The Hunter and His Laifor

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Last night, Li-ching asked me to correct an English story that she had written.  When I got to the part about "a hunter and his laifor," I was stumped.  Did Li-ching know some obscure English word that I had never heard of?

After thinking about "laifor" for a brief moment, I had a vague recollection that she had used the same expression many years ago, so she was at least being consistent.  But I still couldn't figure out what she meant by "laifor."  His "wife"?  His "life(r)"?

Before you turn the page and I tell you what "laifor" means, please try to guess.  Mind you, you actually have a bit of context — "the hunter."

Finally (I didn't want to spend more than 15 seconds pondering the semantics of "laifor"), I had to break down and ask her, "Li-ching, what is a 'laifor'?"

"'Laifor,' you silly egg!  The thing he shoots with!"

I was abashed.  Considering that Chinese systematically exchange syllable initial l- for English r- and that rhotacized -fo is a decent Mandarinesque approximation of the impossible (to most Chinese speakers) -fle, "laifor" is a fully understandable Mandarinish representation of "rifle."

The story's not over yet.  Li-ching went on to say, "In Chinese, we write LAI2FU2 來福 for 'rifle'."  Sensing that I would wonder about the odd choice of characters, which literally mean "come blessings / fortune," she tried to deflect my next question by declaring that LAI2FU2 來福 is a common name for dogs in China.

I immediately inquired, "But don't Chinese despise dogs?  Why would they call their dogs by such a felicitous name?"

"Yes," replied Li-ching, "Chinese people traditionally have treated dogs badly, but they still recognized that dogs could bring them fortune.  It was the same thing with servants; wealthy Chinese treated their servants poorly, but realized they couldn't do without them."

Whereupon, as often happens in such discussions with Li-ching, I went into a linguistic reverie, the gist of which I reproduce in the following paragraphs.

"Ah!" I thought.  "Perhaps there's some Freudian (or maybe Jungian) connection between a hunter and his rifle on the one hand and a hunter and his dog on the other hand.  But, no, generally I see LAI2FU2QIANG1 來福槍 ('rifle-spear') in Chinese texts where English 'rifle' is intended.  Odd, isn't it, to call a 'rifle' a 'spear'?  Not really, since the Chinese long ago morphed 槍 ('spear,' with wood radical) into QIANG1 鎗 ('spear,' with metal radical) when they wanted to specify that this was a spear with a substantial component of metal.  Yet they also continued to use 槍 for firearms because, after all, guns have wooden stocks, don't they?

"Hmm….  What about the alternative sinographic representation of 'rifle' as LAI2FU4 來復 (literally, 'come-turn [over / around]')?  Isn't that clever?!  The English word 'rifle' derives from the spiral grooves inside the barrel that send the bullet on a true trajectory, so LAI2FU4 來復 ('come-turn') is indeed a neat way to express the idea of rifling.  To be more specific when they want to refer to rifling, the Chinese write LAI2FU4XIAN4 來復綫 ('come-turn-thread').  Yet they still much prefer to write LAI2FU2XIAN4 來福綫 ('come-blessing-thread')."

At this point, I awoke from my linguistic daydream and decided it was time to go for a walk with my laifor ("rifle / dog / life[r] / wife / whatever").


  1. Frank said,

    March 5, 2009 @ 4:09 pm

    Apologies for this comment that is really a question, but I think this post sets it up nicely. To what extent is the following statement true: "Non-Native Mandarin speakers cannot teach the language to English speakers in an American high school classroom." It seems unlikely to me that this is completely true, but the discussion above would indicate that there is some possibility that non-native speakers simply cannot replicate the sounds well enough to teach the language. If it matters to the answer, I want to know because I have a native speaker who is an excellent teacher teaching Mandarin at my school, and I want to know what risks I would be taking by hiring a non-native speaker as her colleague. Also, I'm just interested theoretically.

  2. Bobbie said,

    March 5, 2009 @ 4:28 pm

    Oooh! I got it before I turned the page! Extra credit for me!

  3. Tayloj said,

    March 5, 2009 @ 4:52 pm

    The introduction immediately reminded me of Bill Rappaport's work on Contextual Vocabulary Acquisition. Particularly a presentation ((Postscript), (PowerPoint)) that uses an example about hunting, and determining the meaning of brachet from context.

  4. Nathan Myers said,

    March 5, 2009 @ 4:57 pm

    I just read an assertion elsewhere on LL that Mandarin speakers, unlike Japanese, do not tend to make the L/R substitution, because they have both consonants available. Evidently something else is going on.

    (And yes, I solved it before turning the page, too, despite the contrary advice mentioned.)

