A native speaker would probably say "zhēn lìhài, wǒ de gē! 真厲害, 我的哥!" ("truly lihai, my brother!"), "hǎo lìhài, wǒ de gē! 好厲害, 我的哥!" ("really lihai, my brother!"), or "tài lìhàile, wǒ de gē! 太厲害了, 我的哥!" ("too lihai, my brother!").  When used with the degree adverb tài 太 ("too"), le 了 is used as a modal particle to show exclamation.

Sometimes, adjectives can be followed by le 了 without tài 太 ("too"), but in those cases, le 了 isn't just used to show exclamation but also to show a change of status. For example, when people say zāole 糟了 ("what a mess!"), cǎnle 惨了 ("horrible!"), wánle 完了 ("[we're] finished!"), usually that means something bad just happened. Or, when people say hǎole 好了 ("good!"), gòule 够了 ("enough"), that usually means the new situation is enough or satisfactory now (while previously it wasn't), so the le 了 is still used to show the new status. In those cases, the degree adverb tài 太 ("too") is not needed.

However, I think the sentence "lìhàile, wǒ de gē 厉害了, 我的哥!" ("Really lihai, my brother!") belongs to the first case. So I would say, the speaker tried to say "tài lìhàile, wǒ de gē 太厉害了, 我的哥!" ("too lihai, my brother!"), but for whatever reason missed pronouncing the word 太, though it is really weird because the word tài 太 ("too") should actually be emphasized here.

On a separate note, even "wǒ de gē 我的哥" ("my brother") sounds very weird to a native speaker. A native Chinese speaker would probably say "dàgē 大哥" ("big brother") or "lǎoxiōng 老兄" ("dude; brother; old chap"), or simply "兄弟". “wǒ de gē 我的哥” ("my brother") sounds like a direct translation from English or other foreign languages.

On second thought, I would say "lìhài, wǒ de gē 厉害, 我的哥!" ("lihai, my brother!")  is alright.  In descriptions, degree adverbs are needed to be used with adjectives, otherwise a comparison is hinted.  In this case, it is probably not a description. The person probably says this sentence face to face to his bro, so  "lìhài, wǒ de gē 厉害, 我的哥!" ("lihai, my brother!") is alright. I guess it sounded weird to me more because of the wǒ de gē 我的哥 ("my brother") part. However, "lìhàile, wǒ de gē 厉害了, 我的哥!" ("really lihai, my brother!") definitely sounds weird on both parts.

A senior lecturer in Mandarin from the PRC noted:

This is very complicated. It heavily depends on context and can not be explained by traditional grammar rules, such as le 1 being 'completion' and le 2 being 'a new situation.'

My sense is that, in recent years, after internet language thrives, people tend to use new complementary ways to express emotion or mode. For example, in the past, if you want to express exclamation, you need to use a modifier such as zhēn 真, tài 太 etc. or a strong stress / intonation. However, nowadays netizens think that would be boring, so they are inventing many ways to express modes. Your question of this le 了 is a case.  Without le 了, the word lìhài 厉害 has to be stressed, however, with this le 了, lìhài 厉害 can be unstressed.

Using unconventional linguistic devices to express emotion/attitude is young netizens' mentality.

A final thought:  all the while I was writing this post, I kept thinking that the best translation for "lìhàile, wǒ de gē 厉害了, 我的哥!" would be "awesome / awful, bro!" or now "lihai, bro!"

[Thanks to Melvin Lee, Liwei Jiao, Maiheng Dietrich, Jing Wen, and Fangyi Cheng]


  1. Lai Ka Yau said,

    December 4, 2016 @ 7:36 am

    I feel that using the genitive 的 before a monosyllabic kinship term was one source of the weirdness. 我的哥哥 or 我哥 would sound much better, if one is referring to one's actual older brother.

  2. JK said,

    December 4, 2016 @ 8:38 am

    I wonder if this is similar to the trend of intentionally leaving out verbs in English Internet phrases, or using non-verbs as if they implied certain verbs, like "How to adult."

  3. liuyao said,

    December 4, 2016 @ 11:03 am

    Prof Mair will find it interesting that 我的哥 is sometimes written "word 哥".

  4. Victor Mair said,

    December 4, 2016 @ 11:34 am


    I love it!! Thanks for the revelation.


  5. Bruce Rusk said,

    December 5, 2016 @ 1:02 am

    If we wanted to preserve some of the state change conveyed by le in an English translation, we could render it as "Now that is awesome, bro!"

  6. Richard W said,

    December 5, 2016 @ 1:25 am

    News story:
    The headline reads 厉害word哥!厨师用千块红烧肉拼中国地图
    which I suppose means "Wow! A chef has constructed a map of China using hundreds of chunks of braised pork"
    And the first line of the story begins "word天!" (which is something like "OMG!")

  7. satkomuni said,

    December 5, 2016 @ 7:34 am

    To me it looks as though it were original English translated into Chinese by a non-native learner, and then forwarded by native speaking readers precisely because the construction is weird and unnatural, and therefore somewhat amusing, and substitutable for a very commonly needed interjection ("Great!"); the internet is all about doing that (cf. I can has cheezburger, homestuck, etc.).

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