Mandarin Pu'er / Cantonese Bolei 普洱

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Raymond Zhong writes from Hong Kong:

I'm wondering if I might bother you with a slightly trifling Chinese question.  The name of the fermented tea, 普洱, is pronounced "bo lei" in Cantonese.  (I'm not sure that's a correct romanization.  I'm still just learning Cantonese myself!)  But the character 洱 in every other instance has the same pronunciation as 耳 ("yi"), not 里 ("lei").  Do you know why this might be?

I'm game for practically any question pertaining to the history of tea, especially when it has to do with important words in tea culture.  Witness this recent post on "Kung-fu (Gongfu) Tea".

So it is with pleasure that I received Raymond's question, and here is a brief response.

First of all, 洱 has these variant pronunciations in Cantonese: ji5 nei5/2 or lei5/2 — the first one is used for the name of a town and a lake in Yunnan Province, the second (with two variants of its own) in the name of the fermented tea.  Hence pou2 ji5 for the town and lake, and pou2 nei2/lei2 for the tea.  (In Modern Standard Mandarin [MSM], both the town / lake and the tea would be pronounced pǔ'ěr.)  Furthermore, while in Hong Kong I observed that nearly all Cantonese speakers I encountered preferred to use an l- initial, whereas a few (mostly older speakers and teachers) preferred an n-. Hence, while some people might say "bo nei" for this tea, it seems as though most people now like to say "bo lei".  This alternation between "bo lei" and "bo nei" (with "bo nei" being the older, more conservative form) is borne out by the following note in the Wikipedia article on pu'er tea:  "In Cantonese culture, pu'er is known as po-lay (or bo-lay) tea. Among the Cantonese long settled in California, it is called bo-nay or po-nay tea."

Here are some notes from Mandy Chan explaining the relationship between the n- initial and the l- initial in Hong Kong Cantonese:

I think the n-initial pronunciation will soon become obsolete.  Nowadays in HK, probably only newscasters and Chinese language teachers use the n- initial instead of l-.  n- is considered 正音 ("correct pronunciation") while l- is considered by language authorities to be 懒音 ("lazy / sloppy pronunciation").  HK people are aware of this, and Chinese teachers repeatedly correct their students' mispronunciation (from l- to n-).  Even though I know I'm not pronouncing it in the "correct" way, I still would not say it "correctly", because, if I do, it would make me sound weird.

When newscasters pronounce all the n-initial words properly, they are considered 做作 — being pretentious.

For example, 妳条裙甩咗粒钮 ("your skirt is missing a button", i.e., "a button fell off your skirt") — the correct way to say this is: nei tiu kwan lat jo nup nau, but most people would say: lei tiu kwan lat jo lup lau.

Or, 农民 ("farmer[s])" — nong men becomes long men; 男仔 ("guy") — nam cai becomes lam cai.  And so forth.

If I say the above sentence about the skirt using n-initials, people would wonder, "Is there something wrong with her??"

I don't know when this change took place, but I remember back when I was in elementary school, we were laughing (secretly…) at our teacher's pronunciation; that was in the late 80s….

So, "bo lei" it is.

Alan Chin tells me that, as a child (when he had only heard it as a spoken expression), he thought that "bo lei" tea was "glass" 玻璃 (bo lei) tea!  On the Chinese word for "glass, see "Glass rabbit".

N.B.:  The jyutping romanization of 普 is pou2; "po" and "bo" are conventional romanizations of that sound.

For 洱 (ji5 nei5/2 or lei5/2), one may draw a parallel with 爾 (ji5 nei5) and 彌 (nei4 mei4), because — phonologically speaking — something similar (alternation between j- and n-/m- initials) is going on there.  I will discuss the historical reasons for this alternation below.

The "ji" of jyutping romanization actually sounds like "yi".

N.B.: most of these characters have similar (phonologically related) variants in Mandarin:

洱 (only er3), but cf. mǐ 弭 ("stop; repress")
爾 (er3 ni3) — note that 你 (ni3), the Mandarin word for "you", is descended from 爾 (爾 || simplified form 尔); one of the ancient meanings of 爾 was "you", though there were many other completely unrelated meanings for this character as well
彌 (mi2 yi2 mi3) ("fill; full")

You can hear how the word 普洱 is pronounced by two Hong Kongers (a male and a female) here (right when the host introduces the guest, you will hear "bo lei" again and again).

