Language registers in spoken Chinese

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Dave Cragin writes:

Throughout my years of learning Chinese, I’ve been surprised at the number of times I’ve been told by various Chinese that a specific Chinese phrase is:

    • only something foreigners say


    • Chinese NEVER say that phrase


    • only old Chinese women or only old Chinese say that phrase.

The phrases include:

吃过了吗?Chi guo le ma? and its many variations: 吃了没有,吃了吗?=  have you eaten, said as a greeting

马马虎虎  ma ma hu hu = just okay

哪里哪里 nali nali = where’d that come from? (said modestly in response to a compliment)

我的天 wo de tian  = oh my god

可惜 ke xi (and 真可惜了)  = that’s too bad

(should I point out the obvious?  Chinese taught me these phrases)

I wouldn’t mention this if the above was said in a less emphatic way by just 1 or 2 people.  However, those commenting on these phrases often do so in a critical way with the implication that foreigners who use these phrases are out-of-date.  Yet, when I ask other Chinese whether they say these phrases, they are usually dumbfounded because they say use of these is commonplace.

It’s not a regional language use issue (if it was, those criticizing the phrases would say “only people from xxx say that….”  and not blame it on foreigner ignorance).  In addition, the Chinese I interact with come from across China and span the ages from undergraduates to 60s.

Some illustrative stories:

1. 吃过了吗? After I used this, several Chinese earnestly discussed with me how this phrase is only used by 1) foreigners, 2) old people who came from a time when food was scarce, 3) that young people in China NEVER say it.  Subsequently, I’ve heard it often from young people (who are always shocked that I was told young Chinese don’t say it).

2. 马马虎虎 ma ma hu hu- Despite being a phrase “that Chinese never say this anymore/only foreigners say it”, one of my language partners in Beijing often says it.  She’s in her late 20s and she speaks very standard Mandarin.  I finally asked her “are you saying 马马虎虎 because you’re talking with me?”  She said “no, I say it all the time.  My friends do too.”  Later, I mentioned this to a US-based coworker from Nanchang in her 40s and she said “I say 马马虎虎all-the-time” (and she was surprised that I asked about it).

3. 我的天.  A young female coworker in Shanghai used this with me the 1st Much much later a US-based Chinese colleague noted “Only old Chinese women say this.”  When I pointed out that a young woman taught it to me, she retorted “don’t base you judgment on one data point.”  After this, I went for my annual teaching trip to Beijing.  I asked the undergraduate students and they were surprised:  They say it.  One grad student in the US in her late 20s noted, her friends say it including guys, but she uses a slightly different phrase , 天呢.  (none of the undergrads were “foreigners” or “old women” – 100% were young Chinese).

I’m offering this to you with the question:  Any ideas where this is coming from?  If it happened once, I’d attribute it to just that individual.  However, it’s many times with many different people.  In addition, I listed only the phrases for which it’s clear that those saying “only old Chinese say this” were off-base. Another American I know who speaks Chinese has experienced this.  I wonder if there is a cultural issue that underlies this?


VHM:  four case histories based on my own experience:

My friend, the applied linguist, Yin Binyong, was from Sichuan, but moved to Beijing to work on Pinyin orthography at the  Script Reform Committee.  HIs two sons grew up in Beijing.  The older of the two paid attention to his diction and spoke proper Putonghua.  His younger brother ran the streets and hutongs and spoke "earthy" Pekingese.  Yin said he had no trouble understanding the older son, but couldn't make heads or tails of what the younger son said.

Because I heard my wife, her sisters, and their friends say things like "lěng sǐle 冷死了" ("it's freezing" [lit., "{I'm so} cold {that I could} die"]), I would sometimes speak like that too, but my wife would correct me, telling me that I was talking like a woman.

Even to non-native speakers whose Mandarin (or Cantonese, etc.) is exceptionally good, virtually flawless, some Chinese will speak to them mockingly, with incorrect tones, as documented here:

"'Ni hao' for foreigners" (10/11/16)

Over the years, in my "Language, Script, and Society in China" class, a number of students have given reports and written papers about manifestations of internet language, Martian language, gaming language, and so forth.  For individuals who do not belong to the particular groups in question, it is very difficult for them to comprehend what is being said.

The upshot of all the above, both what Dave Cragin wrote and the cases I mentioned, is that different social groups, different age groups, different genders, and so forth all have their in-group language preferences.  Being a foreigner automatically puts one in a special category, so the expectations of non-foreigners will set them apart, no matter how hard they try to sound just like a typical native speaker.

