Segmentation of Chinese terms

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A very interesting question has come up about how to interpret the term xiǎo cài guǎn 小菜館 (lit., "small vegetable / dish shop").  Some people say it should be A. "xiǎo càiguǎn" (a small restaurant).  Other people say it should be B. "xiǎocài guǎn" (a place where you get side dishes / family style cooking).

See "Gourmet Chinese cookshop" and the comments thereto.

I think that it is not just one or the other, but that it can be both depending upon the circumstances.

When I want xiǎo cài guǎn 小菜館 to mean A. (xiǎo càiguǎn ("a small restaurant"]), I pronounce it with a slight pause after xiǎo and emphasis on the first syllable of càiguǎn.  When I want xiǎo cài guǎn 小菜館 to mean B. (xiǎocài guǎn ("a place where you get side dishes / family style cooking"]), I pronounce it with a pause after the second syllable and a slightly greater emphasis on the third syllable.

For the importance of pause and emphasis in Chinese elocution, see, for example, here and here (4th paragraph).

As we shall see from the survey and analysis below, there are even other possibilities for understanding this collocation.  In the end, its precise meaning can only be determined by context.

I asked more than two dozen linguists, language specialists, and native speakers of various Chinese languages how they understood xiǎo cài guǎn 小菜館, and also posed the following additional questions:

1. Is  xiǎo cài 小菜 a particularly Cantonese phenomenon?  Like Dim Sum?

2. Is càiguǎn 菜館 a particularly Cantonese term?  Dictionaries say that it is fāngyán 方言 ("topolect"), but they don't say which fāngyán 方言 ("topolect").  By saying that càiguǎn 菜館 is a topolectal expression, they imply that it is not a part of the normal Modern Standard Mandarin [MSM] vocabulary.

For the results of the survey, see the long section in the latter part of this post.


Here follow some statistics that might be relevant.

Google hits for:

"xiǎocàiguǎn 小菜館" 343,000

"xiǎocài 小菜" 5,580,000  ("side dish" is suggested as a translation)

"càiguǎn 菜館" 1,140,000

"zhōngcàiguǎn 中菜館" 1,340,000

"zhōngcài 中菜" 399,000

"dàcàiguǎn 大菜館" 19,800

"dàcài 大菜" 866,000


Vocabulary notes (pronunciations are in MSM unless otherwise indicated)

xiǎo 小 = small

zhōng 中 = middle; Chinese

dà 大 = large

cài 菜 = vegetable; dish

guǎn 館 = shop; hall

fànguǎn 饭馆 = restaurant

cānguǎn 餐館 = restaurant

jiācháng cài 家常菜 = home(-style) cooking / dishes

Cantonese nan2 sau2 siu2 coi3 撚手小菜 ("[chef's] specialty"); this reminds me of Mandarin náshǒu cài 拿手菜 ("special dish; specialty of the house"; etc.) — náshǒu 拿手 refers to what one is "good / adept / expert" at.

Here is the Chinese Wikipedia article for xiǎocài 小菜, the understanding of which is key in our current investigation.  For those who read Chinese, see especially the first paragraph for a basic definition and explanation of the term.  This Chinese Wikipedia article on xiǎocài 小菜 is equated with the English Wikipedia article on "side dish", which begins:

" A side dish, sometimes referred to as a side order, side item, or simply a side, is a food item that accompanies the entrée or main course at a meal."


Survey replies (arranged in order of decreasing accessibility to non-specialists) — followed by a concluding paragraph at the bottom.

1. Specialist on computational analysis of Cantonese and Mandarin:

When I saw this, my reaction was "it's ambiguous". Might be interesting to poll people about their instinctive parse of that expression.

A related phenomenon is called "bracketing paradox"; Wikipedia says something about this. Some of these are just orthographic, but others are real puzzles where one phonetic rule assumes one structure and another simultaneously applying rule assumes the other bracketing. But 小菜館 is probably not a bracketing paradox, just an ambiguity – unless you find that the prosodic grouping is at odds with the expected meaning in some utterance.

2. Specialist on Hanyu Pinyin:

Another possibility would be "Xiao Cai [de] guan" (a restaurant belonging to someone with the family name of Cai who has the nickname of Xiao Cai).

From a Taiwan perspective even that might be more common than the 1 + 2 combination.

I mean that 1+1+1 would probably be more common in Taiwan than 1+2.

3. Native speaker of Cantonese, professional translator:

I favour the second interpretation (B.) as I would say that 'siu choi' is more like an idiom – for dishes other than the main; in other words, side dishes.  The two words go together in a phrase .  If a 'small' restaurant was meant, the descriptive phrase in Cantonese would be 'sai ge chaan gun.'  As a heading for a restaurant, if one was referring to size, they could say 'siu yihng chaan gun' for 'small-size restaurant.'

In fact, the complete phrase sounds more like Mandarin than Cantonese to me as, in the latter, you would usually say 'chaan gun' for restaurant rather than just 'gun'.

As for 'jung' choi and 'daai' choi, it appears they are now following the examples of dim sum which are charged according to the size of the dish.  It may be because of this reason that people think 'siu' in 'siu choi gun' has to do with the size of the restaurant, although I am sure the original meaning had to do with 'siu' being not the main dish.

The completely literal translation of 'siu yihng chaan gun' would be 'small-shaped' or 'small-type' restaurant

4. Chinese language professor in an American university, native speaker of Mandarin:

Xiaocai in Shanghai just means dishes (most likely Chinese) and not snacks.  They use dacai to refer to western food.  So is dacan or xishi dacan (western style big meal).  I don't think Cantonese uses the term xiaocai. But even for Shanghai people, I think the more likely segmentation for xiao cai guan is xiao | caiguan, meaning a small eatery.

