Massive attack of mispronunciation

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The People’s Daily has published on its microblog (weibo) a long list of “easily mispronounced words”.  As circulated on Sohu, the list was preceded by this subtitle:  kànle jiǎnzhí bù gǎn shuōhuàle 看了简直不敢说话了 (“after you see it you simply won’t dare to open your mouth”).

In many cases, it’s simply a matter of a difference of tone, as with zhīmahù 芝麻糊 (“sesame paste”), which many people will instinctively read as zhīmahú (hú 糊 [“muddled; confused”]; hù 糊 [“paste; gruel-like food”]; hū 糊 [“plaster, paste, or stick to seal”]).  I’m not going to argue with the People’s Daily, but it’s no wonder people are confused, since even the supposedly authoritative Xīnhuá zìdiǎn 新华字典 (Xinhua dictionary of characters), which has sold hundreds of millions of copies (the bilingual Chinese-English version is my vade mecum for sinographs), says that, in addition to “muddled; confused”, hú 糊 can also mean “stick with paste; gruel, porridge; scorch, burn black”.

Sometimes, though, the inability to read the character, word, or phrase correctly is the result of its obscurity, the unexpected retention of an archaic reading (in the PRC, most such readings have been abandoned, though in Taiwan many of them have been preserved), inability to parse the relevant grammar, topolectal variation (some colleagues think that the list has a northern bias), wrong guess at the sound of the phonophore, and so on and so forth.  I could give examples of each category of “mistake”, but there’s no point in extending this post to great lengths when the nature of the problem is in all likelihood sufficiently clear.

I remember a similar list of 66 commonly mispronounced and miswritten words and characters published by People’s Daily a couple of years ago.  In that instance also the subtitle of the article indicated that, after reading the list, people would be afraid to read and write.

In truth, no matter what the reason for the mispronunciation, the number of commonly misread characters far exceeds either of the two lists (2014, 2016) circulated by the People’s Daily.

On a related note, watch the Governor of Yunnan, Ruǎn Chéngfā 阮成发 struggle to pronounce Diān 滇, the literary / abbreviated name of the province over which he rules, as he delivers a speech about the Diān-Yuè tiělù 滇越铁路 (“Yunnan-Vietnam Railway”), which he pronounces as zhèn Yuè tiělù 镇越铁路 (“crush / suppress Vietnam Railway”), though perhaps that is a Freudian slip.  See the video embedded in this CDT article in Chinese.

Better video here.

Ruan had formerly served as the Communist Party Secretary of the important central Chinese city of Wuhan.  After Ruan assumed leading positions in Wuhan, his hometown, he initiated numerous construction projects.  At the height of his construction frenzy, five thousand (!) sites were operating at the same time, causing local wags to give him the nickname “mǎnchéng wā 满城挖” (“digs all over the city”).  It is likely that Ruan’s extravagant construction activity led to the serious flooding that occurred in June, 2011 after a downpour.

[Thanks to Jeff Keller, Geoff Wade, and Jichang Lulu]

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3 Comments

  1. B.Ma said,

    December 31, 2016 @ 5:30 am

    Well, it’s heartening to see that the comments on the Sohu article are mostly of an anti-prescriptivist nature.

  2. Victor Mair said,

    December 31, 2016 @ 2:40 pm

    BTW, I should have noted in the o.p. that it would have been impossible for People’s Daily to draw up these lists without using pinyin.

  3. Eidolon said,

    January 10, 2017 @ 7:30 pm

    “I should have noted in the o.p. that it would have been impossible for People’s Daily to draw up these lists without using pinyin.”

    Couldn’t they use the historical fanqie method? I was always under the impression that this was what they used until they adopted an alphabet.

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