Pekingese vs. Putonghua

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John Rohsenow sent me a WeChat (a Chinese text and messaging service) post that compares Putonghua (Modern Standard Mandarin [MSM]) sentences with their equivalents in Pekingese.  The differences are stark, amounting to a translation from one language to another.

The post offers a generous sampling of two dozen pairs of sentences.  Here I'll provide the standard Language Log treatment of three sets.  First, however, a few preliminaries.

Three of my informants are native speakers of Pekingese, and one lived in Beijing for a considerable period of time and had roommates and classmates from Beijing.  All of my informants — when I asked them directly — assured me that the Pekingese sentences given in the WeChat post are authentic.  A couple of them told me that this kind of language is used more by men than by women, but one said that it is not particularly gendered.  All indicated that they themselves, being relatively young and educated, are not particularly fond of using this type of speech, but are quite familiar with it.  One, a true Beijinger, said that the Pekingese in these sentences, though genuine, is "tài tǔle 太土了!" ("too earthy / crude / colloquial / naff").

As for my own attitude toward Pekingese, I must confess that I have a deep affection for it, have assembled a small library of works for its study, and have written about it quite a bit on Language Log and elsewhere:

"Pushing Pekingese" (11/10/13)

"Pekingese put-downs" (11/7/13)

"OMG moments induced by allegro forms in Pekingese" (1/26/12)

"Surprising Transformations of a Beijing Street Name" (1/29/11)

"Kiss kiss / BER: Chinese photoshop victim" (7/22/14)

"Sayable but not writable" (9/12/13) (see particularly the last few comments)

Incidentally, one of my informants opined that the Putonghua on the site was "clunky".

All right, time to dive into the comparisons:




Wǒ yùnqì bù hǎo, qù jìyuàn ràng qīzi zhuā zhùle.

我运气不 好, 去妓院让妻子抓住了。

I have bad luck.  My wife caught me when I went to the whorehouse.


Gēmenr diǎnrbèi, guàng yáozi ràng ěnmen jiā nèi kǒuzi dǎile gè zhèngzháo!

哥们儿点儿背, 逛窑子让我们 (en men) 家那 (nei) 口子逮了个正着(zhao)

Bro's screwed.  Playing around in the cathouse, we got nabbed by the old lady.


Gēmenr 哥们儿 ("brothers") has a plural form, but here it's used for first person singular.  See the fascinating study of this interesting term in "Variant pronunciations of the word for "brothers" in Mandarin " (9/25/13) and the comments thereto.

diǎnrbèi 点儿背 means something like "the dots on the dice went against me", i.e., I had bad luck

wǒmen 我们 ("we") is here pronounced ěnmen and is used for as a first person singular pronoun



Bù dǒngle ba?


You don't understand?


Qièsháo le ba!




The first two characters literally mean "cowardly spoon".  In Pekingese, this expression signifies a "dolt; dummkopf; yo-yo; meathead; nitwit; dimwit; dodo; dork…".

When I was growing up in Stark County, Ohio, a lot of the caddies and steelworkers I worked with would mix in words like "capisce" in their English.)



Nín bāng wǒ kànkàn zhè dōngxī, wǒ bù dǒngháng.

您帮我看看这东西, 我不懂行。

Help me take a look at this thing; I don't know how it works.


Nín gěi lōulōu zhè wányìr, wǒ pà zǒule yǎn.

您给瞜瞜 (lou) 这玩意儿,我怕走了眼。

Take a gander at this gizmo / gadget / thingamajig for me; I'm afraid I'll make a mistake.


Now, this is Pekingese, which is supposed to provide the basis for MSM, but it's obvious that MSM and Pekingese are miles apart from each other.  When we start to look at the countless Mandarin topolects outside of Beijing and non-Mandarin topolects spread across the country, the linguistic nonuniformity becomes readily apparent.

[Thanks to Maiheng Dietrich, Jing Wen, Wei Shao, and Xiuyuan Mi]


  1. JS said,

    March 15, 2015 @ 11:28 am

    I just followed the link and scanned the QR code, but Weixin then informed me that the account has been suspended. :(

  2. Michael Watts said,

    March 15, 2015 @ 3:47 pm

    太土了! — "Too earthy".

    This is an example of a long-running interest of mine, wherein two languages share a metaphor for no obvious reason. Just look at the ABC glosses for 土:

    1. soil; earth; clay
    uncouth; crude; unsophisticated

    And the metaphorical English sense of "earthy" appears to be quite recent; etymonline dates it to the late 16th century.

