OMG moments induced by allegro forms in Pekingese

« previous post | next post »

This afternoon I passed by a group of high school kids from China going down the street outside of Williams Hall, the office building in which I work.  One of the girls said merrily, "Bur'ao", by which she meant Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM) bù zhīdào 不知道 ("[I] don't know").

The retroflex final -r is well known for northern varieties of Mandarin, but in Pekingese it seems that the mighty R has the ability to swallow up whole syllables, as in the example quoted in the previous paragraph.

Here are a couple more instances:

"O gao'r ni" for MSM wǒ gàosu nǐ  我告诉你 ("I tell you")

"Mbr'ao" for MSM wǒmen bù zhīdào 我们不知道 ("We don't know")

I suppose that we might call all of these allegro forms, i.e., changes in phrases induced by increased speed in speaking.  Of course, not all such allegro forms involve R:

"Tianmen" for MSM Tiān'ānmén 天安门 ("Gate of Heavenly Peace")

"Dashlar" for MSM Dà Zhàlán 大柵欄 ("Big Paling[s] / Railing[s] / Bars", name of a street in Beijing)

Confronted with some of the more highly elided and distorted forms, all I can do is mutter, "OMG!" and ask "How do they understand each other?"

As if the allegro forms themselves had not boggled my poor mind enough, Jeremy Goldkorn informed me that "OMG" itself has become a popular Internet expression in China:

ǒumàigā 偶麦嘎 (lit. "image / idol / by chance — wheat — creak / squeak / snap")  63,200 ghits

ōmàigā 噢麦嘎 (lit. "oh — wheat — creak / squeak / snap")  368,000 ghits

ǒumǎigā  偶买嘎 (lit. "image / idol / by chance — buy — creak / squeak / snap")  1,510.000 ghits

OMG have mercy upon me!

[Thanks to South Coblin, Cyndy Ning, Liwei Jiao, Jiajia Wang, Gene Buckley, Stephen Dodson, and Julie Wei]


  1. Lauren said,

    January 26, 2012 @ 10:25 pm

    I wonder whether some of these massive reductions in MSM become similar with [ai.jǝ.ǝ:] ("I don't know") plus its distinctive melody (possibly: L*+H L-H%) in MAE in that they are more recognizable from their frequency and environment/predictability than the remaining segments alone.

  2. David Moser said,

    January 26, 2012 @ 10:37 pm

    Yes, how in the world do Chinese speakers decode such utterances? N'dunno.

    Reminds me of a transcribing issue I once encountered. I was helping a Chinese woman transcribe some US political speeches. She was working on a George Bush press conference, and came to me for help.

    "He keeps saying this phrase over and over," she said. "I can't figure it out, but this is the closest I can come to it." On the transcript she had written:

    Lem tay sum.

    I couldn't quite figure this out, so I asked to hear the tape she was working on. It turns out it was one of Bush's habitual phrases pronounced with his Texas slur:

    "Let me tell you something" –> "Lemme tell ya somethin'."

    Which came out rapidly as something like "Lem' te'ya some'n."

    David Moser

  3. Chad Nilep said,

    January 26, 2012 @ 10:42 pm

    Oh snap!

  4. Ellen K. said,

    January 26, 2012 @ 10:44 pm

    Okay, David, what does the n' of "n'dunno" mean?

  5. Carl said,

    January 26, 2012 @ 10:48 pm

    The n is short for I, of course!

  6. Chad Nilep said,

    January 26, 2012 @ 10:49 pm

    One of the big hits in Japanese pop music during 2011 was a tune called "Oh my gā". My wife, a Japanese native who lived for more than a decade in the States declared this fact to be embarrassing, but I maintain that it's pretty typical — in spirit if not in detail — to the way many Americans speak. Apparently including presidents.

  7. Carl said,

    January 26, 2012 @ 10:51 pm

    The extreme allegro of "I do not know" is great. More like a grunt than a word. The tone is the main part of it. Aidunuh.

  8. Randy Alexander said,

    January 26, 2012 @ 11:20 pm

    That must be the hardest part of learning Chinese pronunciation. I remember upon coming to China and hearing that and also "shiberuh?" It took me quite a while to figure out that was "是不是?"

  9. fs said,

    January 26, 2012 @ 11:28 pm

    Allegro form? They're skipping the entire development and rushing the recapitulation!

  10. julie lee said,

    January 26, 2012 @ 11:39 pm

    Children when they first learn to speak will come out with elided whole sentences like
    "Ahngmeir !" for "I want milk!" or "Ahngmor ! " for "I want more !"

  11. William Steed said,

    January 27, 2012 @ 12:27 am


    This was presented at a plenary at ICPhS in Hong Kong (whose? I can't remember) as extreme phonetic reduction – "I do not know" as a sequence of three shwa syllables with the intonation pattern of "I don't know" intact.

  12. Vladimir Menkov said,

    January 27, 2012 @ 1:24 am

    To me, the exclamation "Fuwuyuan!" (服务员!) (Waiter!) always sounds like a single syllable with a long(is) dyphtong, sort of like "Fuan!"

  13. Stephen said,

    January 27, 2012 @ 1:33 am

    Interestingly, the Google Translate speech synthesizer uses the rhotic Beijing pronunciation for Dashlar 大柵欄 (which it nonetheless transliterates as "Dà shānlán"), but not apparently for any other words.

  14. Mark S. said,

    January 27, 2012 @ 2:26 am

    In his comment above David Moser modestly did not mention his own relevant essay: Some Things Chinese Characters Can’t Do-Be-Do-Be-Do.

