How they say "Beijing" in Beijing

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Around the virtual water cooler at Language Log Plaza this morning, I asked Victor Mair about how Beijingers actually say the name of their city. I was curious, because I know from earlier experience that people from that part of China often weaken consonants in the middle of two-syllable words. For example, once in an introductory phonetics class where the topic was phonetic transcription and spectrogram reading, we worked on a phrase from a Mandarin news broadcast that included the word 比较 bi3jiao4 "rather" (as in "rather hot"). In that case, the medial 'j' was pronounced as a glide, as if the word had been written as bi3yao4. So I wondered whether the 'j' in Beijing might also sometimes be pronounced as an IPA [j].

Victor's answer:

There's a huge amount of slurring that goes on in Pekingese (Beijing colloquial), especially with regard to medial consonants of all sorts, such that the consonants beginning the second syllable of bisyllabic words are often weakened or nearly dropped altogether, and we're left with blurred consonants and sometimes what seem to be only vowel contours.

DIAN4SHI4 ("television") comes out sounding like DIAN4–I, with just the slightest trace of an SH in there (sometimes I can't hear it at all).

Even many initial consonants get blurred: WO3 BU4 ZHI1DAO4/DAO ("I don't know") comes out something like this: -O3 (B)(U)(4) (ZH)I1DAO4, with the elements in parentheses being weakened or elided altogether, especially in extremely laconic or rapid speech.

In other words, there's an enormous amount of slurring and swallowing of consonants in Beijing colloquial. A lot of times one has to guess at meanings pretty much on the basis of vowel contours.

So, to tell the truth, often when Beijingers are not enunciating conscientiously and clearly, but are just talking fast and naturally, the J of JING1 does indeed seem to get glossed over, or — as you say — becomes a glide.

Victor emphasized that fluent vernacular speech is very different from textbook speech, and what you get as a citation form from a Beijinger may be more like the textbook modern standard Mandarin version, just as a Baltimore native who normally says "balmer" may enunciate "ball tee more" when explaining to a foreigner.

In one's native language, it's often surprising to learn how much is missing, even from what sounds  like perfectly clear speech. In the phonetics class that I mentioned, a native speaker of Chinese (from Beijing) transcribed bi3jiao4 as [bidʒau] and refused to believe, even after repeated careful listening, that the medial consonant was a glide, not an affricate. So I had him make a spectrogram, in which the lack of any stop gap or fricative noise was visually plain. His response was to conjecture that I had somehow hacked the computer program, in order to play a joke on him for pedagogical effect, because it was so completely obvious to his ear that the non-existent affricate was actually there.

This is an instance of the phonemic restoration effect, as a result of which the perceptions of native speakers are sometimes, paradoxically, less acute (in purely acoustic terms) than those of outsiders.

Anyhow, I think it would be interesting to take a look at the pronunciation of Beijing in some Chinese-language news broadcasts, and see how often the [dʒ] is lenited in that rather formal context.

Victor also pointed me to Bosat Man, "Backhill/Peking/Beijing", Sino-Platonic Papers #19, 1990, which traces pronunciations of the name of the Chinese capital across space and time.

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20 Comments »

  1. Randy said,

    August 18, 2008 @ 1:30 pm

    Without using the proper phonetics, I can say that the capital of Ontario is T'rana to anyone living there.

  2. Tyqniracbaig said,

    August 18, 2008 @ 1:43 pm

    Beijing, when not slurred, is typically pronounced with a [tɕ], not with a [dʒ]. Pronouncing Beijing with a [dʒ] is quite marked.

  3. Beijing or Beijing? « Word Lily said,

    August 18, 2008 @ 2:01 pm

    [...] Another post over at Language Log, this time posing the query, do people who live in Beijing really pronounce the hard J? Like me, they're apparently given to "gliding over" or slurring consonants. [...]

  4. Adrian said,

    August 18, 2008 @ 2:20 pm

    Which is a closer approximant? Bay-jing or Pay-ching?

  5. Beijing Sounds said,

    August 18, 2008 @ 2:21 pm

    Here's a blog post with some sound files of "consonant blurring" from Beijingers. The sound represented by Pinyin X is particularly prone to elision, to the point that certain words sound odd if the consonant is included. My impression is that the J-dropping is somewhat less common, although bi3jiao4 is a good example (BTW it is also subject to significant variations in tone, more than the average word).

  6. Mark Reed said,

    August 18, 2008 @ 2:34 pm

    Adrian:

    the initial sound is an unaspirated, unvoiced bilabial stop. So somewhere between English /b/ (voiced, unaspirated) and /p/ (voiceless, aspirated – at least in initial position). If you hold your hand up to your lips when you say "pay", you'll feel a little puff of air at the beginning (before the big rush of air when you get to the vowel). When you say "spay", there's no such puff. If you can get rid of the "s" in "spay" without bringing the puff of air back, you'll have successfully pronounced the first syllable of Beijing according to Modern Standard Mandarin. Except for the intonation, anyway.

    Exactly the same consideration goes for the sound in the middle. Where English is voiced and unaspirated, while is voiceless and aspirated, the sound in the middle of Beijing is voiceless and unaspirated. (It's also palatalized, so it sounds more like j + ying, than j + ing.)