  5. Rachel Cotterill said,

    March 5, 2009 @ 5:13 pm

    I also solved it :)

    In my experiences teaching English, Chinese speakers do struggle with the British 'r' (can't do IPA on this keyboard!) – although the letter 'r' is used to write pinyin, that's not the same sound. But it's true that they're not as systematic as Japanese-speakers in their substitution of r/l sounds.

  6. J. Taliaferro said,

    March 5, 2009 @ 5:32 pm

    interesting as my ipod CE dictionary ("powered by CC-CEDict") gives 來復槍 as a possibility, as does my Oxford Chinese dictionary.

  7. Nathan Myers said,

    March 5, 2009 @ 5:36 pm

    "You silly egg!"

    Is "egg" a common putdown in Chinese languages? Does it impute simple naïvité, or something grosser?

  8. J. Taliaferro said,

    March 5, 2009 @ 5:49 pm

    ack! re-reading, I realized you weren't offering an alternative, but pondering the usage… I just wasn't familiar with the terms!

    looks like I'm the silly egg… (though stupid seems a bit more apropos). Apologies for cluttering the comments!

  9. Mark F. said,

    March 5, 2009 @ 5:54 pm

    Rachel Cotterill — What's this about the "British 'r'"? Isn't word-initial British r pronunciation the same as American?

  10. David Marjanović said,

    March 5, 2009 @ 6:18 pm

    although the letter 'r' is used to write pinyin, that's not the same sound.

    For some (…hundreds of millions…), it actually is. For most others it's close.

  11. aaron said,

    March 5, 2009 @ 6:37 pm

    Food insults are common in Cantonese. I wonder if "silly egg" is the same thing I get called when I do something stupid (I always thought of it as "stupid egg"). There are a few others involving bread and pork too. Also in Cantonese, you don't say boiled egg with the same "boiled" as other things, since it's similar (identical?) in sound to the insult.

  12. Stephen Jones said,

    March 5, 2009 @ 7:01 pm

    I guessed it too. I suspect starting my teaching career with a remedial class helped.

  13. J.J. E. said,

    March 5, 2009 @ 7:55 pm


    I think ben4 dan4 (笨蛋) is more or less literally, "dumb/stupid egg". But the connotation it gives is similar to English words like "dummy" or "silly". To me, it feels similar to the phrase "silly goose" sans the whimsical/childishness of "silly goose".

  14. aaron said,

    March 5, 2009 @ 8:54 pm

    J.J.E. –

    No, I don't think it's that one. I hate to try to type the sound in the presence of all you literates, but to take a stab at it: "chun dan". A little more severe than silly goose as well, I think. I'll ask the wife later.

  15. J.J. E. said,

    March 5, 2009 @ 9:49 pm


    蠢蛋 = chun3dan4

    You've got it right. There is another phrase. I don't actually use this phrase, so I have very little feel for it. But in Taiwanese Mandarin, I'm told (sample size of 1, so take that for what it's worth) that it has almost identical connotations to 笨蛋.

    However, one small difference is that my friend describes it as a bit 文言 or a bit older style to say chundan instead of bendan. I hear that Cantonese frequently use characters and phrases that are a bit "older". And I have no clue about the connotation in Cantonese, so maybe there is something going on there. Are you talking about Cantonese or Mandarin that is strongly influenced by Cantonese? These questions are always a bit hard to get "right" because the way people actually use "Mandarin" varies quite a bit even when not switching to another Chinese language (ie from Mandarin to Min or Cantonese).

  16. aaron said,

    March 6, 2009 @ 4:11 am


    Yes, wifey says that's the one. She didn't comment on 笨蛋 vs 蠢蛋, but I've never heard her say bin dan. HK Cantonese is what I'm referencing, I have too tenative a grasp on Cantonese to even try to improve my feeble Mandarin. Faugh, maybe one day I'll have to do something about this illiteracy too.

    I am always amused when around mixed groups of mainland/Taiwan/HK/diaspora Chinese, since invariably one will always say the other is saying something "old fashioned". Often when I ask my wife to translate something from Mandarin to Cantonese she adds "Don't say it like that though, it's only written."

    Speaking of old fashioned: My wife, like most of the other English/Cantonese multilinguals I know well, is interested in naming things/animals/children with "matching" English and Cantonese names. We have been talking about getting a dog lately, and discussed the names Fei Doh("fat piece" i suppose)/Fedor and Doh Dee("more")/Dottie. I showed her this blog entry tonight and mentioned 來福/rifle as a dog's name, but she said "Ugh, old fashioned! Might as well name him Spot!" I guess I never realized until now that of the handful of Chinese dog owners I know none named thier dogs in Chinese.

  17. Kellen said,

    March 6, 2009 @ 6:43 am

    i've heard this exact word in my own experiences teaching english to chinese students.