    This kind of thing always makes me wonder how much of a coincidence the metaphors that a language develops are. Another one of my favorites is the Chinese 黑心 ("black heart[ed]"), which means exactly what you'd expect.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    March 15, 2015 @ 7:02 pm


    1. If the account has been suspended, how come we're still able to see the post that I linked to?

    2. If the account really has been suspend, I wonder why.

  4. cameron said,

    March 15, 2015 @ 7:37 pm

    Would this be like comparing standard literary English with Cockney?

  5. Brendan said,

    March 15, 2015 @ 7:45 pm

    These are fun, but not really fair comparisons — as your correspondent said, the standard Mandarin versions are pretty anodyne, while the Beijinghua versions are deliberately (and unnaturally, I think, though I defer to native speakers on this one) over the top:

    [Standard Mandarin] He had a baby boy and he loves him very much.
    [Beijinghua] Dude laid a rugrat with a handle, and if he had his way he'd be carrying him pickaback all the live-long.

    (Overtranslating 帶把儿的 here, but I find it too funny an expression not to spotlight.)

    [Standard Mandarin] It's only a breakup. Quit torturing yourself — we'll find you someone else!
    [Beijinghua] Fuck's sake, like it's your first time around the block! Look at yourself, the sorry-ass hysterical state of you. Three-legged frogs may be few and far between, but it's a two-legged human you're looking for, and the streets are full of those!

    I'm not sure about "capisce" for "怯勺了吧" — I understand this to mean something more like "傻帽了吧" — "Didn't get that, did you?" or "Feeling dumb now, aren't you?" On the other hand, "capisce" would be a pretty good translation for the catchphrase "你懂的" ("you know what I mean" / "if you get my drift")

    I'm also not really sure what the point of marking 那 and 这 as nèi and zhèi here is, but then again maybe I've just spent too much time in Beijing. A slightly more interesting annotation was the sentence in which the author marks 胳膊 gēbo ("arm") as "胳膊 (bei)." This confused me until I realized that the author probably meant 胳臂 gēbei, also meaning "arm," but wrote the Beijinghua word using the characters for the Standard Mandarin word.

  6. Edward Cha said,

    March 16, 2015 @ 5:11 am

    Hello Professor Mair – I was a student of yours about 15 years ago, if you remember! I've wanted to learn Beijinghua since 1997, when in Beijing I noticed that I could talk quite well in Putonghua with my Chinese roommate, but I could not understand a thing he said when talking with his own Beijinger friends. Same phonemes, same grammar, but very different vocabulary cut my comprehension short. Sometimes I would ask him about some words he said, and he would somewhat embarassly say something about it being hard to translate. Regarding its "earthy" flavor, I also remember printing out a mock "Beijinghua test" from the Internet many years ago and showing it to Dr. Dietrich, who laughed quite a lot – I wish I understood myself!

  7. Victor Mair said,

    March 16, 2015 @ 7:32 am

    Hello Edward!

    Thank you for recounting your personal encounters with Pekingese! I'm sure that many people who speak Putonghua fluently have had exactly the same experience as you. It reminds me of Yin Binyong, one of my dearest friends, whom I have written about several times on Language Log and who is also mentioned in Peter Hessler's "Oracle Bones" and Mark Swofford's Pinyin News and Yin, who could speak Zhuang, Thai, and Hawaiian, among other languages unexpected for a Sichuanese, had a mathematical mind and was the authority on Pinyin orthography.

    YBY spoke decent Putonghua, but with a Sichuanese accent. His sons grew up in Beijing, and one of them — who spent a lot of time on the streets with the "gēmenr" — spoke pure, unadulterated Pekingese. Occasionally, when I was sitting around YBY's place and that son would breeze through, he'd slurringly say a few words, of which I could normally only understand about 15% at best. After he left, I would ask YBY, "What did he say?", to which YBY would reply, "Wǒ tīng bù dǒng tā shuō de huà 我听不懂他说的话" ("I can't understand what he says").

    Of course, Dr. Dietrich would chuckle at the "Beijinghua test" test you printed out because she is a native speaker of Pekingese!

  8. Michael Watts said,

    March 16, 2015 @ 8:24 am

    我操 and variations are surely part of MSM, not specific to beijinghua.

  9. arthur waldron said,

    March 16, 2015 @ 11:06 am

    I ask myself as I listen to wife and sister converse in mildly 土 Beijing hua, "does anyone realize what this would be if literally translated into English?"

    My rule long ago in Taiwan was to try to master basic radio 國語 that was all a foreigner could do. Plenty of cruel ridicule from "real" Chinese (i.e. Beijing residents) about "han" vs "he" etc. and they said I had a "Taiwan accent"–not really so. The point is that all non-speakers of the now revoltingly degraded, militarized, vulgarized, non-literary-at-all, crude language of the northern capital have "Taiwan accents" or something equally bad.