My guess is that these patterns are even more starkly accentuated in Japanese, according to different groups as outlined in the previous paragraph.


  1. DanMV said,

    December 21, 2017 @ 8:04 pm

    I once corrected a Taiwanese language partner who used the phrase "go for a run" to describe running on a treadmill. I told her we wouldn't use that phrase in this situation because she didn't go anywhere. It later occurred to me to check that intuition with other native English speakers. They were split down the middle.

  2. Martha said,

    December 21, 2017 @ 9:19 pm

    I'm an ESOL teacher, and my students were once asked to go out and find idioms that we would discuss in class. One of the students provided "go Dutch." I asked her where she found it and she said her American friends use it all the time. I was surprised, because I don't know that I've ever heard that used in real life, and it sounds quite old-fashioned to me.

  3. Jim Breen said,

    December 21, 2017 @ 9:24 pm

    I think it's pretty much the same in Japanese. I'm not sure it's "even more starkly accentuated"; that's a nice study for someone to do, but establishing the metrics would be fun.

    Certainly one encounters slightly non-idiomatic "gaijin Japanese" (over-use of pronouns, etc.). Some Japanese instructors are known to teach it, and when asked why reply: "Westerners expect it."

  4. Eidolon said,

    December 21, 2017 @ 9:24 pm

    My experiences with the above phrases; my network is primarily people from Beijing:


    Never heard this expression used by young urban Chinese, but wouldn't be surprised to hear it, because older people do use it and it's always possible for a person to pick it up from their relatives.


    马虎 is very common. The reduplicate form less so, but still fairly common. I should mention that in my conversations, "马马虎虎" isn't semantically identical to "马虎" since the former is often used to emphasize a work ethic or quality of character, while the latter is a more standard adjective.


    I've definitely heard this before. I seem to associate the reduplicate form with women. But remember hearing the single form, "哪里", from men as well. It seems to be more common on television and from older people, but I have heard younger people use it, as well.


    Common on television and in movies. But not very common in day to day speech, perhaps because it gives off an impression of being overly dramatic. It is not the colloquial equivalent to English "oh my god," which is VERY common and can be used in almost any situation to express surprise or excitement.


    This is common but a bit formal. It is definitely used in every day life. It is also common on television and in movies.

    The shared link between these phrases, most of them quite common and, I would imagine, easily comprehensible for urban Chinese familiar with Standard Mandarin, might be the context in which they were used. Especially with phrases like "我的天" above, the English translation is technically accurate but gives no sense of the distinctions in colloquial use. "我的天" cannot be treated like "oh my god" in colloquial American English, because its place in colloquial Standard Mandarin is fundamentally different.

    Yet, I would not say that any of these phrases would be completely out of place in a Standard Mandarin conversation, even though certain people, or even most people, might find them strange when used in various contexts. This is because fundamentally, people are individuals, and individuals are different in how they speak, as Dave eventually observed.

    In language studies, especially foreign language studies, the unit of study is typically a language or dialect, which is treated as a concrete, holistic existence. But in actual life, language is an organic matrix of personal, cultural, socioeconomic, educational, and contextual influences, which not only differs between groups within a society, but also between different members of a group, and even from day to day for the same individual. Everyone acquires or develops eccentric phrases, words, and ways of speaking as they go through life, and very few manage to master any where close to the actual lexicon of a language, or its "standard" grammar, or its "typical" mannerisms and stereotypes. What we conceive of a language, academically, doesn't actually exist – it's an artificial construct formed from the high-level vision of a phenomenon that is, in fact, uniquely local, exceptionally individual, and persistently dynamic.

    I don't speak English, or Mandarin, or any other language, the exact same way as another person. I don't have the exact same lexicon as another person. I don't follow the same mannerisms, conventions, etc. as another person. My language can, in this sense, even be studied as its own dialect – and so can anyone else's. No two persons' language is precisely the same, and just because two people can communicate with each other, does not indicate they do so because they speak the exact same language. Had that been the case, there'd be no need to ever explain anything we say – and we explain everything we say, all the time.

    So I would say that it's not at all a surprise that even people from the same region of China, the same socioeconomic class, and the same generation, would have differences in how they speak and perceive other people's speech. In fact, it's not just a speech phenomenon. It applies to writing, too. Analytic models exist that can distinguish a person's identity just by examining the eccentric qualities of their writing. Here, we all write English, but none of us are writing the same *English*.