  7. Bill Poser said,

    August 18, 2008 @ 2:34 pm

    I imagine that a lot of the time they say zhèr (这儿) "here".

  8. Mark Reed said,

    August 18, 2008 @ 2:36 pm

    Whups, that should say "Where English |j| is voiced and unaspirated, while |ch| is voiceless and aspirated". I used angle brackets, which apparently aren't autoescaped by the software here.

  9. S Onosson said,

    August 18, 2008 @ 3:23 pm

    "In other words, there's an enormous amount of slurring and swallowing of consonants in Beijing colloquial. A lot of times one has to guess at meanings pretty much on the basis of vowel contours."

    I would think that the same, more or less, could be said of almost any language (in colloquial speech, that is).

    When I say "I don't know" in English it's often reduced to something like [ai?no] (that's supposed to be a glottal stop in the middle, or maybe it should be a syllabic n), so it's not surprising that the same phrase in Mandarin would be similarly affected.

  10. Mr Punch said,

    August 18, 2008 @ 3:35 pm

    While we're on the middle consonant of Beijing — what about Peiping? I recall this version (pronounced "Bay-ping") being used in the US circa 1960, between Peking and Beijing.

  11. Daniel von Brighoff said,

    August 18, 2008 @ 3:40 pm

    just as a Baltimore native who normally says "balmer" may enunciate "ball tee more" when explaining to a foreigner.

    "Foreigner" here meaning, in my personal experience, anyone not from within a couple hundred miles of Baltimore.

  12. David Marjanović said,

    August 18, 2008 @ 7:28 pm

    the initial sound is an unaspirated, unvoiced bilabial stop. So somewhere between English /b/ (voiced, unaspirated) and /p/ (voiceless, aspirated – at least in initial position).

    It's a voiceless lenis, and that's exactly what word-initial English /b/ is for many native speakers at least in the USA. Returning to the topic of the post, I recently demonstrated this to a polyglot native speaker of English who is interested in linguistics, and he said "sounds voiced to me"… it wasn't voiced; what I had said was completely voiceless like in my native southern German and like in Mandarin, and unlike in French, Russian, Japanese and so on.

    If you can get rid of the "s" in "spay" without bringing the puff of air back, you'll have successfully pronounced the first syllable of Beijing according to Modern Standard Mandarin.

    If you're an average American, yes. Otherwise you'll likely have produced an unaspirated fortis, which is a bit off. That said, the main feature of the contrast in Mandarin is clearly the aspiration, which is much louder than in English, so probably you'd still be understood as having said bei rather than pei.

    While we're on the middle consonant of Beijing — what about Peiping? I recall this version (pronounced "Bay-ping") being used in the US circa 1960, between Peking and Beijing.

    Běipíng "northern peace" was what Běijīng was called during the Republic (roughly between the world wars), when Nánjīng was the capital. The -jīng part means "capital".

  13. dr pepper said,

    August 18, 2008 @ 8:59 pm

    Hmm, i have been pronouncing "Beijing" as "Bay-ZHING" because that's how i've mostly heard it pronounced. Now i think maybe i should just carry a map of China and point.

    BTW, i don't consider zh- to be an exotic sound, just a low frequency one.

  14. Carl said,

    August 18, 2008 @ 11:50 pm

    English also allows for the eliding of almost all the sounds in "I don't know" → "I dunno" → "I'unno" → series of rhythmical grunts.

  15. Eleonora said,

    August 19, 2008 @ 2:18 am

    Does this same thing happen in Danish? Or is this a completely orthographic issue in Danish where they use an orthography that is consistent with the orthographies of other languages (with more spoken consonants) in the region but not fully reflective of the spoken Danish language?

  16. Mister Woofie said,

    August 19, 2008 @ 2:25 pm

    JING, as in JINGLE, 100% of the time.

  17. Durandal said,

    August 20, 2008 @ 12:20 pm

    Beiping was the KMT name for Beijing when their capital was Nanjing.

  18. Boris Zakharin said,

    August 27, 2008 @ 12:37 pm

    Regarding the foreigners hearing the peculiarities of pronunciation, my grandfather (we both originally came from Russia, but I was 11 at the time) was always asking me why "twenty" is always pronounced "tvony". It took me, as a now native speaker, awhile to realize that he is right. Somehow, even though there is a huge difference between v and w, they really do sound exactly the same to me (of course, the omission of the "t" is unremarkable and readily identifiable). Or maybe I am not as native a speaker as I'd like to believe and there really is a difference I'm not hearing. I also often don't hear the difference between "f" and "th", though I certainly make the sounds correctly myself.

  19. Matt said,

    December 1, 2008 @ 11:17 pm

    I lived in Beijing for quite sometime, and while the j is sometimes not exactly like JAY, it is never completely skipped over. I also have never heard such a skip as to make Bi Jiao sound like Bi Yao…

    Beijingers, if anything, overpronounce Beijing. They will often say something along the lines of "Bei Jiung". With very heavy ununciation on the Jing. You know, with whole nasaly 'ng' ending that English speakers find hard to mimic.

  20. Wentao said,

    April 30, 2011 @ 3:35 am

    I almost find the pronunciation of 京 in Beijing closer to "jeng", rhyming with 亨 heng, rather than "jing" 经, rhyming with 星 xing. I've seldom heard it being glided, but bijiao->biyao is more common.

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