"I tell you"

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Bruce Rusk, in a comment to "A bilingual, biscriptal product designation in Taiwan", mentioned "the informal Taiwanese Mandarin pronunciation of 給 ('give') gei3 as gie (3rd tone?), which is not a 'legal' Mandarin syllable" and noted that he "always assumed it was influenced by Taiwanese."

Bruce's mention of "給 ('give') gei3" in turn reminds me of a related Taiwanese-Mandarin interference that affected my own speech in a profound way.

When I was living in Taiwan from 1970-72 at an early stage of my acquisition of fluency in Mandarin, I kept hearing something that sounded to me like "oa ga li gang" in Taiwanese.  It was constantly on the lips of everybody.  I didn't know exactly what it meant, and I wouldn't have been able to transcribe it accurately in Romanization, much less in characters. So ubiquitous was this expression that — from the contexts in which it was spoken — I gathered that it was almost like the equivalent of "You know (what I mean)" in contemporary American English.

It wasn't long before I realized that "oa ga li gang" must have been the equivalent of "wǒ gěi nǐ jiǎng 我給你講 (I tell you)" in Taiwan Mandarin (Táiwān Guóyǔ 臺灣國語).  Now, this "wǒ gěi nǐ jiǎng 我給你講 (I tell you)" was as omnipresent in Taiwan Mandarin as "oa ga li gang" was in Taiwanese.  Pretty soon, "wǒ gěi nǐ jiǎng 我給你講 (I tell you)" became one of my favorite expressions in Mandarin.  It's not that I consciously wanted to use it to show how good and "native" my Mandarin was, it's simply that it rubbed off on me.  Everybody else was saying "wǒ gěi nǐ jiǎng 我給你講 (I tell you)", so willy-nilly I started saying it too.  I also took to saying "wǒ gēn nǐ jiǎng 我跟你講", which means essentially the same thing as "wǒ gěi nǐ jiǎng 我給你講 (I tell you)" because I also heard a lot of people using that expression in Taiwan.

But after I left Taiwan in 1972 and began the more formal and academic study of Chinese, I started to feel that "wǒ gěi nǐ jiǎng 我給你講 (I tell you)" and "wǒ gēn nǐ jiǎng 我跟你講 (I tell you)" were not proper, standard Mandarin.  So I tried hard to weed them out of my speech, but it probably took me twenty years to do so.  I don't think I say them very often anymore, perhaps not at all.

If I wanted to say the "proper" Mandarin equivalent of "wǒ gěi nǐ jiǎng 我給你講 (I tell you)", I would probably say "wǒ gēn nǐ shuō 我跟你說" or "wǒ gàosu nǐ 我告诉你".  Nevertheless, since I try to avoid such empty expressions in my speech, I don't use "wǒ gēn nǐ shuō 我跟你說" or "wǒ gàosu nǐ 我告诉你" very often either.

However, most ironically, wǒ gěi nǐ jiǎng 我給你講 ("I tell you" or "let me tell you"), has recently come back into my consciousness in an amazing way.  Namely, now on the Chinese internet, you will often encounter this expression:  wā gā lǐ gòng 哇嘎里共.  If you try to extract any rational meaning from the surface significations of those four characters, you will get nowhere, for they are being used strictly to roughly transcribe in Mandarin these four syllables of Taiwanese:  góa kap lí kóng.  That, my dear friends, is none other than the Taiwanese pronunciation of wǒ gěi nǐ jiǎng 我給你講 ("I tell you" or "let me tell you").

So we've come full circle.  What all of this demonstrates, I believe, is that the persistence of language is a powerful force, something that is difficult for governments to suppress.  While Taiwanese and Cantonese, for example, may seem to be threatened by the policies of the Communist Party of the People's Republic of China and the Nationalist Party of the Republic of China, both Taiwanese and Cantonese are having a large impact on the way language is used in Taiwan and on the mainland, I tell you.

[Thanks to Grace Wu and Melvin Lee]


  1. Mark S. said,

    February 9, 2014 @ 9:29 pm

    The ubiquity of the expression led some expats in Taipei to call their Western restaurant the "Galley Gong" Bistro (ㄍㄚ ㄌㄧ ㄍㄨㄥ餐廳). Alas, it has closed, despite getting great reviews. Perhaps someone would have better luck using that name for a Taiwanese restaurant in the West.