  5. Filter Fodder said,

    December 21, 2017 @ 11:25 pm

    Detecting that something is strange is easy for a native speaker. Detecting _what_ is often really hard. It might be that the phrase was pronounced with a slight foreign accent. It might be that the intonation or the timing with which it was used was off. It might even be that everything was perfect, and that very fact seemed strange coming from a foreigner. But that is hard to pin down. The easiest explanation is "only foreigners would say that". You just can't win :D

  6. Victor Mair said,

    December 22, 2017 @ 7:36 am

    In my Classical Chinese course, there are ten students. Not a single one of them is from America; one is from Singapore, one is from Russia, but most are from mainland China.

    When we were chatting about how to greet people, a young man from Beijing said something like "chle" — without even a trace of interrogative intonation.

    "What?" I asked. "You actually say that to other people?"

    "Yeah," he replied. "That's a typical greeting in Beijing."

    "Can you write it in characters?" I pursued.

    "Not really," he answered.

    "Try," I said.

    "Nǐ chīle ma? 你吃了嗎" (lit., "Have you eaten?", i.e., "Hi!").

    It reminds me of the deformation of "What's up?" to "Sup".

    Compare the discussion of "blaji" in Northeast Mandarin in this post: "Russian Loans in Northeast and Northwest Mandarin: The Power of Script to Influence Pronunciation" (1/23/11)

    Also the Pekingese word "Dashlar" discussed in this post: "Surprising Transformations of a Beijing Street Name" (1/29/11)

    And the use of "Bur'ao" in Pekingese for Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM) bù zhīdào 不知道 explained in this post: "OMG moments induced by allegro forms in Pekingese" (1/26/12)

  7. tech-center said,

    December 22, 2017 @ 1:16 pm

    So I would say that it's not at all a surprise that even people from the same region of China, the same socioeconomic class, and the same generation, would have differences in how they speak and perceive other people's speech. In fact, it's not just a speech phenomenon. It applies to writing, too. Analytic models exist that can distinguish a person's identity just by examining the eccentric qualities of their writing. Here, we all write English, but none of us are writing the same *English*.

  8. David Marjanović said,

    December 22, 2017 @ 2:44 pm

    It’s not a regional language use issue (if it was, those criticizing the phrases would say “only people from xxx say that….” and not blame it on foreigner ignorance).

    That's not a guarantee. German, even just Standard German within just Germany, is so diverse in respects like this is that you can't count on people to know what people really say 30 km over. I keep hearing expressions that I only knew from reading, and I'm a native speaker.

  9. Antariksh said,

    December 22, 2017 @ 3:59 pm

    Apart from all the things VHM and other commenters mentioned, I'd say that a major source of such claims is that most speakers of a language (unless they have had specific linguistic training) just tend to make ridiculous claims about the language. Not just pronunciation or syntax but even their estimations about sociolinguistics are frequently wrong. I've had people make claims about how 'other' people speak Hindi or English or whatever that are just plain wrong. And without linguistic training, they don't even realize that they could be wrong.

    Just like with all other linguistic knowledge, what sounds natural / default to them is tacit, and everything that deviates from that is somehow explained using whatever terminology they know best.

  10. mg said,

    December 22, 2017 @ 8:10 pm

    People also hear what they expect to hear. So if they expect to hear mangled Chinese from you, they'll find fault where they can.

    The extreme example of this is a tall blond blue-eyed son of White Russian escapees from the Russian Revolution I knew 20 years ago who grew up in Japan speaking perfectly like a native. When he talked on the phone, no one ever had any trouble understanding him. When he talked to people in person, they often couldn't understand him because they were trying to hear what he said as English or some other European language.

  11. John Rohsenow said,

    December 23, 2017 @ 2:31 am

    VBM wrote: "chle" = "Nǐ chīle ma? 你吃了嗎" (lit., "Have you eaten?", i.e., "Hi!"). It reminds me of the deformation of "What's up?" to "Sup".

    OR another standard example in US linguistics classes, Americans enquiring:"djeet?" (or even "djeet yet?") for "Did you eat (yet)?", (although some older(?) speakers will object that "yet" cannot co-occur with the simple past ('did"), but only with the present perfect "have you eaten yet?", which gets into a similar type of problem, but in syntax.)

    ALSO: "My language can,in this sense, even be studied as its own dialect–" or IDiOLECT?

  12. Dave Cragin said,

    December 23, 2017 @ 11:58 am

    Many of the posts illustrated the point that I was trying to make: that across any country there are differences use of idioms and language.

    My interest was the very strong prohibition against these phrases, despite that they are commonly used (not by everyone, maybe not even a majority, but by many). I also should point out, in every case, the Chinese I subsequently spoke to were shocked/surprised that I had been told Chinese don’t say the said phrase or that only old people/old woman do.