    ”ben dan“ is pretty common at least around here (eastern china). as is “huaidan”, bad egg. “hun dan” as well but slightly more coarse. i've been told it's what i should call people if i want to offend them but not start a fist fight.

    re naming dogs, mine is 弟弟 didi, "little brother". had i known about rifle meaning dogs i may have gone for that instead.

  18. Adrian said,

    March 6, 2009 @ 6:47 am

    Hungarian has "okos tojás" – "clever egg" – as a mild putdown.

  19. KYL said,

    March 6, 2009 @ 9:52 am

    I can't say that I've systematically observed native Mandarin speakers speaking English to come to any conclusion, but can someone who has tell me if they really "exchange" syllable-initial "r" and "l"? That is, do they say "r" when they mean "l" and vice versa, or do they just substitute all "r"s with "l'?

    If the problem is that initial "r" is difficult for native Mandarin speakers, then it seems odd that "exchange" of "r" and "l" would occur. One would expect simply that all "r"s are turned into "l"s.

  20. Cameron said,

    March 6, 2009 @ 9:58 am

    Does Chinese have a word for "musket" that can contrast with rifle? How 'bout "shotgun"?

    Or does LAI2FU2 cover all three?

  21. Mark Liberman said,

    March 6, 2009 @ 10:33 am

    Nathan Myers: Mandarin speakers, unlike Japanese, do not tend to make the L/R substitution, because they have both consonants available. Evidently something else is going on.

    It's a matter of phonotactics, I think.

    If you look at a chart of possible Mandarin syllables, you'll see that initial /r/ exists, but only before (the rhymes written in pinyin as) e, i, ao, ou, an, en, ang, eng, ong, u, ua, uo. There is no "rai" — and the nearest choice of initital sound with the rhyme "ai" would be "lai".

    (Mandarin /r/ and /l/ are not overall in complementary distribution in initial position, since you get both "re" and "le", both "ran" and "lan", etc.)

    As for the rendition of the second syllable, there is no final /l/ in Mandarin at all, but there is the syllable/morpheme "er", which tends to merge with a previous syllable to create a rhotic form of its ending. This makes it plausible to approximate a syllable-final /l/, or a syllabic /l/, as some other syllable merged with "er". (Here, I guess, it was fu+er.)

    In Japanese, by contrast, there is no phonemic distinction between /l/ and /r/, but just a single phoneme (always syllable-initital, and written 'r' in romanizations of Japanese) whose phonetic range covers some things that Americans would consider to be instances of /r/ as well as some things they would consider to be instances of /l/.

  22. Rob P. said,

    March 6, 2009 @ 11:22 am

    I have to admit I missed the answer. I guessed "prey". That is, the object that a hunter might "lay for". Oh well.

  23. ZBicyclist said,

    March 6, 2009 @ 11:28 am

    I'm not too proud to say that I didn't get it.

    I looked at "laifor" and saw "lay for" and thought it meant "prey", in other words, what you were "laying [in wait] for".

    But I claim no knowledge of Chinese beyond restaurants.

  24. greg said,

    March 6, 2009 @ 12:15 pm

    Do I get credit for assuming it was "the hunter and his dog"? I don't know any Mandarin, so I didn't know that they call dogs lai2fu2. I made the structural connection to Harlan Ellison's "A Boy and His Dog". Though don't know if Li-Ching is familiar with that story.

  25. Jim said,

    March 6, 2009 @ 12:56 pm

    "To what extent is the following statement true: Non-Native Mandarin speakers cannot teach the language to English speakers in an American high school classroom."

    It's bullshit. In fact a native speaker may be a less effective teacher at that level because he or she is likely be unaware of what parts of Chinese are difficult for a non-native speaker. For instance word compound formation can be a total wilderness for foreigner learners of the language and a teacher who has just always taken it for granted isn't going to be of much help.

  26. Lane said,

    March 6, 2009 @ 1:21 pm

    There's that moment in Lost In Translation where Scarlett Johansson asks "why do they mix up the L's and the R's"? It seems to me that single phoneme Mark mentions is roughly "between" L and R, so that English speakers hear a Japanese person saying "rock" as too L-like, and analyze it as "lock", thinking the Japanese person picked the wrong letter. Scarlett's only flaw, as near as I can tell.

  27. hsknotes said,

    March 6, 2009 @ 2:05 pm

    I second Jim, Frank. In fact I think with instruction in any language, up to a certain of linguistic competency, a non-native speaker is going to be infinitely better suited to dealing with the problems the students face, as he/she likely faced many, if not all, of the same problems.

    There are many non-native teachers of mandarin at the high school and college level, and there have been for a while, as with most (if not all) other languages.