For those who are interested in the historical phonology of these variations, we may say the following:

(1) in Middle Sinitic (MS; around 1,400 years ago), ěr 爾 ("you") was something like ńźjie (~ nje), with a palatal nasal (earlier it would have had a dental *n-), which became Mandarin ěr through regular sound change; as a popular everyday word meaning "you" it did not undergo this regular development in the colloquial language, but retained earlier features, hence the irregular archaic pronunciation nǐ.

(2) ér  耳 MS ńźj- ~ m-: there's no clear answer for why this phonophore of 洱 (the main target of this blog) manifests itself in MSM as both ér and mǐ, but it has been speculated that perhaps some Old Sinitic cluster like *mn- > MS m-, but this is only speculation.

When we get into Sinitic languages other than Mandarin and Cantonese, the situation becomes even more complex.  Take the Gan group, for example.  (More than half of Gan's 50,000,000 or so speakers live in Jiangxi Province, while the rest are scattered in Anhui, Hubei, Hunan, and Fujian provinces, i.e., southeast central China.)

ĕr 耳  Middle Sinitic (ca. 600 AD) ńźï:  Common Dialectal Sinitic  *nhi4  (according to Jerry Norman)

Here follows a selection of the pronunciation of 耳 in 26 Gan topolects as collected by Chang Meixiang.  The topolects are identified by two letter abbreviations (sometimes subdivided by numbers).  The characters after the phonetic symbols within square brackets indicate tonal categories.

TS  [zɿ上];  WN1 [œ上];  WN2 [œ上];  WN3  [ ə上]; TC  [y上];  XZ  [ɜ上];  YX [lɛ上];  DC1  [ḷ上];  DC2  [ər上]; AY [ə上];  NC  [ə上];  FX  [ə上];  GA  [ø上]; CL  [e上];  PX  [ʯ上 ~ ȵi上];  AF1  [ȵi上];  AF2  [ø上];  LH1  [ɜ陰上文 ~ j陰上白]*;  LH2  [min上] sic;  JA1  [ni平];  JA2  [œ上]; SC  [ȵi陰上];  LnC  [ɘ上];  NnC1  [ø上];  NnC2 [ø上];  LC  [ɵ上文 ~ ni上白]  CG *
*JXFY:  [ĩ陰上]

It is evident that, merely within the Gan branch of Sinitic, the 耳 phonophore standing alone is already manifested in a wide variety of realizations.  Chang's colleague, South Coblin, comments on just one of the forms:

Note here the interesting reading for LH2 (i.e., Liánhuā 蓮花-2)….  We are not yet sure how the LH2 form arose, because full comparative analysis of the Gan data is still in progress. But my guess is that this is a late development in LH, rather than an archaic retention of some sort. Nevertheless, this is only a guess. We really don't know yet.

To answer Raymond's original question, in the tea name 普洱, why is the 洱 pronounced "lei" and not "yi", as it seems to be everywhere else?  We have seen that 洱 in post-medieval Cantonese had two main pronunciations, ji5 and nei5/2, with the latter retaining a more archaic sounding initial and the former losing it through regular sound change.  Much more recently, apparently within the last half century, nei5/2 became lei5/2, as part of a broad shift from initial dental n- to initial lateral l-.  Half a century ago, Cantonese speakers in Hong Kong and elsewhere were saying "bo nei" for what is known as Pu'er tea in MSM, in contrast with the name of the town and the lake in Yunnan, which were (and are) referred to as "Po yi" in Cantonese.  This would seem to indicate that the tea name had a more ancient sound, whereas the town / lake name took on a more modern pronunciation.  "Bo nei" then continued to be the way Cantonese speakers referred to the tea until very recently, when they started to call it "bo lei", as part of a general shift from initial n- to initial l-.

Of course, since there are numerous different Cantonese topolects, the situation among the totality of widely dispersed Cantonese speakers is much more complicated than this, but I have already gone on too long and probably in greater detail than most readers would wish.  If anyone is partial to a particular Cantonese topolect, or, for that matter, to some other Sinitic language or topolect, they are invited to tell us how 普洱 (MSM Pu'er, HK Cantonese "bo lei") is pronounced in their favorite tongue.