    Martha’s example is instructive: When the student mentioned “Going Dutch”, I doubt she told the student “Only foreigners say that.” The phrase “only foreigners say that” is not something an American would typically say. There must be a cultural aspect to this.

    Also David Marjanovic noted that German is so diverse, you can’t count on what various people will say. The same is true in the US (and likely/all most countries) and – of course – China.

    哪里哪里 – is used by both sexes. It is normally said in repetition. At the conference I mentioned, many people had worked hard to host it, so many people were being thanked for their efforts. I heard it regularly from men.

    我的天 – I haven’t studied how it is used (other than to ask friends if they use it), but the person who used it with me the 1st time used in just as we would use OMG – to express surprise. She had sent me an instant message in English, I replied in Chinese, and she responded “我的天,你用中文!” (OMG – you used Chinese!). OMG translates this feeling well.

    Eidolon's last points discuss how much language differs between people. My guess is that most of the Chinese advised me against using certain phrases realize this too. Hence, why the suggestion that certain phrases are never said?

  13. cliff arroyo said,

    December 24, 2017 @ 3:57 am

    " The phrase “only foreigners say that” is not something an American would typically say. There must be a cultural aspect to this. "

    Although interestingly, Euro-English (second language lingua franca) has a number of items that I've never heard from native speakers.
    – mobbing
    – "women are discriminated in my country"
    – "the party was very funny"
    – "I saw him to leave"
    – informations, advices
    etc etc

    I've heard those and others from otherwise extremely fluent speakers and the status of the atypical items is not affected at all by a lack of native speaker support.

  14. Mark Metcalf said,

    December 24, 2017 @ 11:31 am

    My nearly bilingual son (10+ year Taiwan resident and current SBL coach) provided this perspective:

    1. Hear it quite often. Well, at least different versions. 吃了沒? 吃飽了嗎?

    2. There is only one person in the world who still uses that phrase…

    3. Old people (哪裡哪裡 is probably more 客套話 which is why only old people use it)

    4. Also old people. Or young people making fun of old people

    5. All the time.

  15. John Swindle said,

    December 24, 2017 @ 6:45 pm

    One of my neighbors replied with an offhand “吃了没有” when I greeted him in Mandarin today as I was leaving the Honolulu restaurant where he works. Granted, he's a native speaker of Cantonese, but I wasn't afraid, because his Mandarin is a lot better than mine.

  16. ouen said,

    December 26, 2017 @ 2:21 am

    i was often told contradictory things about the prevalence of some lexical items when learning chinese. i was once told by my native-speaker teacher to never say 咖啡廳 , she assured me that she had lived and worked in both Taiwan and mainland China and that the only chinese speakers who say 咖啡廳 are people over the age of 80. Instead, i was told to use 咖啡館

    however, when i google the two phrases there are twice as many results for 咖啡廳 and from my own observations 咖啡廳 is much more widely used among young people.

  17. Phil H said,

    December 26, 2017 @ 5:17 am

    Completely agree with the conclusions above: most people don’t know much about language, assume that their own habits are universals, and will make up any old reasoning to defend unsupportable claims rather than examine and adjust their beliefs. I’m British but working as a translator in a company that uses American English as its English standard, and I’ve been caught out any number of times saying “X is wrong”, only for Americans or Google to tell me that it’s fine in the US. I now actively suppress my instincts until I can get some evidence to back me up…

  18. liuyao said,

    December 26, 2017 @ 9:37 am

    One possibility is that certain phrases are perceived as "must be strange to foreigners" and/or part of comedic jokes (in xiangsheng) that feature foreigners. Among the examples mentioned are "Did you eat?" as greetings, and "Where? Where?" as "You're welcome". I think part of the reaction may be "This is overly idiomatic and you must have learned it only because it sounded so strange to you".

    It also wasn't clear what the context was when you said one of those things. So what startled them was not the phrase in and of itself, but what prompted it.

  19. Ouen said,

    December 27, 2017 @ 1:07 am

    Maybe a good English comparison is a word like 'Lordy!'

    If a student used this word in earnest in one of my classes I would probably tell them that no one uses this word anymore, and if they do use it it's with a never in earnest

    But one of these students might rightly contradict me by mentioning that James Comey used 'Lordy!' In earnest in a news conference earlier this year

  20. spherical said,

    January 3, 2018 @ 8:23 pm

    My Chinese, such as it is, was largely acquired in conversations with my Taiwanses partner (who speaks excellent English btw). As a result, mainlanders sometimes chuckle and tell me I sound like a girl.

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