  2. Stephan Stiller said,

    February 9, 2014 @ 11:52 pm

    James E. Dew and I are reminded that 我講(俾)你聽 [ngo5 gong2 (bei2) nei5 teng1] (I speak (give) you listen → I tell (to) you for-listening) has a surface structure similar to the Taiwanese expression 我給你講 from above: something that can be analyzed as a serial verb construction with the person object in the middle.

    The Mandarin equivalent 我跟你說 [wǒ gēn nǐ shuō] (I follow/with you speak → I to you say) parallels the Taiwanese 我給你講 [wǒ gěi nǐ jiǎng] (I give/to you speak → I to you say).

    As 俾 [bei2] ("give"/"to") is the Cantonese analogue of Mandarin 給 [gěi] ("give"/"to"), the 講(俾)你 (speak (to) you) in Cantonese can be matched up with the Taiwanese 給你講 (to you speak), with the indirect object on the other side of the verb. So the 聽 in Cantonese is extra. Why is Cantonese different?

    Maybe the reason is to have a syntactic separator between the addressed person (你 or whoever) and what may follow (i.e. some statement), thereby aiding parsing: "講(俾)你<statement>".

    We note that in Cantonese (unlike in Mandarin) the verb "to give" (俾) has its indirect object (the receiver) after the direct object (the given entity): 俾 <direct object> <indirect object>.

    With that in mind, "講(俾)你<statement>" looks to me like "俾 <direct object> <indirect object>" with an extraposed direct object (namely <statement>).
    So one can think of it as coming from 講俾<statement>你, with the <statement> part extraposed and necessitating an intervening 聽. The resulting "講俾你<statement>" has two verbal elements in direct succession (講俾; "speak" + "give"/"to"), and it isn't surprising for the semantically less important one (the 俾 ("give"), which is now an indirect object marker ("to")) to fade away and become optional: "講(俾)你<statement>".

    But this is speculative; I don't know what the actual historical derivation is.

    [Thanks to James E. Dew.]

  3. Peter Nelson said,

    February 10, 2014 @ 2:16 am

    Living on the mainland, in a small town with a huge Taiwanese population (昆山), I had a coworker who always would dole out motherly advice to us. When she was talking to my female coworkers, it usually started… "小姐,我跟你讲". We found this somewhat hilarious, although more for the 小姐 usage than for any other reason.

  4. michael farris said,

    February 10, 2014 @ 2:26 am

    " I started to feel that "wǒ gěi nǐ jiǎng 我給你講 (I tell you)" and "wǒ gēn nǐ jiǎng 我跟你講 (I tell you)" were not proper, standard Mandarin. So I tried hard to weed them out of my speech, but it probably took me twenty years to do so. I don't think I say them very often anymore, perhaps not at all."

    Isn't that kind of a curious attitude for a linguist? Pruning an expression widely used by native speakers from your speech? I can understand wanting to get it under control and using it a few times a day (versus a few times a minute) but what benefit does eliminating it bring?

  5. Victor Mair said,

    February 10, 2014 @ 6:44 am

    @michael farris

    1. because I formerly overused the expression in a mindless, kǒutóuchán 口頭禪 (mantra, pet phrase) sort of way

    2. because I stopped going to Taiwan for about 20 years and went to the mainland instead, where they don't use that expression and, indeed, think that it is "Taiwan Mandarin"

    Perhaps you missed part of my original post.

  6. julie lee said,

    February 10, 2014 @ 12:24 pm

    @Stephan Stiller:
    " (in Cantonese:) 我講(俾)你聽 [ngo5 gong2 (bei2) nei5 teng1] (I speak (give) you listen → I tell (to) you for-listening)"

    I was particularly interested in your Cantonese "nei" (you) with initial n-, as I was
    in Victor Mair's post, where he has
    (in Taiwanese:) "góa kap lí kóng 我給你講 "(I give you tell = I to you tell)
    where "you" in Taiwanese is "li", with initial l-.

