Colloquial contractions in Mandarin

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I've mentioned my old friend Liu Yongquan in various posts and comments — see, inter alia, here, here, and here, where I wrote:

A colleague, Liu Yongquan 刘永泉, who spent most of his life working in Beijing as an applied linguist (especially concerned with machine translation and computer applications), spoke quite good MSM, referred to people who speak "like that" (as I have described colloquial Pekingese in the above paragraph) as méi xiūyǎng 没修养 ("lacking cultivation"). I'm not sure where Liu originally came from, though I think it was from somewhere in the northeast. He had a curious speech mannerism: whenever he said zhè'er / zhèr 这儿 ("here") and nà'er / nàr ("there"), they always came out as zhèher and nàher. For the first few months when I heard him talk like that, I thought that it was an affectation, but later I heard the same pronunciation from a few other people, so I suppose it has some basis in a regional variety of Mandarin.

Liu was a visiting professor at Penn when he and his wife were here for several years back around the late 80s and early 90s, so I had ample opportunity to witness what to me at that time was his special manner of speaking.

One of the kǒutóuchán 口頭禪 (lit., "mouth / oral Zen", i.e., "favorite expression; pet phrase; mantra") that Prof. Liu was particularly fond of was "béng guǎn" 甭管 ("don't bother; never mind").  It tickled my fancy to hear the rotund, màntūntūn 慢吞吞 ("poky") linguist calmly and reassuringly utter that phrase:  béng guǎn 甭管 ("don't bother; never mind").

Part of my attraction to Prof. Liu's béng guǎn 甭管 ("don't bother; never mind") was the sheer, soothing, sentiment it conveyed, but I was also fascinated by the naturalness of his use of the negative imperative béng 甭, a contraction for bùyòng 不用 ("no need to; need not"). Apparently béng 甭 is frequently used by many speakers of Huǒxīng yǔ 火星语 ("Martian"), a Chinese online argot.

The phonology (historical and otherwise) of béng 甭 was treated extensively in the comments to this post:  "Duang" (3/1/15)

I should note that béng 甭 was already popular in the early part of the 20th century, so it didn't need to wait for Martian language to be invented.  Curiously, however, béng 甭 also has the pronunciation qì when it is considered as an alternative form of qì 棄 ("abandon; reject; discard").  This obscure usage goes all the way back to the Liao period (907-1125), where it is attested in the Lóngkān shǒujiàn 龍龕手鑑 (Dragon Niche Hand Mirror), completed by the Khitan monk Xingjun 行均 in 997.  See Hànyǔ dà zìdiǎn 漢語大字典 (Unabridged Sinitic Character Dictionary), 1.25b.

Joining béng 甭 as common Mandarin contractions are:

1. nāo 孬 ("bad, cowardly") < bù hǎo 不好 ("not good")

2. wāi 歪 ("askew, crooked, devious, inclined, slanting") < bù zhèng 不正 ("not straight / correct")

3. ēn 奀 ("skinny, tiny; to jerk, dangle") < bù dà 不大 ("not big") (used mainly in Cantonese)

4. fǒu 否 ("deny; negate; not, no"; final particle) < bù kǒu 不口 ("not mouth") (this character also has another pronunciation, pǐ, in which case it means "bad; evil")

1., 2., and 3. are contractions of meaning and graphic form, but not of sound.  4. is a contraction of meaning, form, and sound.

With these contractions, compare the "fusion-words" that are known even from literary texts, such as:

zhū 諸 = zhī 之 + yú 於 or yǔ 與

ěr 耳 = ér 而 + yǐ 已

fú 弗 = bù 不 + zhī 之

hé 盍 = hé 何 + bù 不

yān 焉 = yú 於 + zhī 之

(These are all particles, so I will refrain from translating them here in isolation.)

See George A. Kennedy, "Equation No. 5 (Chinese Fusion-Words)", Journal of the American Oriental Society, 67.1 (January-March, 1947), 56-59.

The polysyllabic characters that we have discussed in the past are a different matter, since they contract neither sound nor meaning, only form:

"Polysyllabic characters in Chinese writing" (8/2/11)

"Polysyllabic characters revisited" (6/18/15)

[h.t. June Teufel Dreyer]


  1. liuyao said,

    May 9, 2016 @ 12:28 pm

    I did not think 否 as a contraction, at least not in the same class as 甭 and 嫑 (biao = buyao, not want; Internet lingo often employs the character 表). In fact, when pronounced pi it is the name of one of the 64 hexagrams from Yijing, so it's very old, and far from colloquial. 否 as fou is more common, but still mostly in formal speech/text.

  2. David Marjanović said,

    May 9, 2016 @ 3:57 pm

    Phonologically, some of these cannot possibly be contractions of their long-form equivalents.

  3. Richard Futrell said,

    May 9, 2016 @ 7:55 pm

    I look forward to learning more about Huǒxīng yǔ 火星语 ("Martian"), a Chinese online argot!