5. Native speaker of Shanghainese and Mandarin; professor of English in an American university:

I am from Shanghai. The term xiaocai simply means daily food. For example, "Where are you going?" "To buy xiaocai" (meaning going to the food mart to buy daily food with specific reference to meats, seafood, or veggies, not including staple food items such as rice).  Xiaocai guan is a rather new term, probably originated from Pudong dialect, which means restaurant. In this sense, the word-character xiao doesn't mean "small" at all. It loses its own independent meaning when used in the character combination of xiaocai.

Another term comparable with xiaocai is xiaochao (lit., small stir-fry), which is the name of a popular dish in Shanghai and Hangzhou cuisine, and which refers to a dish of assorted food items including mainly a variety of veggies and pork cut into thin slices and stir-fried.

6. Native speaker of Shanghainese and Mandarin; professor of modern Chinese history in a Chinese university:

If it refers to something dialectal, I agree that it is xiaocai guan. In Shanghainese, there is a term xiaocai, and dacai, yet no zhongcai. There is another expression called "dacai shifu", which means the main chef of a western-style restaurant.

I think xiaocai guan contains the meaning of Jiachang cai; however, if there are also zhong caiguan, and da caiguan (although I have never heard of them) — I think these two are related to their different sizes.

7. Native speaker of Cantonese:

My understanding is xiaocaiguan is a snack place. Not a restaurant as cantos kinda eat throughout the day instead of the standard three meals a day. There's also the late night meal/snack called siu ye which can often be had at xiaocaiguan.

8. American professor of Mandarin language and linguistics:

In my experience 小菜 is also a Taiwan phenomenon, either something you can get to accompany a large meal, or as a snack.  In Taipei, late night snacks (宵夜) either indoors or at street stands are often entirely 小菜, or 小菜 accompanying a bowl of noodles or rice porridge (稀饭).

9. PRC graduate student in an American university; native speaker of Mandarin from Hunan province:

I agree with you that the meaning of "小菜馆" depends upon the circumstances.  However, I remember the "小菜馆" I saw before are usually small restaurants. Meanwhile, I think "小菜" in Cantonese means green vegetables, the same as my hometown. Beside "大菜", there is a word "硬菜" (yìngcài ["hard / substantial dish"]) in Northern Chinese topolect. You can find the introduction here.

Also here is the introduction of "大菜".

10. American professor of Mandarin language and linguistics, specialist on Shanghainese:

I agree that it can be both A. and B. depending upon the circumstances. One should ask the owners of particular 小菜館 exactly what they mean by the name. One could canvass some of the establishments that bill themselves as "小菜館" among the 343,000 google hits to see what they say. Perhaps an analysis of what they serve would also provide an insight.

I suspect it is more often probably xiǎo càiguǎn. 小 菜 is a term for vegetables or for cooked dishes (equivalent to 菜 alone) in many places, not just Shanghai or the Wu region. Dictionaries that say 菜館 is 方言 ("topolect") usually mean that it is not a common Beijing or northern word. But I think it is fairly widespread, perhaps especially so in south China. I have not found any dialect lexicons that list 菜館, which means that the compilers of those lists considered it too common to be included as characteristic of their dialect.
11. Chinese graduate student studying in America; native of Beijing:

I think it should be xiao caiguan, meaning a small restaurant. Although xiaocai means side dish, there is no restaurant that only offers side dishes. In the north, people say fanguan (饭馆), which equals caiguan (菜馆). We also say xiao fanguan (小饭馆). But I do not think there is a word *小饭.

I think 中菜 actually means 中国菜 rather than "middle dish". If I see the word 中菜馆, I would understand it as "a restaurant that offers Chinese food." Although 大菜 means entree, I think 大菜馆 only means a big restaurant.

I also do not think Dim Sum is 小菜. In the north, when people say 小菜, they mean vegetables or cold meat served in small dishes before the main dishes (usually duck, fish, hot meat, etc). Dim Sum is usually served after finishing the main dishes as dessert. In the north, when people say 点心, they usually refer to dessert, such as Chinese cakes. Ice cream is not 点心.

Hope this helps. The catering culture is so different in China. I only know what people usually do in the north.

12. Specialist on Mandarin and Cantonese, with knowledge of Shanghainese and Swatow:

I think it means "xiǎocài guǎn" like "家常便饭" ("daily / common / ordinary fare") (kind of 小菜 — I'm not sure if the term has Cantonese roots, but this usage is extremely common in Hong Kong.

As in "撚手小菜" — a phrase that you hear a lot in HK.

So yes, I would think that in the Cantonese context, 小菜馆 means "a place where you get side dishes"; but in mainland/northern Chinese context, I'm not so sure about it — maybe it means a small restaurant…

13. Native speaker of Cantonese; linguist:

I suppose "小菜館" can indeed be interpreted either way (A. or B.).

No, "小菜" meaning dishes is not a Cantonese term; we generally use "餸" (Jyutping sung3) instead. Not surprisingly, "菜館" is also not Cantonese in origin.

As to the origin(s) of the terms "小菜" and "菜館", I was under the impression that they were from Shanghai or somewhere around Jianghuai 江淮 area, but I could well be wrong.

I doubt if "中菜" actually refers to "Chinese dishes".