[Thanks to Axel Schuessler, South Coblin, Mandy Chan, Sai Law, Alan Chin, Bob Chan, Genevieve Leung, Kenneth Yeh, and Tyler Cheung]


  1. Alan Chin said,

    August 5, 2011 @ 11:20 pm

    Thanks, Victor, this is great. Funny, though, as a Toishanese American-born-Chinese I use the "n" initial pronunciation for button 钮, male 男, and rural 农…it remains "n" in Hoisanwa and I've been told that my Cantonese has Toishanese accents and usages — as opposed to more current HK standard Cantonese — but I use the "l" for 洱. Probably because I first heard 洱 in Cantonese and not Hoisanwa?

  2. dom said,

    August 6, 2011 @ 12:34 am

    Thank you for addressing a long-standing question of mine, Victor, but I'm afraid this is only half of the mystery! The first syllable in 普洱 is written with a character that normally has an aspirated initial (/p-/ == [pʰ]), but in the word for the tea the first syllable is pronounced with an unaspirated initial (/b-/ == [p])… (Non-native speakers of Cantonese who don't believe me can listen to/watch the youtube clip posted above.) I'm totally OK with explanations invoking "/n-/ is a retention of an old pronunciation", but can the "/b-/" be explained the same way?

  3. slobone said,

    August 6, 2011 @ 12:48 am

    I was told to say bo nee in dim sum restaurants. Very potent stuff, I didn't realize it was fermented though.

  4. Duncan said,

    August 6, 2011 @ 3:35 am

    > I didn't realize it was fermented though.

    I'm anything but an authority on Chinese and am somewhat new to tea. But "fermenting" in tea terms may not mean what you think.

    Tea "fermenting" is also called oxidation. Black tea (English, called red tea in China according to wikipedia) is 100% oxidized/fermented. Oolong tea is 60-70% fermented (dark oolong) or 5-40% fermented (light oolong), according to wikipedia. Green, yellow and white teas are considered unfermented (which I'd take to mean <5%, as a practical matter there may be slight wilting/fermentation before fixation).

    Until reading this and looking it up on wikipedia, I didn't know about pu-erh/pol-lei/bolay tea, however. Wikipedia says this type of tea is secondary- or post-fermented — it's processed as green tea without initial oxidation, then aged/post-fermented. (This would however seem to be an oversimplification as there's several types within the category, according to the wikipedia article on this type of tea.)

    Meanwhile, the wikipedia tea processing article has this to say (but without a specific attribution for the claim, YMMV) at the end of the general list of processing steps:

    "Without careful moisture and temperature control during its manufacture and life thereafter, fungi will grow on tea. This form of fungus causes real fermentation that will contaminate the tea and may render the tea unfit for consumption."

    So in the tea context, "fermentation" would not seem to be the same thing as "real fermentation".


  5. Linca said,

    August 6, 2011 @ 4:22 am

    The same shift (intial n- -> initial l-) seems to be happening in Northern Viet Nam (Ha Loi instead of Ha Noi) although it is considered 'rural' 'uncultured' pronounciation. Can such consonant shift happen areally in two quite different languages ?

  6. hanmeng said,

    August 6, 2011 @ 10:44 am

    I had the impression a lot of southern Mandarin speakers used intial n- instead of initial l-. or instance, caffè latte is known as nátiě 拿鐵. Do other areas of China show a connection between intial n- and initial l-?

  7. B.Ma said,

    August 6, 2011 @ 11:06 am

    dom: I have always said "bo ley" and didn't even think that that character is normally pronounced "po". Weird. Is this another example of how Chinese don't necessarily think in characters?

    Some of my relatives say "lumbaa" in Cantonese instead of 號碼, but can say "number" perfectly fine when speaking English. Actually I probably do that too.

    In my experience, some words are always pronounced with initial L or N even though we "know" the what the "correct" sound is, whereas some other words are pronounced with N when speaking formally and L when speaking lazily.

    For example in my family 年 is always NIN, and anyone who says LIN sounds uneducated. But 呢 ("this") is always LI and anyone who says NI (like one of my cousins) sounds pretentious. 男 can be NAM or LAM. By the way, I've always wondered why it is DAN in Japanese.

  8. B.Ma said,

    August 6, 2011 @ 11:12 am

    Also I pronounce 紐 as NAU when referring to New York or New Zealand, but LAU when referring to a button (which I would write 鈕, but 紐 appears to mean the same thing).

  9. Guy said,

    August 6, 2011 @ 11:31 am

    Fascinating post. I am a heritage Chinese speaker who is fairly fluent in Mandarin and Cantonese, and it never occured to be that pu'er/bo'lei were the same characters!! There is a very consistent correspondence in sounds between Mand./Cant. so I assumed that the "er" (M) and "lei" (C) characters were different.

