Where? –> Not at all!

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Mandarin nǎlǐ 哪里 "surely not" or "make no mention of it," "not at all," etc. goes back to at least the Qing period (1644-1912), where we find it in novels. I usually explain it thus: "where?" –> "in what way?" –> "no way, not at all," etc.  Thus, there is a natural progression from informational "where?" to rhetorical "how (in the world)?" and from rhetorical "how (in the world)?" to polite negative.  Furthermore, this progression is not that unusual. For example we see at least the first part of it in the classical Chinese interrogative word ān 安 ("where?"). Compare:

Zi jiāng ān zhī
子將安之  ("Where will you go?")

Zǐ ān zhī zhī 子安知之  ("How [the devil] do you know it?") — expressing disbelief and contrasting with Zi hé zhī zhī 子何知之 ("How do you know it?") — which really asks for information about the listener's source of his knowledge.  This question (Zǐ ān zhī zhī 子安知之  ("How [the devil] do you know it?" i.e., "whence / from what vantage point do you know it?") comes from a famous passage in chapter 17 of the Zhuang Zi (Master Zhuang; Wandering on the Way) about the happiness of fish.

Perhaps we see the same thing in English sometimes. For example, “Where am I supposed to find that?”, meaning, “How the devil am I going to find that?”

At first I considered the possibility that the "Pas de quoi" ("there's nothing to it / nothing to be thanked for," etc.) meaning of nǎlǐ 哪裡 might derive from something in Manchu or other Altaic language, since these languages powerfully influenced the development of Mandarin phonologically, lexically, and even to a certain extent in syntax.  Upon careful consideration, however, it does not seem all that likely that there is a source in Manchu. "Where / what / which" in Manchu is ai in various forms, but I am not aware of any form that is used in an expression meaning "not at all" in the sense of nǎlǐ 哪裡.

The use of (written 那) alone as an interrogative is quite early and is, according to Erik Zürcher, already found in late Han (2nd c. AD) Buddhist texts. Nǎlǐ 那裡 is common in Ming / Qing Guanhua ("officials' talk," i.e., Mandarin), but, so far as I know only in the sense of "where."  I don't know when it is first used as a rhetorical interrogative, which is basically what it is in the sense of “not at all.”  I wouldn't be surprised, though, if it occurs in late Yuan or early Ming (14th-15th c.), but I don't have time now to check Paktongsa and Nogoltae (old Korean textbooks for the study of early Mandarin) to see if they include this usage.

I shall end with a joke about rhetorical nǎlǐ 哪裡 that I heard more than four decades ago.  To wit, upon being introduced to the shapely, gorgeous wife of a Chinese acquaintance, an American who knew a smattering of Mandarin said, "Nǐ de tàitài hěn piàoliang!" 你的太太很漂亮! ("Your wife is very beautiful!").  To which the Chinese man courteously replied, "NǎlǐNǎlǐ?" 哪裡?  哪裡? ("Where?  Where?", meaning "Not at all, not at all.")  Pointing, the American answered, "Zhèr, nàr, dàochù dōu hěn piàoliang."  這兒,那兒,到處都很漂亮. ("Here, there, she's beautiful everywhere.")

[A tip of the hat to Cyndy Ning for asking about the history of this expression and to South Coblin and Mark Elliott for valuable input on Classical / Vernacular and Manchu usage.]


  1. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 3:47 pm

    Something similar in Spanish, at least in Mexico and the Southwest U. S., is ¿Cuándo?, literally When? and figuratively Don't hold your breath or You should live so long.

  2. humbert said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 4:07 pm

    In German: i wo or ach wo = ach was, meaning "Oh come on, that's absurd". (The particle i is a variant of je, from ja.)

  3. bryan said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 4:10 pm

    "nǎlǐ 哪裡 might derive from something in Manchu" might be true.
    当铺, dangpu, meaning "store" in Chinese = "dangpuli"* in Manchu, where they add the suffix "li" to some Chinese derived words. Maybe a Manchu translation into Chinese went wrong due to "translator" not able to fully understand and so phonetically translate "li" as 里.

    *I once read a book called 功在史冊, where it talks about Manchu words of Chinese origins, or vice versa.

  4. Tom Recht said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 6:39 pm

    Basically the same development has happened in Hebrew, in fact twice. The negative existential ayn 'there is not' seems originally to have been an interrogative, either 'where?' or 'what?' (which is still its meaning in compounds). 'Where is X?', as a rhetorical question, pragmatically -> 'There is no X'. And in colloquial Hebrew, efo 'where?' can be used as an interjection meaning 'what are you talking about?' or 'not at all!'.

  5. Claw said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 8:27 pm

    Another piece of evidence that might work against the Manchu theory is that the construction exists in Cantonese as well, which uses a word for "where" that is not cognate with Mandarin 哪裡. As a southern Chinese topolect, Cantonese was not influenced by Manchu the way Mandarin was.

    The Cantonese word for "where" is bīndouh (often written as 邊度, though it is thought to derive from 焉道) and is used in the same rhetorical fashion as Mandarin's 哪裡, for instance:
    「我邊度買得起?」 can be taken to mean, "How [the devil] will I be able to buy [this]?" (i.e., "I can't afford this.") If taken literally though, it would mean "Where can I buy this?"

  6. Claw said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 8:51 pm

    I should also note that 焉 (which I mentioned in my previous comment is in the derivation of bīndouh) is a Classical Chinese word that's etymologically related to 安 (in the meaning of "where") and can also be used in the rhetorical sense.

  7. Bruce Rusk said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 11:16 pm

    Nali shows up a lot in Song vernacular texts such as Zhuzi yulei, where my sense is that it is mostly spatial but occasionally more abstract, especially in rhetorical questions. It's quite common in Ming vernacular literature, and even more so in the Qing. Pu Songling often used expressions like Wo nali xiaode 我那裏曉得 "How would I know?" I've always thought of the humble sense of nali as related to the expression nali de hua 哪裡的話, "speech from where," "what kind of talk is that?"—which is common in Qing novels (and which I think shows up in Ming vernacular literature as well, though I'd have to check).

  8. Nathan said,

    September 13, 2010 @ 10:57 am

    Chilean Spanish in particular has ¿Dónde la viste?, literally "Where did you see it?", figuratively something like a sarcastic "Yeah, right."

  9. Fluxor said,

    September 13, 2010 @ 11:10 am

    @Claw. Taken literally, I'd translate "我邊度買得起?" to be "Where can I afford this?" In fact, this sentence can be taken literally depending on context. For example, if you were to say "呢度啲嘢好貴,你買唔起㗎。" (Things are expensive here, you can't afford it.), a possible response may be "咁,我邊度買得起?" (Then, where can I afford this?)

  10. Clarissa at Talk to the Clouds said,

    September 13, 2010 @ 10:54 pm

    Funny, I was taught that joke in Chinese class. In the version I heard, the diplomat exclaimed, resorting to English, "Everywhere! Everywhere!"

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