    And Victor, are you FULLY AWARE of the etymology of "Naff"?


  10. Eidolon said,

    March 16, 2015 @ 5:37 pm

    I think they express the syntactic and lexical equivalent of what we in America consider inner city slang, and what cameron raised as a parallel with English cockney. The lack of intelligibility is one-way – that is to say, a Pekingese speaker is liable to understand MSM just fine, but a MSM speaker is not liable to know all the slangs used by the Pekingese speaker unless he's a member of that subculture, and is liable to find the sentence structures awkward because of how "slangy" they are.

    To give an analogy in American English, considering translating the following expressions:

    "Yo dawg, what up in da hood?"

    "I'll be maxin' at the crib."

    "The bros be all slanging horse these days."

    In the US, we get exposed to a great deal of the above via popular media set in inner city environments, but give them to an otherwise well-educated, native English speaker, but who hasn't been exposed to such word & sentence usage, and I think it's just as confusing and unintelligible as the Pekingese examples.

  11. Edward Cha said,

    March 17, 2015 @ 12:13 am

    Hello again, Professor Mair! I'm certainly not a native Putonghua speaker, but I feel somewhat relieved that even a native speaker and erudite individual like Yin Binyong would not understand Pekingese at all, either! But as some others here are saying, some of the examples of Pekingese given may have been chosen for their humor or "earthiness."

    Some may hope for a resource beneficial to would-be-learners of Pekingese instead, that focuses on a good core vocabulary of words that are used most commonly, and fairly neutrally, too! I remember "gemenr", "ziger" (self), "yikuair" (together), and of course many words got the "er" treatment. Google is kind today, it gave me a very nice (and nostalgic) resource here: If only there wasn't the smog…

  12. DMT said,

    March 17, 2015 @ 1:16 am

    I was a bit dubious about "naff" as a good translation for tǔ 土, but Arthur Waldron's comment made me realize I wasn't FULLY AWARE of its etymology, which turns out to be interestingly obscure. According to the OED there are two separate words:

    naff (v.): fuck v. 4, to fuck off 1 at fuck v. Phrasal verbs 1. Freq. with off. Etymology: Origin unknown. Probably unrelated to naff adj. It has been suggested that the word is < English regional (northern) naf the female genitals (19th cent.; compare Scots nyaph , nauf in same sense from mid 18th cent.; apparently back-slang for fan , shortened < fanny n.4), or that it is perhaps a variant of eff v. with metanalysis (see N n.).

    naff (adj.): Unfashionable, vulgar; lacking in style, inept; worthless, faulty. Etymology: Origin unknown. Probably unrelated to slightly earlier naff v. Various theories have been proposed as to the origin of this word. It has been suggested that it is (in Polari slang) < naff in naff omi a dreary man (compare omee n.), in which naff may perhaps be < Italian gnaffa despicable person (16th cent.). One of the most popular theories is the suggestion that the word is perhaps an acronym either < the initial letters of Normal As Fuck , or < the initial letters of Not Available For Fucking, but this seems to be a later rationalization.

    The adjective is part of my active vocabulary as a thirty-something-year-old AusEng speaker, although I use it only rarely (about three or four times a decade?); the verb is only passively familiar to me from British television and film, exclusively in the phrasal form "naff off".

    The OED definitions for the adjective make it look like a suitable translation for tǔ 土, but my instinct tells me it is still the wrong word here since "naff" seems to require an additional connotation: people or things are naff when they reveal themselves as vulgar through a failed attempt to impress. (The examples listed in the OED seem to support my instincts on this, but I would be interested to hear from people who use or understand the word differently.) There is thus some overlap with tǔ 土 but also a distinction: young women in Shanghai carrying ostentatious fake brand-label handbags are both tǔ 土 and naff; a man exposing his belly during the sweltering Beijing summer is tǔ 土 but not naff. These "earthy" Beijinghua expressions seem more similar to the latter case than to the former.

  13. arthur waldron said,

    March 17, 2015 @ 8:18 am

    I have never been able to come up with a translation for 土 Once at the Hotel Metropole bar in Hanoi I contemplated the consummate good taste of the decoration–very minimal, an orchid in a vase, a painting, no dragons. And the perfection of the ladies–in Vietnamese dress, they moved elegantly and silently, delivering in my case fruit punch (alcohol is forbidden by my doctor). It was all so tasteful. Suddenly it dawned on me that 土 really means everything in China, at least China today, with the exception of a few people and a few corners. This has been helpful to me, though I daresay some may not see things exactly as I do.

