Wei Shao, who hails from Liaoning Province in northeast China (formerly called Manchuria), rattled off the following sentence in her local language and asked me if I understood it:
Wǒ dǎ cīliū huá'r de shíhou bǎ bōlénggài'r kǎ tūlu pí'r le.
I could only sort of understand the following parts: Wǒ dǎ … huá'r de shíhou bǎ …'r kǎ (?) … pí'r le ("When I was … slipping [?], I scraped [?] … the skin of…"). But it was all so fragmentary — mainly just the rough grammatical structure and three or four disconnected content words — that I really didn't know what was going on. Wei said not to worry, since no one from outside the area where she lives could understand it either.
I then asked Wei if she could write the sentence in Chinese characters and she replied, while she was still in my office, that she couldn't do so. Later that afternoon when she went back to her apartment, she looked up some of the expressions in dictionaries and sent me the following character transcription of her spoken utterance:
我打跐溜 (cīliur)滑儿的时候把波棱 (bóléng) 盖儿卡秃噜 (tūlu)皮儿了。
Although she was now able to write out the sentence in characters, she nonetheless felt that the parts of the sentence she didn't know how to write earlier were just attempts to transcribe the sounds with characters.
Three expressions contribute to the confusion caused by this sentence: a) dǎ cīliū huá'r 打跐溜滑儿, b) bōlénggài'r 波棱盖儿, and c) tūlu pí'r 秃噜皮儿.
a) cīliu refers to the sound made when one slides on the ice and thus is onomatopoeic. So dǎ cīliū huá'r 打跐溜滑儿 is a depiction of one who slips with the sound cīliu.
b) bōléng 波棱 is supposedly a character transcription of the pronunciation of the word "knee" in Manchu language.
c) tūlu 秃噜 (also written as 突撸 / 突噜) apparently also comes from Manchu, but is more complicated than bōléng 波棱 ("knee"). Originally it was the transcription of a Manchu word that means "to break one's promise" or "to fail to keep an appointment". Some people in Wei's hometown still use it this way. But after the word was borrowed from Manchu into northeast Mandarin, it acquired an extended meaning, viz., "like something suddenly falling or breaking off". In the sentence under discussion, tūlu pí'r 秃噜皮儿 means "the skin falls off."
In summary, according to Wei, the meaning is, "When I slipped on the ice my knee was hurt and the skin was scraped off." She says that she is fascinated by this sentence, not only because people from elsewhere can't really understand it, but also because it demonstrates the diverse origins and development of dialect words.
Now the adventure begins, since I had to go find out what the real Manchu words that lie behind the Chinese character transcriptions were. I asked about a dozen Manchu specialists, and they mentioned the following words for "knee" and "break one's promise; fall off":
TO BREAK A PROMISE gombi, laidambi aifumbi
BE LATE FOR AN APPOINTMENT sitambi
TO FALL tuhe(mbi)
buhu (cf. written Manchu buhi ["inner surface of the thigh", but it can also be used for "knee"], and the verb buhulu- ["to press with the knee"])
tuli- means "to run over a deadline", so perhaps that is the word I am looking for that means "to fail to keep an appointment"; the usual word for "to fall" is tuhe-
I suspect that topolectal forms of spoken Manchu would come even closer to the Chinese loans bōléng 波棱 ("knee") and tūlu 秃噜 ("break promise / appointment" > "fall").
While carrying out the research for this post, I happened upon the Manchu Studies Group website. For anyone interested in Manchu language, culture, and history, this is a valuable resource.
A few years ago, I wrote about "Russian Loans in Northeast and Northwest Mandarin: The Power of Script to Influence Pronunciation". And now we find another source of words in Northeast Mandarin, i.e., Manchu. I suspect that this phenomenon — the absorption of substrate terms (and structures) — is true of Sinitic topolects throughout China and is one of the chief causes for the tremendous amount of variety that exists within the Sinitic group of languages.
[Thanks to David Branner, Stephen Durrant, Stephen Wadley, Mark Elliott, Nicola Di Cosmo, Gertraude Li, Peter Perdue, and Brian Tawney]