  4. Victor Mair said,

    May 9, 2016 @ 9:12 pm

    Here you go, Richard:

  5. Victor Mair said,

    May 9, 2016 @ 10:01 pm

    Biǎo 表 (lit., "surface, table, exterior") and biáo 嫑 < bùyào 不要 ("do / must not") are good additions to the list of Mandarin contractions that are popular on the internet.

    The Old Sinitic reconstruction for 否 is pjuwX and the Middle Sinitic is /*pəʔ/ (both Baxter-Sagart).

    否 already appears on the bronze inscriptions (1st millennium BC) and in the I ching (Classic of Changes), so it is indeed an old character. Once established, 否 spawned a whole a series of characters in which it serves as the phonophore:


    In terms of historical linguistics, how can we explain the fact that 否 has these two readings in MSM?

    fǒu, pǐ
    fau2, pei2 (Cantonese)

    The phonophore is the bù 不, I suppose, but that also seems to convey meaning ("not; negate", etc.). At the same time, the remaining component, kǒu 口 ("mouth; spoken") seems to be operative both phonologically (-ou) and semantically ("deny").

    I asked Denis Mair, a specialist on the I ching (Classic of Changes), whether he had any idea how the graph 否 can both be the name of one of the hexagrams, pronounced pǐ ("standstill; stagnation; obstruction") and fǒu ("negate, deny, not; or not")?


    I don't know the etymology of the two senses, but I'm pretty sure the former sense [VHM: the hexagram name] is much older. Also, the former sense uses the whole tetragraph as a phonetic, which is used in used other characters. The latter sense is related to the mouth component as phonetic. Since the two senses use different phonetics, could we perhaps say that they are two different characters written the same way, if that's possible.

    It occurs to me while writing this that etymology is not quite the right word for this kind of inquiry. You have made it clear in several contexts that tetragraphs cannot be equated to morphemes of the spoken language. So the etymology of morphemes is one problem, and the history of the linkage of a tetragraph to one morpheme or another is another inquiry.


    A question for everybody: why are so many of these conjunctions formed from bù 不 ("no, not"). Why is bù 不 ("no, not") so productive in forming contractions? What other elements / components also readily enter into contractions?

    Hmmm…. Just thought of English words that are formed in a somewhat parallel fashion: won't, don't, isn't, ain't, etc., but the negative part comes at the end of instead of the beginning as in the Chinese words.

  6. AntC said,

    May 9, 2016 @ 10:10 pm

    @VHM contractions … English words … negative part comes at … the beginning

    Taking /n/ (or a nasal) as a general negativiser:
    Nothing, no-one, not either -> neither, not or -> nor, …

    ineligible, unlikely, …
    inpossible -> impossible
    inlegal -> illegal

  7. Michael Watts said,

    May 10, 2016 @ 2:12 am

    Other chinese contractions: I have a dictionary that says 消 xiao is used as a contracted form of xuyao. I once misheard someone who was saying 什么时候 as saying 什么shòu, but everyone I've asked about it since then has assured me that that's not a real contraction and I just misheard.

    It seems pretty straightforward to say that the english negative verb contractions don't, won't, isn't, etc. have the relic of a negative element at the end rather than the beginning because they are contracted from sentences in which the negative element "not" follows the verb rather than preceding it, as required by the grammar of english. Similary, the chinese negative verb contractions 甭 beng < bu yong, 别 bie < bu yao, and 表 biao < bu yao all have the relic of 不 bu at the beginning of the syllable because they are contracted from sentences in which 不 precedes the verb, as required by chinese grammar. What's to explain?

    AntC, according to , neither is not from "not either"; it is a contraction from (the ancestors of) "no whether", at a time when the grammar of "no" was different than it is today: 'Old English nawþer, contraction of nahwæþer, literally "not of two," from na "no" (see no) + hwæþer "which of two" (see whether). Spelling altered c. 1200 by association with either.' "Either" was the comparative form of "whether", and "nawther" was the negative form; the two are not directly related.

    And "nor" is simply a contraction of "neither".

    "un-", "non-", and to a lesser extent "in-" are productive prefixes in english, and they involve a negative element that precedes the root they attach to, but the result is not a contraction.

  8. Keith said,

    May 10, 2016 @ 2:36 am

    Negations in English of the pattern "in" + adj or adv (such as "in" + "possible" => "impossible") are generally loan words from French, where the pronunciation rule is that the /n/ becomes /m/ before certain consonants (before /m/ /b/and /p/).

    By experimentation (i.e., saying a dozen or so words out loud), it seems to me that this mutation happens when the first sound of the adj or adv is a labial. The word is easier to pronounce after the mutation.

    The mutation of "in" to "il" in words such as "illegal" / "illégal" and "illogical" / "illogique" seems also to be in order to make pronunciation easier.