14. Editor of a major Chinese dictionary; native speaker of Shanghainese:

Zài yǒuxiē fāngyán rú Shànghǎihuà zhōng, xiǎocài jiùshì fàn zhǐ yúròu shūcài děng càiyáo. Xiǎo càiguǎn zhège cí xiànzài bù dà yòng, yìsi jiùshì càiguǎn. Dàcài zhǐ xīcài hé xīcān, Qīngcháo mònián jiù yǒu zhè zhǒng shuōfǎ. Chī dàcài jiùshì chī xīcān. Zhìyú Zhōng càiguǎn, zhǐ Zhōng cānguǎn. Chī Zhōng cài, yìsi jiùshì chī Chinese food. Nín kěyǐ chá chá Xiàndài Hànyǔ cídiǎn de yǒuguān cí tiáo, nàlǐ de shìyì dàtǐ shì duì de.

在有些方言如上海话中,小菜就是泛指鱼肉蔬菜等菜肴。小菜馆这个词现在不大用,意思就是菜馆。大菜指西菜和西餐,清朝末年就有这种说法。吃大菜就 是吃西餐。至于中菜馆,指中餐馆。吃中菜,意思就是吃 Chinese food。您可以查查《现代汉语词典》的有关词条,那里的释义大体是对的.

In some topolects, such as the Shanghai topolect, "xiaocai" refers to meat dishes and vegetables and other dishes. The word "xiaocai guan" means "a restaurant", but it is not used much now. "Dacai" refers to Western food and Western dishes; these terms have been in use since the latter part of the Qing Dynasty. Eat "dacai" means to eat Western food. As for "Zhong caiguan", it refers to a Chinese restaurant. To eat "Zhongcai" means to eat Chinese food. You can look up the relevant entries in Dictionary of Modern Chinese of, where the interpretations are generally correct.

15. Director of the Asian library at a major university in America; native speaker of Shanghainese:

I think that, in Shanghainese, xiao3cai4 always means "side dishes." When I go to a restaurant in Shanghai with relatives and friends, we discuss how many xiao3cai4 we should order (in addition to appetizers, rice, and desert). When my mom cooks at home, she also tells me how many xiao3cai4 she will prepare for us. So, 红烧肉 is one xiao3cai4, 蒜茸豆苗 is another.

But sometimes xiao3cai4 really means "small dishes" or "appetizers." One good example is when Chinese people eat at a Korean restaurant, they will call those pre-entree small and cold dishes (Kimchi, toufu, etc.) xiao3cai4. But this use has a non-Shanghainese origin.

I don't think anybody in Shanghai now uses the phrase 小菜馆. People usually say 饭店 (for big and more formal restaurants) and 餐厅 or 食堂 (for small-size eateries). In my ears, 菜馆 is a northern word. 小菜馆 means a small restaurant in the north.

16. Linguist specializing on Cantonese who is compiling a major dictionary of the language:

Thanks for your material about 小菜館 which I've started working on. If it's a Cantonese word, then I naturally want to include it as part of my documentation of the Cantonese lexicon.

In checking my published references, I've found that 小菜館 has not been included in any of them.

However, 菜館 appears as follows:

On page 123 of Chishima Eichi's Cantonese-Japanese Dictionary (2005) which glosses it as "restaurant" (transliterated in katakana).

On page 431 of English-Cantonese Dictionary of Cantonese in Yale Romanization (Chinese Univ. Press, 2008) it's one of several items meaning "restaurant".

In googling the occurrences of 小菜館 on Hong Kong websites and reading a number of texts that include it, I find it is used to mean "restaurant" and in the names of restaurants. 小菜館 is not limited to any particular type of cuisine, since it can serve French, Chaozhou, as well as Cantonese food.

At this point, the main semantic features of 小菜館 seem to be small-scale, intimate, homey, unpretentious, inexpensive.

The following definition is from Yellowbridge:

小菜館 xiǎocàiguǎn   definition: cookshop

Since Yellowbridge is based in Taiwan, I think its inclusion here suggests this word is Taiwan Mandarin.

I've also checked the website for mainland Chinese language "" which didn't recognize the word.

17. Native speaker of Cantonese and Toishanese:

From what I understand, there are two things going on here, but not just the two (A. and B.) that you point out.

In the small, medium, big sense, the google hits are probably mostly menus, because at dim sum style or any kind of buffet style restaurant, they are differentiating small, medium, and large dishes with an ascending price structure. For example, your 小菜 might be standard dim sum like siu-mai or har-gao for $2.50, your 中菜 might be larger plates like Chinese broccoli for $4.00, and your 大菜 might be full orders of pork chops or shrimp for $7.00, etc.

中菜 also has the additional meaning of Chinese food vs. 西菜, Western food, no?

The other sense of 小菜 is, I believe, appetizers or side dishes or small plates in general like dim sum or tapas. In the sense that dim sum is Cantonese and this is basically a synonym for dim sum, I suppose it might be Cantonese?

So a 小菜館 is a cafe, a place where they don't serve full proper and formal meals. but just snacks or dim sum, maybe one step up from a 大排檔 ("food stall")?

Not sure on that at all… 小菜館 is not a term I've really heard much in either Cantonese or Toishanese.

18. Instructor of Mandarin at an American university; native speaker of Taiwanese:

In Mandarin and Taiwanese, I have never heard of the term "小菜馆", at least I have never used it myself. My guess is, if one pronounces it as "xiaocai guan", that means it's a restaurant selling "side dishes", which is very rare for a restaurant to only sell side dishes. And if we pronounce it as "xiao caiguan" to mean a small restaurant, we will say "小饭馆" or "小餐厅" instead. I have a feeling that the term "菜馆" is from Cantonese, but I'm not sure since I am not a Cantonese speaker myself.