    BTW I'm almost positive that the so-called correct pronunciation for 妳条裙甩咗粒钮 is wrong. The "correct" pronunication should be "nei tiu kwan lat jo lup nau" (粒 is lup, not nup). This is an instance of another phenomenon: hypercorrection in speech, which turns all L-sounds into N-sounds.

  10. Alan Chin said,

    August 6, 2011 @ 12:51 pm

    If anything, I would think my Toishanese retention of the "n" initial in most instances would be guttural and "old-fashioned," rather than "correct" and "pretentious" — if anything, to the Toishanese, it's the other way around — that the HK use of "l" sounds "high-falutin'" !

    I would say "lup" for 粒, not "nup" also. And always "ni" for 呢…

  11. Ian F. said,

    August 6, 2011 @ 3:51 pm

    “(2) ér 耳 MS ńźj- ~ m-: there's no clear answer for why this phonophore of 洱 (the main target of this blog) manifests itself in MSM as both ér and mǐ, but it has been speculated that perhaps some Old Sinitic cluster like *mn- > MS m-, but this is only speculation.”

    Whatever the "answer" is, it must be pretty ancient, since the Fanqie listings in the Shuowen Jiezi give a clearly different initial to 弭, suggesting the M/N distinction was well-entrenched by 100 AD. Specifically, it gives mian 綿 as the initial for 弭, while 耳 gets 而. 洱 doesn't appear in the Shuowen, but in the Guangyun it gets er 而 and, in the Jiyun, ren 忍.

    Interestingly, the Shuowen gives

  12. Gabriel Faure said,

    August 7, 2011 @ 8:19 pm

    The reflex for 粒 in Mandarin is li4, which also suggests that the Cantonese should have an initial in l-.

  13. Daniel Cavanagh said,

    August 7, 2011 @ 8:56 pm

    @ B.Ma:

    男 also has the pronunciation of 'nan' in Japanese. This seems to occur word-final, so it's mostly used as a counter for sons/boys/lesser men, where as 'dan' is word-initial and seems to have the more general meaning of 'male'

    word-initial 男

    word-final 男

    My guess is that, considering [n] and [d] have the same place of articulation, word-initial 'nan' simply mutated to 'dan' over time

  14. minus273 said,

    August 8, 2011 @ 6:16 pm

    @Daniel Cavanagh: That's the famous go'on/kan'on distinction. Kan'on probably comes from a North-western dialect, so it has d < ⁿd for n.

  15. Claw said,

    August 9, 2011 @ 3:56 am

    I thought I should mention that there's also a reason for the vowel difference between the /ji/ and /nei/ readings for 洱. With a few exceptions, words that originally had /-i/ endings migrated to /-ei/ in Standard Cantonese by the 20th century, except when the initial consonants were /s-/, /ts-/, /tsʰ-/, or /j-/. For instance:
    比 /pei/地 /tei/里 /lei/市 /si/子 /tsi/以 /ji/
    There are other Cantonese dialects that continue to pronounce /-i/ though, as can be heard in this YouTube video. It's apparent at 0:17 when he pronounces 企定定响道 (the subtitles render it in MSM: 一動不動站着) as /kʰi tɪŋ tɪŋ hœŋ tou/ and the children repeat after him saying /kʰei tɪŋ tɪŋ hœŋ tou/.

  16. Sai said,

    August 11, 2011 @ 5:59 pm


  17. Bob said,

    August 12, 2011 @ 1:50 pm

    I mean to write this a few days ago, it is not about 普洱,but 妳条裙甩咗粒钮,this expression has no usage other than between girl friends in ladies' room… it is prossibly a miss quote from 渠条裙甩咗粒钮 [ HER skirt misses a button]; –the meaning is quite obvious,–

  18. Chris A said,

    August 16, 2011 @ 11:45 am

    A true and funny L/N problem.

    A recent conversation with a southern waitress about my overly strong coffee – the real dialogue went on for much longer :-)

    M. 这杯咖啡太浓(nong)了 加水吧!
    This coffee is too strong, please add water.

    W. 太冷(Neng)了?我会热一下。 好吗?
    Too cold? I will heat it up. Ok?

    M. 不用热。 就加水。 太浓(Nong)了。 明白了?
    No need heat it. Just add water. Too strong. Understand?

    Waitress, perplexed, looks around for help. In the end the coffee was still strong and NOW cold!

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