    As for the 'non-native speakers cannot replicate the sounds well enough…', it is of course nonsense.

    The discussion above does not indicate problems with sound replication, but rather the nagging problem of recognizing words of one's own language transplanted into another language with a different, bizarre, and not necessarily systematic pronunciation, combined with a collocation that might possibly be inappropriate or at least odd or awkward in the original language.

    Frank, this actually is part of a much bigger issue in mandarin dealing with the import of foreign words that ties in with the vernacular chinese movement, the influence of cantonese pronunciation, and oftentimes words imported from Japan through classical chinese. It is a giant can of worms and can not be adequately addressed here.

    Why would anyone ever write out 'silly egg.'? When translating into Chinese would I ever imagine writing 笨鹅 ben4e2 (literally stupid goose, in contrast to rendering above of 笨 as 'silly', which I don't agree with.)?

  28. YF said,

    March 6, 2009 @ 3:11 pm

    On the topic of native speaker vs. non-native speaker teachers, I mostly agree with both Jim and hsknotes. Both statuses have advantages and disadvantages, as they pointed out. I would specify that both native and non-native speakers can become effective language teachers if they get training and experience that mitigates their inherent disadvantages.

    1. Any effective language teacher needs broad and deep knowledge of the language from a user’s standpoint and also needs to understand from a linguistic standpoint how the grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation work.
    2. An effective language teacher needs to know how human learning in general works and how second language acquisition in particular works in his/her population of students (e.g., adult learners)
    3. The teacher then uses this knowledge to inform delivery of instruction in a manner that facilitates the language acquisition process.
    4. Last but not least, an effective teacher has to know how to troubleshoot that instruction mid-stream (mid-semester, mid-lesson, mid-tutorial) when it’s obvious that something is not getting across

    FWIW, I have taught German as a non-native speaker (in the U.S.) and English as a native speaker (in Germany and the U.S.). Language teaching is sometimes written off as a non-academic field of endeavor, but I find it an exciting intellectual challenge. For all the points above, there is always more to learn.

  29. Victor Mair said,

    March 6, 2009 @ 5:17 pm


    LEI2DA2 = "radar," LA1AI4 = "rye," LA1BA1BU4 = "rebab," LA1BI3 = "rabbi," LUO2MAN4DI4KE4 = "romantic," etc. I could list hundreds of other instances where syllable initial r- from other languages (this happens not just with English) becomes l- in Mandarin.

  30. Jerome Chiu said,

    March 7, 2009 @ 10:01 am

    I'm happy to report that I've got the answer right. I guessed "rifle" before seeing the hunter hint, and with this hint I was already pretty sure.

    As for ben4 dan4, chun3 dan4, and huai4 dan4, all three are also commonly said by a woman to her lover. All three refer to eggs, but the parts played by ben, chun, and huai are also significant. A girl would say to her lover that he is a "silly egg" (bendan or chundan) when he fails to pick up her signal to the effect that "you're welcome to kiss me/ hold me/ caress me/ propose/ etc.", while she would say "bad egg" (huaidan) when he does so without her "welcome" signal (but welcomes it nonetheless).

    This usage has become so common nowadays that people now prefer to use other terms instead. But girls are quick to pick up these new terms (to use them in the above context) as well, and this is one of the many reasons why we Chinese speakers (Cantonese in particular) tend to invent new terms for morons more rapidly than is usually the case in the rest of the world.

  31. KYL said,

    March 9, 2009 @ 4:47 pm


    So it would seem that the Mandarin speaker would systematically turn syllable-initial "r"s into "l"s, which is different from the Japanese speaker, who might get the "r"s and "l"s mixed up. Is that about right?

  32. Ken Brown said,

    March 10, 2009 @ 9:20 am

    I have to say that I guessed "rifle" as well, and it wasn't even very difficult. I just said it out loud in a stage Chinese accent.

    So the first styllable is going to be English "rai" rather than "lai" because that is the stereotype stage Chinese way of speaking English (even if real Chinese people don't make that mistake anywhere near as often as we think they do. )

    There are version of English spoken in the south-east of England where the second syllable of "rifle" is completely vocalised. You might write it as "fol" or "fow" And to my very, very non-rhotic ears "fow" and "for" are not very different. I have no consonant "R" in "for", but I have no consonant "L" in "fol" either, unless I am speaking very carefully.

  33. lily c said,

    July 2, 2009 @ 2:20 am

    Is there a preference for matching finals vowel sounds, rather than initial consonants (in cases where there is no good homonym), in transliterations in Chinese.
    the i in ri(fle) sounds like "ai", so is written lai
    as opposed to ri —re 热 or "hot" would also have been a good choice.

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