In Mandarin, 小菜 usually refers to a side dish or an appetizer. Sometimes it refers to snacks that people eat when drinking alcohol (下酒小菜). 中菜 usually refers to Chinese cuisine, and thus 中菜馆 usually means Chinese restaurant. 大菜 usually refers a fancy dish served in a formal meal such as a wedding banquet or a Chinese New Year's Eve dinner. Actually I have never heard of term "大菜馆" either.

19. Native speaker of Hong Kong Cantonese; graduate student at an American university:

I think it means "xiǎocài guǎn" like "家常便饭" kind of 小菜 — I'm not sure if the term has Cantonese roots, but this usage is extremely common in Hong Kong.

As in "撚手小菜" — a phrase that you hear a lot in HK.

So yes, I would think that in the Cantonese context, 小菜馆 means "a place where you get side dishes"; but in mainland/northern Chinese context, I'm not so sure about it — maybe it means a small restaurant…

Also, "中菜館" in Cantonese/HK context means "粤菜馆" — a place where you get traditional Cantonese food.

I think that could be the reason why you get so many google hits on "小菜馆" and "中菜馆", but not "大菜馆".

I don't know when was the first time you visited HK. But in the older days (not so long ago, like 10 years, maybe?), there used to be "大排档" — don't know what's the English word for that, but people sit in open-air to eat inexpensive but tasty food. HK government no longer renews licenses for 大排档, so those 大排档 transitioned into restaurant/eatery businesses. Dishes like 炒蚬、煲仔饭、炒粉面粥之类的香港人叫做小菜.

I would tend to read this as 小菜-馆. I think of 小菜 as being a Shanghai/Wu term; at least that is the part of the country where I encounter it most. I don't think either 小菜 or 菜馆 is distinctively Cantonese.

20. Professor of Chinese literature in Hong Kong; native speaker of Cantonese:

My reading is "xiǎocài guan." But xiaocai doesn't mean side dishes. It refers to "exquisite dishes," i.e., skillfully prepared courses. I always see 巧手小菜 in front of Chinese restaurants.

I'm not sure if xiaocai is a particular Cantonese term, although it is also used in Beijing.

As for caiguan, I don't think it's used in the north, where people say 餐館 instead.

For 小菜(館),中菜(館), and 大菜(館), my feeling is that 中 when mentioned separately refers to "Chinese" (counterpart of 西) although in the 大中小 context it refers to the size. But again, 中菜 is not a common term for "Chinese cuisine" in China where people usually say 中餐 (as vs 西餐). However, although there is a term 中菜部 referring to Chinese food section, seldom do I see/hear 西菜部.

I never heard of 大菜館 (as "big restaurant"), although I found a 东北大菜馆 in Shanghai via Google.
BTW, 大菜is an ingredient for a kind of jelly dessert called 大菜糕.

21. Native speaker of Cantonese:

小菜 in Cantonese refers to ordinary dishes, not side dishes, as opposed to banquet dishes, such as shark's fin, whole roasted suckling pig, etc. 小菜館 are ordinary restaurants, there is no need to tell people your place is small, by its name! The term is used only in referral to small  restaurants. They are usually called 飯店, 餐室/廰, 茶樓 — dim sum are offered in the morning.  Restaurants where banquets can be held are usually called 酒樓, 酒家.  Note: 酒店=hotel.; quite a difference! — in Hong Kong, 茶餐廰 are restaurants with a limited menu, also include western style dishes, breakfasts, desserts.

中菜 is short for 中國菜, Chinese dishes; 中菜館=Chinese restaurant.

大菜, means banquet dishes, but is rarely used. 大菜館=large restaurant.

小菜, can be appetizers.  Note: there are hardly any side dishes in Chinese cooking. While dim sum are appetizers, Cantonese never call 點心 as 小菜.

There is a phrase 小菜一碟; it has nothing to do with any food item, but indicates that the person, or the event, in question is unimportant, the problem is minor…..

22. Native speaker of Hong Kong Cantonese; professor at a university in Hong Kong:

As a Hongkonger, I will say when we talk about 小菜 we are saying 家常小菜. So, 小菜館 is a place where you have some ordinary, everyday life style homemade dishes, and they are supposed to be cheap and not fancy. The meaning of a small restaurant might be a derivative one.

For 中菜館, it means a restaurant for Chinese cuisine, not middle-sized restaurant. And I have never heard of 大菜館。But for your reference, 大菜糕 is one famous traditional local HK dessert.

I want to add one more thing: 小菜 are not side dishes, as I said above.  They refer to 家常小菜, and also 撚手小菜: some skillful and signature dishes which a 小菜館 provides. What they are mainly depends on the chef, so there is a great variety of 撚手小菜。

There were many 小菜館 in the old days. Like in the 1980s, when I was a kid, my family always went to some 小菜館 nearby to have 小菜 dinner during the weekend. But now, it is hard to find a real 小菜館, whereas Hong Kong is full of chain restaurants.

23. PRC graduate student from far north China (Harbin) in an American university; native speaker of Mandarin with strong knowledge of Chinese cooking; married to a native Shanghainese speaker:

I never use the term 菜馆. So far as I am concerned, 饭馆 means restaurant, but for me 菜馆 does not make sense. I am not sure whether it is used in Cantonese.

小菜, for me, means a dish that comes in a small plate. They are not the main course in a meal, and are usually cold appetizers, like 老醋花生, 海带丝, 凉拌木耳, etc.

24. Specialist on Japanese language and culture

小菜館 seems only to be used in the names of Chinese (mostly Cantonese and Hong Kong-style) restaurants in Japan. I've certainly never seen it as a Japanese term before.