    I lived in Hongkong for a number of years as a child, and my elders in the family, who spoke Mandarin, learned some Cantonese. They all said "nei" in Cantonese for Mandarin "ni" (you), and I did likewise.
    Many many years later, I picked up an English-language book on Cantonese and it said
    "you" in Cantonese was "lei". So I had said "nei" for "you" for a lifetime, and no Cantonese person (friends, shopkeepers, maids, etc.) had corrected me! I then changed my "nei" to "lei" (you) following that textbook.

    Now I find you saying "nei" for you in Cantonese. I'm now confused. Is it permissible to say both "nei" and "lei" for " you" in Cantonese?

  7. julie lee said,

    February 10, 2014 @ 1:06 pm

    @Stephan Stiller
    Another note regarding your
    "" (in Cantonese:) 我講(俾)你聽 [ngo5 gong2 (bei2) nei5 teng1] (I speak (give) you listen → I tell (to) you for-listening)"

    The sentence above would be, in Mandarin, wo jiang gei ni ting 我講給你聽 (I speak (give) you listen), exactly the same in Cantonese except that Cantonese "bei弼" (give) is in Mandarin "gei" (give).
    俾 ("give", bei in Cantonese, bi in Mandarin) is another transcription of the ancient Chinese word 畀 ("give", also bei in Cantonese, bi in Mandarin), an example of the many ancient Chinese words preserved in Cantonese.
    Also Cantonese keoi 佢 "he, she, it" (qu in Mandarin) is another an ancient Chinese word for "he, she, it, they", which has also been preserved in a number of Chinese topolects. It is also transcribed as 渠 (Cant. keoi, Mand. qu) "he, she, it, they". The modern Standard Mand. for these pronouns is ta他 ("he, she, it"), and 他們 ("they"). But the ancient keoi, qu, are still found in Classical Chinese.

  8. Stephan Stiller said,

    February 10, 2014 @ 1:13 pm

    @ julie lee

    你 has been changing from nei5 to lei5 for a long time. I think most people nowadays say lei5, but I can't give you a breakdown by time/age/percentage. As for which pronunciation you "should" pick, the answer is that people will likely not notice if you substitute an l- for an "original" n- or vice-versa. I for myself prefer to make pre-merger distinctions because I'm interested in dialectology and historical linguistics (more knowledge is better). But then many linguists rightfully say that there's been variation all along, and the dictionaries might not be accurate either. (Whether pronunciations of characters were consistent in that regard across words in the first place is also a good question.) Btw if a textbook lists 你 as lei5 it is probably (given the context of books and dictionaries traditionally listing nei5) making a statement about being descriptivist.

  9. John Rohsenow said,

    February 10, 2014 @ 3:44 pm

    re: Galley Gong Bistro:"Perhaps someone would have better luck using that name for a Taiwanese restaurant in the West."
    In the 60's (remember?) when everyone in TW seemed bent on going to the States, my wife Hill and I invented a female character named Becky Bikok. ;-)

  10. julie lee said,

    February 10, 2014 @ 4:20 pm

    @Stephan Stiller:
    Thanks, mystery solved.

  11. Stephan Stiller said,

    February 10, 2014 @ 6:05 pm

    @ julie lee
    Regarding your second comment: I think that 我講給你聽 is not standard Mandarin (i.e. mainland/CCTV-Mandarin), but 我跟你說 is. If 我講給你聽 is common in a regional dialect (sic) of Mandarin, it'll be interesting to find out where and why.