    As for NAFF–Victor carefully avoids mentioning the etymology from Polari, the former secret language of English homosexuals, carnival types, merchant marine, and other outcast groups: namely, of a man, "Not available for f*cking." At one point I possessed a dictionary of this language, which was revived when a BBC radio show called Jules and Sandy–on tape, very funny indeed–began using it, perhaps forty years ago. I de-accessioned the dictionary when I realized I was unlikely to consult it for the duration. I think though that DMT is absolutely right about the failed attempt to impress in one sense of the word.However I would also venture that the OED–we bend the knee–may not be the last word on this topic.

  14. arthur waldron said,

    March 17, 2015 @ 8:19 am

    I mean DMT in my comments above but I missed the chance to correct. My deepest apologies–Arthur Waldron

  15. arthur waldron said,

    March 17, 2015 @ 8:25 am

    Even Wang Yujia [sic] the sensational PRC pianist and Rachmaninov interpreter, truly a gifted woman who we hope will mature into a great, is very 土 Before hearing her in Philadelphia I asked my boys about her. Both are very accomplished pianists. Their comment: "She has to learn to wear more clothes." Lo! At the first performance she bounced out of the stage door in effectively a purple bathing suit. As the critic said, one could see all the muscles in action driving her stellar playing. The second time she emerged wrapped in a purple sheet as far as I could tell. She is a very beautiful woman and I am sure the exposure keeps some of those guys awake who would otherwise snore through the performance while their wives unwrap candies during the pianissimo passages. STILL, no Japanese or Korean soloist of comparable gifts, no matter how alluring she might be, would EVER appear

  16. arthur waldron said,

    March 17, 2015 @ 8:36 am

    appear in such dress. It is not that she intends to be 土 try it with a good old Taiwanese accent and intonation "好看了lo!" She just DOESN'T KNOW because China has been so messed up for so long. I pray she will grow to Brendelesque–Horowitz class musical maturity–she has the gifts and works hard–and will learn to be as modestly classy as André Watts. I fear for Lang Lang. He is now over thirty and no longer a prodigy but when we heard him his hair was bouffant, his little finger was wandering in the air, and he seemed well on the path to eccentricity. He too is richly talented, but I wonder whether he will mature. All this from the person who suggested the great Chen Zuohuang formerly in charge of the RI philharmonic to the Philadelphia Orchestra–best stationery, titles, etc. and not even an answer. I will contribute to them when they pay someone on their staff less than I get at Penn. Still, the Chinese are coming and putting new life into classical music. Who wrote that book about the Piano as status symbol? All correct, except that the real reason I ventured to him that Chinese had adopted pianos was that you could play Schubert impromptus etc. on them–in other words because music was beautiful and pianos were essential. I remember how he responded scornfully "I categorically reject that hypothesis" Well enough maundering from me. Best to all ANW

  17. michael farris said,

    March 17, 2015 @ 3:22 pm

    How much of this is register and how much is topolect?

    Are there examples of similar levels of formality that differ so much?

  18. J. Random Hacker said,

    March 19, 2015 @ 9:50 pm

    The problem is of course that Standard Chinese, being a standard norm, just does not have anything that matches the register of "inner-city" Pekinese. Internet slang partly remedied the situation, but then internet slang sounds 宅 and 装逼, not street language.

  19. Alex Fink said,

    March 20, 2015 @ 6:19 am

    Arthur: I believe the OED on this one. Putative etymologies that go back to acronyms are essentially always false. You may've also encountered "for unlawful carnal knowledge" / "fornication under consent of the king" or "port out, starboard home" or "gentlemen only, ladies forbidden" or "to insure prompt service" or others: they're all wrong.

    Presumably the reason explanations like this have such staying power is that they're comprehensible to the average English-speaker, that they seem to make accessible some scintilla of insight. By contrast the real explanation, be it in Scots or Italian or Romani or wherever, is liable to be obscure and recondite and simply unsatisfying to non-specialists. (It's also a strike against acronyms in the Bayesian sense that they're easier to invent.)

    As Wikipedia puts it,

    Linguist David Wilton in Word Myths: Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends claims that "forming words from acronyms is a distinctly twentieth- (and now twenty-first-) century phenomenon. […]"

    Polari's origins lie in the nineteenth century at latest (though, yes, more words were added with time); even though there was a need to disguise words to exclude outsiders, this was generally done by rhyming slang, phonetic reversal, etc. By and large, acronyms would be anachronisms.

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