I have seen 小菜, however, and it's in the dictionary w/ 2 definitions:

大辞林 第三版


芽を出したばかりの菜,また,間引き菜を親しんでいう語。 [季] 秋。

(Edible) greens w/ new buds/sprouts, or an affectionate term for culled greens (season: autumn) ← really? And why the "affection" here? I admit I'm slightly baffled — I assume it's closer to "pity" or at least "sympathy"



In Chinese cuisine, an appetizer like the 口取肴 in Japanese cuisine

Summing up, we have seen that xiǎo cài guǎn 小菜館 can mean many different things to different people, depending upon the circumstances.  Xiǎo cài guǎn 小菜館 (lit., "small vegetable / dish shop") — three simple, and seemingly transparent, morphosyllables, but what a wealth of ambiguity results when they are combined!  What is true of xiǎo cài guǎn 小菜館 (lit., "small vegetable / dish shop") is equally true of many collocations in Chinese.  Context — and that includes region, topolect, culture, etc. — determines meaning.  You really need to be on your toes when you read Chinese texts if you are to understand correctly what the author intended.

[Thanks to Bob Bauer, Richard VanNess Simmons, Abraham Chan, Zheng-sheng Zhang, Mandy Chan, Don Snow, Mark Hansell, Mark Swofford, Jidong Yang, Si Jia, Melvin Lee, Tim Chan, Stephan Stiller, Rebecca Fu, Jing Wen, Wicky Tse, Alan Chin, Nelson Ching, Carmen Lee, Ying-Che Li, John Rohsenow, Wenkan Xu, Fangyi Cheng, Pan Da'an, Sai Law, Bob Chan, and Nathan Hopson]


  1. Matt said,

    February 6, 2014 @ 8:03 pm

    (Edible) greens w/ new buds/sprouts, or an affectionate term for culled greens (season: autumn) ← really? And why the "affection" here? I admit I'm slightly baffled — I assume it's closer to "pity" or at least "sympathy"

    No, the intended meaning of "親しんで" (shitashinde) is indeed "affectionate" or maybe more neutrally "casual" or "hypocoristic", like Australian "sanger" (non-rhotic!) for "sandwich". And, yeah, as a seasonal word in haiku and so in it is associated with autumn, because that's when you pick and eat the 小菜!

  2. John Ch said,

    February 6, 2014 @ 10:39 pm

    So is this ambiguity materially different than the similar one that we get in English (or German) when we string three nouns together? It's the basis of the ongoing humor of headlines that can easily be interpreted in a wildly different way than was intended. In written English, we use intonation and/or a subtle pause to disambiguate such phrases, though that doesn't work as well with four or more nouns. Written English has the advantage of using spaces to make it clear, but again this only works well for three nouns. Anyway, it might be interesting to look for ways that English and Mandarin (and German and Cantonese) differ in the way they deal with this problem.

  3. Stephan Stiller said,

    February 7, 2014 @ 2:42 am

    @ John Ch

    Intonation is indeed the right word, or I'd call it "prosodic grouping". (The word "stress" might not be "wrong" but I find it confusing/misleading unless you qualify it with something like "compound-level"/"phrase-level"/… because Chinese doesn't seem to have lexical stress. Note that my view doesn't contradict the possibility that grouping within compound words like that is stored in the lexicon, and that aspect would then certainly be "lexical".) Intonation/prosody in Mandarin and Cantonese normally means an increase in the pitch range (at least that's what everyone says), though prosody can in principle override lexical tone entirely, like in any language. (Naturally, the shorter one's utterance the smaller the risk of not being understood if one completely overrides tone.)

    I don't see a fundamental difference between English/German and Mandarin/Cantonese, except for the fact that prosody is more restricted in M/C for obvious reasons. In fact, the larger number of tones in Cantonese means that a good portion of prosody is relegated to the choice of and contours over (often very prolonged) sentence-final particles.

    Orthographically, M/C have more ambiguities because of the lack of word segmentation. (We note that a lot of lexicalized M/C "compounds" are single polysyllabic words that likely aren't processed as compounds.) But if you know the orthographic extent of the compound word, the languages are all very similar: In German, everything is run together; in English you have spaces everywhere between compound constituents (not syllables, which is why "small restaurant" isn't a problem in English). German might use hyphenation, but then English might too. De facto, you don't have much orthographic flexibility in either language: the use of hyphens and spaces (or no spaces) follows certain patterns in English with just a little bit of wiggle room, as most LL readers will know. In German you generally hyphenate only long compounds or ones with ambiguities or sequences of identical letters at the boundaries (I'd need to check the latest rules, but that's roughly it), and when you do hyphenate, it might look unusual despite being orthographically allowed. So, you don't have that much flexibility. In M/C you don't hyphenate or use spaces at all, meaning you have more ambiguity, relatively speaking. Morphology in M/C largely operates on the level of entire syllables, so we should assume that this increases the proportion of ambiguities found in the written language. I'd say that both this and the lack of orthographic word boundaries are the main reasons for why written M/C are more ambiguous. Finally, there's the homophone problem for words in M/C, which has its roots in the writing system and in Literary Sinitic (Classical Chinese); this factor increases ambiguity in the spoken domain (if fancy words are used) but not the written domain.

    And I'm sure there are details that I missed.

    But you asked how the languages "deal with this problem". Despite all of the above factors, Chinese tends towards noun compounding (where for example you'd use "of" in English). This is strange, but someone will have explained this somewhere.

    Note though that much of the above post is about regional variation (in which words exist and what they mean). This is more of an issue for "Chinese" because the orthographic domain of written Mandarin covers the geographic area of several languages and cultures. Thus, more language variation permeates into written Mandarin.