  12. julie lee said,

    February 10, 2014 @ 11:28 pm

    @ Stephan Stiller:
    You may be right. However, though I hardly ever listen to CCTV, I happened recently to be a weeklong house-guest in Beijing of a news broadcaster from CCTV Beijing and I didn't find his Mandarin different in language from the Mandarin I spoke, though he spoke it much more beautifully (in pronunciation and intonation) and didn't use any slang or unfamiliar colloquialisms with me.
    Perhaps they don't say Wo jiang gei ni ting 我講給你聽 ("Let me tell you,…" "I'll tell you,…","I tell you,…") in Standard Mandarin (i.e. Beijing/CCTV Mandarin), but there are different ways of saying this in Mandarin , including "Wo gen ni shuo 我跟你說" , and
    my Chinese friends and relatives, almost all who lived on the Mainland before they lived in Taiwan, would find 我講給你聽 part of ordinary Mandarin. These friends and relatives lived and/or went to school variously in Beijing, Nanjing, Hankow, Changsha (Hunan), Chongqing, and Taiwan (where people from all over China speaking different topolects converged when they fled Mao). Because of the convergence of different Mandarins in Taiwan, Taiwan-Mandarin may well be a hodge-podge of different Mandarins.
    (P.S. The 弼 in my previous comment should be 俾。Somehow my laptop made the switch to 弼 before I could catch it.)

  13. Movenon said,

    February 11, 2014 @ 2:46 am

    The story usually goes something like this: "Each Chinese character has its own meaning, and each Chinese dialect pronounces each character in a slightly different way, but when they write down what they say, the universality of the characters transmits the meaning regardless of pronunciation, so that anyone from anywhere across China (hell, even Japan too!) can understand the same written sentence. (cue in gweilo/laowai tourist gasping in awe at such a profound concept)

    Now after a century of enforced standard Mandarin hegemony where people are only taught how to pronounce characters in Putonghua/Guoyu and are made to forget everything else, the Chinese script has degenerated into nothing more than a shitty syllabary for Mandarin. On the rare occasion that someone tries to write anything else out for laughs and giggles like Taiwanese, the only way they know how to is by using characters as a Mandarin syllabary, giving countless ridiculous things like 哇嘎里共 instead of actually writing something like 我共你講. Almost the last thing preventing the trend from passing the point of no return is that Cantonese speakers still try to uphold the tradition of actually pronouncing characters in something other than Mandarin. Maybe one day after everything but CCTV Putonghua has been stamped out into oblivion people will forget that there used to be different pronunciations for characters.

    (yes, I've read deFrancis and everything and I know that characters have always been used for sound transliteration as well, but I'm just a bit cranky after the government openly portrayed Cantonese as a devil trying to homogenize the world the other day, so I hope people take this as tongue-in-cheek).

    I wouldn't mind things like 哇嘎里共 if it weren't for the fact that actual written Taiwanese is basically non-existent because people have to resort to a Mandarin-pronunciation syllabary as Taiwanese withers away. What someone needs to do is innovate a subscript symbol of some sort that can be inserted unobtrusively in the corner of a hanzi that indicates it should be read as Minnan, or Hakka, or Cantonese, etc. Vietnamese used to have something similar in Chu Nom, indicating a reading other than Han-Viet. So we could have something like 著ₘ (a subscript M for Minnan) to indicate the character should be read tioh, instead of zhù. I've also thought that it would be nice if we could have a killer stroke like that found in Devanagari to place under Chinese characters to indicate that they are being used for phonetic value only, rather than any semantic meaning. Any other ideas?

  14. Stephan Stiller said,

    February 11, 2014 @ 3:06 am

    See my comment to another LL thread.

  15. Victor Mair said,

    February 11, 2014 @ 7:02 am


    Your story is much appreciated. Thanks for taking the time to tell it.

  16. Simon P said,

    February 11, 2014 @ 8:54 am

    From the original post: "the informal Taiwanese Mandarin pronunciation of 給 ('give') gei3 as gie (3rd tone?), which is not a 'legal' Mandarin syllable"

    Then again, "gei3" isn't really a 'legal' Mandarin syllable, either, is it? It's an exception. No other character is pronounced "gei" in any tone. Same with 誰 (shei2), which used to be (and sometimes still is) pronounced "shui2". Was there ever a "gui3" reading for 給?

    I'm also struck by the closeness of "góa kap lí kóng" to a Cantonese reading of 我給你講, which would be "ngo5 kap1 nei5 gong2" (with "nei5" read as "lei5" by most modern HKers). Even though the Min languages separated from the other Sinitic languages very early, there are still great phonetic similarities between Taiwanese and Cantonese, which goes to show what an outlier Mandarin is.

  17. Victor Mair said,

    February 11, 2014 @ 9:13 am

    @Simon P

    You're right that gei3 is an unusual syllable for the standard Mandarin sound system. 給 is the only character I know that has it.