  9. Michael Watts said,

    May 10, 2016 @ 4:42 am

    Keith, the phenomenon is known as "place assimilation" ( ). That article notes an example you might think of as more native: english doesn't use [nk] sequences, thus bank [bæŋk], think [θiŋk], etc.

    Well, inpossible -> impossible is place assimilation; inlegal -> illegal is some other kind of assimilation. Feature assimilation?

  10. Michael Watts said,

    May 10, 2016 @ 9:17 am

    Correction: the vowel in "think" is of course not [i]; it is conventionally /ɪ/.

  11. Victor Mair said,

    May 10, 2016 @ 10:03 am

    @Michael Watts (1st comment)

    "What's to explain?"

    What you just explained in the long paragraph before that question.

  12. Victor Mair said,

    May 10, 2016 @ 10:12 am

    From South Coblin (on why 否 has two such different MSM pronunciations as fǒu and pǐ, together with their quite different meanings and functions)

    The "short" answer is that in early texts the graph 不 was used to write several different etyma, which were also pronounced differently, though it is assumed that they were similar enough in sound to be written the same way. Later, 不 was elaborated in various ways, i.e., 否 and 丕 to reflect the difference, and late texts generally observe the difference. Early texts sometimes do not, and old epigraphical materials of course often don't reflect the elaborations. In later times, the different words in question evolved in different ways, yielding different pronunciations in the modern vernaculars.

    I suspect it may not be widely known that in Zhou times the graphs written 不 and 否 today were almost certainly one and the same word. The modern word bù we use today is not the direct reflex of the Zhou time verbal negative. Instead it probably comes from a popular (I.e., non-literary) form of the particle written 弗 in the texts. (The reading fú is literary, not popular.) The pronunciation fǒu for 否 is in a sense descended form the old negative but is of course a literary or character reading rather than a popular form preserved in the vernaculars. Mei Tsu-lin has written extensively on all these matters, if you are interested in following them up.

  13. liuyao said,

    May 10, 2016 @ 10:14 am

    Native Pekingese speakers tend to "swallow sounds" that may sound like contractions, and visitors to Beijing often complain that when riding buses they couldn't understand the stop announcements. Examples include Tiān'ānmen, which becomes simply tiān-mén, xīhóngshì, which sounds like xī-shì. Shénme shíhou can totally become shen-m-shou when said fast. Of course (American) English also has little -> lil, going to -> gonna.

    So to really write as one speaks would be a problem for Pekingese too.

    A classic xiàngsheng by Hou Baolin may be worth listening to again:

    Also, recordings that Y. R. Chao did for his Mandarin Primer are now on YouTube.

  14. Victor Mair said,

    May 10, 2016 @ 10:57 am

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

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

  15. Victor Mair said,

    May 11, 2016 @ 9:14 am

    From Bill Boltz:

    I think the question is better put in the reverse of what you ask… how can we explain that the character 否 is used to write these two words:

    > fǒu, pǐ

    > fau2, pei2 (Cantonese)

    The words were there first, and the choice of how to write them came later…

  16. Victor Mair said,

    May 11, 2016 @ 3:51 pm

    From Guillaume Jacques:

    否 has two MC readings, the most common pjuwX (方久切) >fou3 which comes from OC *pəʔ, and bijX (符鄙切) from OC *brəʔ, whose Standard Mandarin reading should be bi4, but is irregularly pi3.

    The reading bu4 of the character 不 is a negation that is not directly related to 否. Rather, it represent the same word as 弗 fu2 < pjut< *put, which apparently became taboo during the reign of the son of Han Wudi (whose personal name was Fuling 弗陵) and replaced by 不, which at that time wrote a variant of 否 (at least that is how it is generally explained; whether recent manuscripts from the Han period challenge this account, I cannot say).

  17. AntC said,

    May 11, 2016 @ 5:32 pm

    @Guillaume same word … which apparently became taboo

    In what sense 'same word'? The same phonetics or the same character? Merely an accidental homonym, or the same etym? Did changing the character lead to a change in pronunciation? You seem to be saying not: that changing the character lead to that character having two pronunciations: on top of bi4/irregularly pi3; the change added bu4. Then why reallocate the word pronounced bu4 to a character with the 'wrong' pronunciation? Was there not a character with a better 'fit'?

    From Prof Mair's frequent examples, I get that the script is quite hard enough to fathom, and MC is quite full enough of homonyms, without adding a bunch of ad-hoc and unpredictable character-changes to avoid taboos. Or is there some logic I'm missing?

  18. Victor Mair said,

    May 11, 2016 @ 8:43 pm

    VHM: The story of 否, with its different readings and functions, is quite a tortured one.

    GJ: Yes, and its morphological relationship to other negative markers is still imperfectly understood. In my first article (published in 2000, before I ever started working on Japhug), I discussed 否 and the reconstruction of 非, see p.216 and further.

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