  4. Stephan Stiller said,

    February 7, 2014 @ 3:03 am

    One explanation for the high level of ambiguity in Mandarin is that people write or speak in a terse style "because they can". Why can they and why haven't things balanced themselves out? It's partly because of the lack of morphology that operates within the syllable or that crosses the syllable boundary. Compact sentences are more ambiguous; disambiguation requires that one use more words. One can produce clear and unambiguous Mandarin; people just don't do it as much as they could. The problem of a lack of written word segmentation would remain. That problem has an easy solution too (just use spaces), except nobody does that.

  5. Morgan J said,

    February 7, 2014 @ 3:49 am

    Though the thread has moved on, it may be worth pointing out that the online menu of the restaurant in the original post makes it look like a very ordinary North American Chinese restaurant–no suggestion of a speciality in 'side dishes'.

    Anyone in BC want to go see what topolect the owners of the restaurant speak? (and if you do, order me a little something, this thread has made me peckish).

  6. JQ said,

    February 7, 2014 @ 4:00 am

    There seems to be a lot of misunderstanding of Cantonese from the non-natives.

    I would just like to add that in HK / HK restaurants overseas, you can say or are asked 小菜 at dinnertime, to indicate that you want to eat rice with dishes, as opposed to hotpot 打邊爐 (a term which is gradually being replaced by the (MSM?) 火鍋 due to influx of mainland residents, but which nobody knows how to say in Mandarin anyway)

    In the past I have been to restaurants that offer 小菜 at lunch time as well as dim sum, and you'd have a choice between those two. I have not found any restaurants doing this in the past 10 years.

    I've never heard the term 撚手小菜 spoken aloud in HK. 撚 is slang for penis/fuck. Due to lazy pronunciation, uneducated people might interpret it as something pornographic.

  7. Simon P said,

    February 7, 2014 @ 10:41 am

    @JQ said "Due to lazy pronunciation, uneducated people might interpret it as something pornographic."

    I'd love to see a LanguageLog article on the sound changes in Cantonese. The 'n/l' merger (as well as initial 'ng' dropping and the 'gwo/go' merger) is called "lazy sounds" (laan6 jam1) in Cantonese, but of course it's been the standard way to speak for quite some time. The only people I hear differentiating initial 'n' and 'l' are people with specific training, mostly newsreaders and actors. Despite this, most everyone are convinced that they don't use these "lazy sounds". It's fascinating.

    One way we can see evidence for this is place names in HK. Look at Lamma Island, 南丫島. 南 is "naam4" in Cantonese, yet already when this was first transcribed into English (presumably well over a century ago), it was pronounced with an 'l' initial.

  8. julie lee said,

    February 7, 2014 @ 11:20 am

    My late husband, who was Chinese and grew up in China, would sometimes call the dishes I cooked everyday as xiaocai "小菜“ (little dishes). I felt it was an affectionate term for everyday, home dishes to go with rice at a meal. "Little" here would also mean "not a major production", not a big roast, or a big stew, for example, but rather dainty dishes of meat/poultry/fish-with-veggies sliced, diced, shredded, or minced, which so often accompanies rice. I see "little" also as meaning "accompaniment" to rice, like an accompanist.
    A propos of this: Once lunching with my daughter and father-in-law (who could only speak his provincial topolect, no English) at his apartment in Taipei, we each had a bowl of rice and helped ourselves to the only dish he provided, some sauteed chicken-(in small pieces)with-veggies. He came of a rural gentry family. He said in China rice was the main food at a meal, and people would share a single dish at the center of the table, just dabbing lightly at it with their chopsticks. Each time, their chopsticks would pick up a tiny bit of the dish and then they'd sweep a lot of rice into their mouths with their chopsticks (this was allowed by etiquette, though sweeping noodles into your mouth was a no-no), so one small dish went a long way with eight or ten people at the table (who often each had two to four bowls of rice), whereas nowadays, people often eat a lot of the dishes and only a little, or even no, rice. My own family was urban, and in the old days we usually had four or more dishes to go with the rice.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    February 7, 2014 @ 1:45 pm

    @John Ch

    You've raised a number of important issues. Let me address some of them.

    There's a big difference between the sort of fixed collocation like xiǎo cài guǎn 小菜館 (lit., "small vegetable / dish shop") that we're discussing here and the ad hoc, impromptu stringing together of independent nouns in English and German to which you refer. Here we're dealing with three morphosyllables (they're not really separate words like the nouns you were talking about in English and German) that customarily cohere as a commonly repeated expression. The problem is that it means various things according to the environment and locale in which it is used. From the more than two dozen opinions listed above and in the previous post, we have seen that there are many diverse opinions about the meaning of xiǎo cài guǎn 小菜館 (lit., "small vegetable / dish shop").

    You were right to point out that spacing in English and German help to disambiguate groups of words and that Chinese written with characters lacks this advantage. What needs to be pointed out is that Mandarin written in Hanyu Pinyin does have word spacing, and that — as I've shown both in this post and in the previous one — this spacing goes a long way toward helping to disambiguate groups of syllables, just as pauses do in speech.

  10. Chau Wu said,

    February 7, 2014 @ 2:10 pm

    @ Simon P. "Look at Lamma Island, 南丫島. 南 is "naam4" in Cantonese, yet already when this was first transcribed into English (presumably well over a century ago), it was pronounced with an "l" initial."

    English notoriously loves to denasalize words. German fünf (5) is English five, Gans goose, uns us, etc. When the English started to take control of South and Southeast Asia, they gave denasalized versions of place names such as Mumbai > Bombay, and Myanmar > Burma (note the typical English non-rhotic style for the latter).