    I suppose you're aware that the more "classical", old-fashioned reading of 給 is jǐ.

  18. Michael Watts said,

    February 11, 2014 @ 11:23 am

    I engaged a mandarin tutor who was Cantonese. In her mandarin, she didn't distinguish n- from l-; she varied freely between e.g. 能 "neng" and 能 "leng" or 你 "ni" and 你 "li". (Interestingly, she did not exhibit the same nondistinction in her english.) So I tend to agree that a cantonese speaker is unlikely to even notice whether you use n- or l- to begin a cantonese syllable.

  19. ahkow said,

    February 11, 2014 @ 11:33 am

    @Victor Mair:

    Two hypotheses around the "unusualness" of 給 gei3: (1) borrowing (2) frequency of use that allow the /k/ initial to "survive" palatalization. (similar to how 你 /ni3/ "you" preserves the nasal quality of the initial, while 尔 /er3/ did not (presumably related the increasingly (?) exclusive use of the graph in non-second person contexts).

    Since we are on a topic that involves the second person pronoun in Min, I want to point out that Mei Tsu-lin (1999) argues that the "right" graph for the Min singular second person should be 汝 and not 你, based on evidence from rhyming categories.


  20. Bob said,

    February 11, 2014 @ 4:13 pm

    Hey, Professor, we were in Taiwan roughly the same time! We could have passed each other by on the street of Taipei…. (I went to the university in Tainan, but I had to go to Taipei to fly back to HK for holidays..
    I do remember the phrase 我給你講, I heard it from girls mostly. Hence I thought it was a feminine expression, and never used that myself. The Cantonese saying should be: 我講俾你知, also a feminine phrase. A man would say, 你聽我說 (Mandarin), or 你聽我講 (Cantonese).

  21. Simon P said,

    February 11, 2014 @ 7:44 pm

    There's also the common 我話(畀)你聽/知. To my mind, using 話 (waa6) in these situations seems more common than using 講, but I'm not sure. I don't think it's a very feminine phrase. LMF uses it in their songs, and they're certainly not feminine.

    "我話你知 個世界越係咁講
    (From the song 揸緊中指 by LMF)

  22. julie lee said,

    February 11, 2014 @ 8:20 pm

    @Simon P:

    Since the lines from the song are in Cantonese, could you romanize them and translate them? I'd appreciate that.

  23. Simon P said,

    February 12, 2014 @ 3:42 am


    ngo5 waa6 nei5 zi1
    I'm telling you

    go3 sai3 gaai3 jyut6 hai6 gam2 gong2
    the more the world keeps talking like this

    ngo5 dei6 ge3 si1 wai4 zau6 gang3 gaa1 jiu3 dung2 dak1 hoi1 fong1
    the more our thinking needs to be open-minded

    (Rough translation. The song is called 揸緊中指, zaa1 gan2 zung1 zi2, "Grabbing the Middle Finger")
    Here's the song in its entirety. It's one of my favorites: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XgKazvhNYz8

  24. Stephan Stiller said,

    February 12, 2014 @ 6:54 am

    All 8 combinations
    • 話 [waa6] or 講 [gong2]
    • optional 俾 [bei2]
    • 知 [zi1] or 聽 [teng1]
    are possible.

  25. julie lee said,

    February 12, 2014 @ 11:06 am

    @Simon P, @ Stephan Stiller,
    Many thanks, translation very helpful. I see my tones are wrong for some of the characters.
    Simon, I clicked the link you gave, and enjoyed the video of the whole song (or rather, the whole rap). I see it's sprinkled with a few English words, "one", "freedom" etc. and then has a complete verse in English at the end of the long rap.
    The subtitles were too fast for me to read completely so I went to a site that gave the complete lyrics and found some variation. The verse in English is gone, and the two lines you mentioned:

    "我話你知, 個世界越係咁講
    are now:
    "我話你知, 個世界越係動盪
    我哋嘅思維就更加要懂得開放come on"

    (I tell you, the more the world is in tumult
    The more our thinking should be open-minded, come on"

    with "動盪dungdong" (in tumult) rhyming with "come on".

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