    @ Victor Mair. This is just a footnote. Respondent #2 (A specialist in Hanyu Pinyin) to your survey says, "Another possibility would be "Xiao Cai [de] guan" (a restaurant belonging to someone with the family name of Cai who has the nickname of Xiao Cai)." The family name must be written with the character 蔡 (Cài), not 菜 (Cài). Nevertheless, Xiao Cai Guan 小菜館 based on the play of sound for the nickname, Xiao Cai 小蔡 is logical. But the jest of the sound-play is known only to the owner's circle of close friends, it would be lost to other customers.

  11. julie lee said,

    February 7, 2014 @ 2:29 pm

    As to segmentation, I agree with Prof. Mair that xiao cai guan 小菜館 can be understood as
    xiaocai guan (little-dishes restaurant) and/or xiao caiguan (little vegetable/dish-restaurant, i.e., little restaurant). Yes, Pinyin allows you to join syllables into words, thus reducing ambiguity. The character script doesn't allow you to join syllables (characters) by closing the spacing between characters.

  12. Stephan Stiller said,

    February 7, 2014 @ 3:12 pm

    @ John Ch

    First of all, I agree with what Prof. Mair writes. I should clarify that much of my comments was about what sort of ambiguity remains if one knows about the word boundaries (but not about the constituent grouping). So his comment is more relevant for 小菜館, while what I write is (more) about general compounding.

    A German example that is similar to our Mandarin example is the word "Druckerzeugnis". It is ambiguous between "Druck-Erzeugnis" (printed matter) and "Drucker-Zeugnis" (evaluation/report for someone who is a printer by profession). We have (at least) three morphemes druck·er·zeugnis whose constituent grouping is just as ambiguous as that of 小菜館 unless we hyphenate. But German doesn't exhibit regional variation for this.

  13. Stephan Stiller said,

    February 7, 2014 @ 3:28 pm

    @ John Ch

    An ambiguity in German where all 3 constituents are full nouns*: "Holztürschlüssel". "Holz-Türschlüssel" means "door key made out of wood"; "Holztür-Schlüssel" means "key for a wooden door".

    (* While both "Holztür" and "Türschlüssel" exist already as wonderfully compositional nouns, the example would still work if they weren't.)

  14. Dave Cragin said,

    February 7, 2014 @ 11:48 pm

    To add to Stephan’s comment on ambiguity: Zou’s article from 7 years ago suggested that additional ambiguity was creeping into Chinese due to the influence of English and the use of long sentences. Here's what he said:

    “The most problematic adoption, however, is the use of long sentences, which make much writing almost unreadable. Since the Chinese language has less stringent grammatical rules, sentences must be short and compact to avoid ambiguity. The difference between English and Chinese can be seen in the necessity, according to textbooks, for a translator to break down sentences into shorter ones when translating the former into the latter.” See:

    It would be interesting to hear if other Chinese feel that the author’s observations have continued to today, i.e., is there more “English-like” sentence construction in Chinese?

  15. Bob said,

    February 8, 2014 @ 1:19 am

    @Dave Cragin: Yes, the long sentences problem in Chinese writing is still there; particularly in scientific (including social science) writings. Sometimes, one feels, one need to know English –structure of sentences– to understand what the author wants to say.

  16. Victor Mair said,

    February 8, 2014 @ 8:10 am

    From a colleague:

    I've just talked to a friend of mine in Shanghai, who is a university professor, about the exact meaning and usage of xiaocai guan. According to him, this is one of the many new-emerging terms in Shanghai dialect, which may have derived from some of the neighboring towns around Shanghai, and which sound folksy and voguish. He predicts that some of these terms may eventually fade into oblivion, as did many other terms in the past which were once faddish but soon became obsolete. This phenomenon is typical of many Chinese dialects. Manners change; modes evolve. This is why and how a language becomes self-sustainable and self-rejuvenating.

  17. languagehat said,

    February 8, 2014 @ 9:07 am

    English notoriously loves to denasalize words. German fünf (5) is English five, Gans goose, uns us, etc. When the English started to take control of South and Southeast Asia, they gave denasalized versions of place names such as Mumbai > Bombay, and Myanmar > Burma (note the typical English non-rhotic style for the latter).

    This is all nonsense. The part about five, goose, etc. represents a development common to English and Frisian and thus has to do with a period before even Old English; it is completely irrelevant to anything that happened in the last millennium and a half. Bombay is borrowed from Portuguese, which changed the initial sound on the basis (presumably) of the resemblance to their phrase for 'good bay.' Burma is not from Myanmar but from the colloquial form Bama (and exhibits that annoyingly pointless and confusing use of r by non-rhotic speakers, as in "Sade, pronounced Shar-day"). If English-speakers transcribed the name as Lamma, it is because they heard an l there.

  18. Victor Mair said,

    February 8, 2014 @ 10:25 am

    From the same colleague who made the 2nd comment above:

    Just got this from Shanghai: xiaocaiguan is a term used by those peasants from villages or towns near Shanghai. As more and more peasants moved to Shanghai as residents or workers, they have brought with them their own language, from which some terms have been conveniently picked up by "old" Shanghai citizens who think those expressions are exotic and cute. So it should be xiaocaiguan, instead of xiaocai guan or xiao caiguan.

  19. Bob said,

    February 8, 2014 @ 11:11 am

    there are some addition information for some of the things mentioned by various persons:
    大菜=aga-aga, 9japanese name), a kind of sea weed, 大菜糕 is the jelly like dessert made from aga-age.
    大菜=西餐, in Hong Kong, we use the term 大餐. But, this western meal has to be a complete dinner/supper, including soap, salad, entrée(s), and dessert…..
    While 菜館 is not used commonly these days, I recall the phrase 酒樓菜館, evidently 菜館 has been used in the past. ,

  20. julie lee said,

    February 8, 2014 @ 12:07 pm

    @Bob says: "Sometimes, one feels, one need to know English –structure of sentences– to understand what the author wants to say."
    Yes, exactly. I've mentioned this before: My late mom was Chinese and knew very little English. She was very literate in Chinese. However, in her later years she was finding the Chinese newspaper often hard to understand, not the contents but the language. I knew why because I came from English. News articles in the Chinese paper often seemed to me a direct translation from English, with English sentence structure and vocabulary. When I read the Chinese paper, I had a strange feeling I was reading English, and had just read the same news articles in the English newspaper. So it was easy for me to understand the Chinese newspaper, even though my mom's Chinese was much better than mine. Her native language, Chinese, was becoming a foreign language to her, with strange grammar and strange words, directly, literally, translated from English.
    Neil Dolinger here on LLog asked me to give examples. I recently moved and don't have Chinese newspapers and magazines here. I'll have to get a Chinese newspaper when I drive some distance to the Chinese supermarket in another city.
    Here's one example of a Chinese word directly translated from English:
    Qingxuhua 情緒化 "emotional" (as in, "He was too emotional in his response." )
    An older, more familiar translation would be jidongde 激動的 "emotional".
    Qingxu 情緒 usually means "mood" in Chinese. And the suffix hua化 usually means "-ize(d)", as in prioritize(d), nationalize(d). So the newer qingxuhua 情緒化 "emotional" would literally mean "moodized" . So "his emotional response" would be "his moodized response". This would sound strange to a Chinese of an older generation. In the more familiar jidongde 激動的 "emotional", jidong激動 means "stirred (emotionally), excited, moved (emotionally)" and 的 is a suffix -al (as in emotion-al). The translator may have thought "moodized response" is closer in meaning to English "emotional response" than "stirred response".

  21. Bob said,

    February 8, 2014 @ 12:19 pm

    @JQ all the Chinese restaurants offering dim sum, in southeast Michigan, are still giving customers the choice of dim sum or lunch. Except on Saturdays and Sunday, when most customers come for dim sum. The restaurant workers take it for grant that you come for dim sum too. If you prefer to have lunch, you have to require the menu….

  22. Rodger C said,

    February 8, 2014 @ 12:22 pm

    Speaking of pointless rhoticization, I suppose Japanese aga-aga is the origin of English agar-agar.

  23. Bob said,

    February 8, 2014 @ 12:37 pm

    菜館 is hardly heard of these days in Cantonese as well as in Mandarin; I remember I heard that term in Taoshanese, used by my Grand mother, Mother, Great Uncle… but, I don't know 菜館 is still in use in Taoshan…

  24. Bob said,

    February 8, 2014 @ 12:40 pm

    @ Rodger C: it could be my typo, that aga-aga is really agar-agar..

  25. Bob said,

    February 8, 2014 @ 12:51 pm

    –back to the original question, segmentation of 小菜館, 小-菜館 or 小菜-館? But, does it matter? For 小-菜館 usually offers 小菜. 菜館 offers 小菜 usually are not big…..

  26. Stephan Stiller said,

    February 8, 2014 @ 1:02 pm

    @ julie lee

    That is a very informative comment. In fact, increased use of the suffix -化 is seen as a foreign influence. It would be interesting to investigate whether this change happened mainly because of English or was a slow and inevitable development having to do with scientific writing.

  27. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    February 8, 2014 @ 2:44 pm

    The use of 'r' in representation of foreign words by non-rhotic speakers is not pointless. The function of non-rhotic 'r' is to modify a vowel, so, perfectly reasonably and naturally, we use it in transcribing foreign words to represent the modified vowel. The sounds associated with 'or' and 'ur' in non-rhotic English could not be represented without an 'r'. The sound associated with 'ar' could be, by writing 'ah', but it is not clear why this would be superior; as another commenter pointed out recently, that would get rid of the 'unpronounced r' at the cost of introducing an 'unpronounced h', since the 'h' in that context equally lacks its usual consonantal value.

  28. julie lee said,

    February 8, 2014 @ 5:21 pm

    @ Stephen Stiller:
    Yes, you have a point there. I have tended to take it for granted that almost all the newly coined words found in the humanities and social sciences (such as the word qingxuhua情緒化"emotional") are Englishisms because I think most of the foreign journal articles read by social scientists and journalists in Taiwan are in English.
    A young Chinese sociologist from Taiwan told me that the foreign journal literature is translated into Chinese very fast, and the quantity of such literature to read is a never-ending, overwhelming deluge for the Chinese scholar.

  29. Victor Mair said,

    February 8, 2014 @ 5:34 pm

    From the Shanghai correspondent again:

    Shanghaiers have a fine tradition of embracing and absorbing fresh linguistic input from outside sources, including English, which explains the use of many loan terms from English, such as sibolin (spring; a term used frequently by Shanghai handymen, commonly called Shanghai tongjiang, lit., Shanghai coppersmith), laske (last car, used as a metaphor in reference to the last opportunity; for instance, the passport I got years ago was valid for five years instead of two or three years, and I was told it was the "last car" I caught, meaning that I was the last person to get it, as any one who got a passport after I did wouldn't be as lucky.), and even "pudding" and "ice cream" (bing qilin, in Chinese — qilin is a transliteration of "cream").

  30. julie lee said,

    February 8, 2014 @ 10:13 pm

    Good gracious, I knew buding 布丁 was Mandarin for pudding and shala 沙拉 meant salad, but never dreamed "qilin" in bing qiling 冰淇淋 (icre cream) was the Shanghainese transliteration of "cream".

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