    For other examples of OMG, see OMG, it’s Hanzified English and the comments there, including the link to a photo of a hotel ad in greater Taipei.

  15. Victor Mair said,

    January 27, 2012 @ 5:53 am

    @Stephen re: Dashlar

    You can be sure that Google Translate reads Language Log, just as David Henry Hwang (playwright of "Chinglish").

  16. Jeremy Goldkorn said,

    January 27, 2012 @ 7:16 am

    I have also noticed people on the Chinese Internet using "欧也" to mean "Oh yeah!" and even once "欧也贝碧" ("Oh yeah baby").

  17. Keith said,

    January 27, 2012 @ 10:10 am

    Does the appetite of the "mighty R" leave the tones untouched?

    I.e., did bù zhīdào become bùr'ào?

  18. GeorgeW said,

    January 27, 2012 @ 10:56 am

    ah'ono 'I don't know' (grumpy American teenager)

  19. Chandra said,

    January 27, 2012 @ 10:59 am

    @William Steed – I'd argue that even the three schwa syllables aren't necessary. A person can get across the message "I don't know" by keeping the mouth entirely closed and humming the intonation.

  20. Ellen K. said,

    January 27, 2012 @ 11:15 am

    Carl, I can't tell if you are being sarcastic, or sincerely but wrongly thinking "n" for "I" is obvious. There's no N sound before the d in any version of "I don't know" that I've heard, and putting one in is adding a sound.

    Also (general reply here) I think it's not accurate to take "I do not know" rather than "I don't know" as a starting point when talking about reduction of this phrase. "Don't", while etymologically a shortening of "do not", it's now an established morpheme.

  21. Victor Mair said,

    January 27, 2012 @ 12:30 pm

    @Keith The tones are still vaguely there, but tend to get leveled out. The fourth tone on the last syllable is still usually evident, though much reduced, and it helps to recognize what is being said.

  22. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 27, 2012 @ 12:37 pm

    GeorgeW has the reduced version of "I don't know" that I'm most familiar with, the one with only one consonant. Of course it can also be a long "m" with the right pitch and loudness contour.

  23. michael farris said,

    January 27, 2012 @ 12:40 pm

    My own extreme reduction of "I don't know" is something roughly like [aunou] and the whole thing is heavily nasalized. I have no idea how to right it.

  24. Mark F. said,

    January 27, 2012 @ 2:00 pm

    I think I've heard something like "N'dunno" before, but I took it to be a self-conscious reduction of "Hmm. Dunno."

  25. Brad Daniels said,

    January 27, 2012 @ 3:09 pm

    Am I the only one who stumbled over the crash blossom in the title? I parsed it as referring to a Pekingese (i.e., a dog) forming OMG moments induced by allegro…

  26. Plane said,

    January 27, 2012 @ 3:22 pm

    As Chandra says, you can '[keep] the mouth entirely closed and [hum] the intonation.' This is also true if you open your mouth partway through the word, at various points. I'd guess that's the origin of the "n'dunno" transcription, but when I do this I never say the "d" sound, so it's more like "n'nno" or "n'unno" for me.

    Then again, I'm more likely to say "iunno" than "dunno" if my mouth is open the whole time.

  27. David Moser said,

    January 27, 2012 @ 7:45 pm

    These allegro forms (being a musician, I love this term, by the way!) can vary from mere voiced grunts to quick sketches of the actual phonemes. My 14-year-old daughter says "I don't know" in a way that can only be transcribed as something like "nnNNnuh" (just a slight improvement on Plane's "n'nno" or "n'unno"). The 'n' in "n'dunno" is meant to represent a nasal of some kind. You hear everything from "I dunno" to a consonant-less nasal suprasegmental glide "nNNnnn". "N'dunno" (or "M'dunno") is just in the middle of the spectrum somewhere.

  28. Ned Danison said,

    January 28, 2012 @ 8:05 am

    In Taiwan (maybe elsewhere), there seems to be a case of R being not so mighty (initial R, anyway). That is: 然後 ("ran hou" / 'and then') sounds like "na hou".

  29. Victor Mair said,

    January 28, 2012 @ 8:44 am

    Zhou Yunong sent in a long note in Chinese about one of her father's favorite expressions. I here paraphrase and summarize:


    The way northerners speak is indeed different from the way we southerners speak. No matter whether southerners are speaking their topolect or Putonghua (Mandarin), seldom do they engage in slurring, elision, and retroflexion.

    However, I recall my father's favorite expression, one which was habitually on his lips. Speaking in Suzhouese, he would often ask, "nǐ ā míngbái yìsi?" 你阿明白意思? [VHM: In Modern Standard Mandarin that would be "nǐ míngbái yìsi ma?" 你明白意思吗?] ("Do you understand what I mean?") Because he used this expression so much, he uttered it very quickly. From the time I was little, I remember that it sounded like this: "Ni a mang yi si?" with the "mingbai" in the middle coming out as "mang".

    At first, when I was little, I didn't understand what he was asking when he would put this question to me. Later, when I grew up, I realized that he was pronouncing míngbái 明白 ("understand") as máng 忙 ("busy").

    When my father spoke other sentences including the word míngbái 明白 ("understand"), he wouldn't pronounce it as máng 忙 ("busy"). It was only when he was using his favorite expression, "nǐ ā míngbái yìsi?" 你阿明白意思? ("Do you understand what I mean?") that he would pronounce "mingbai" as "mang", joining the two syllables as one.

  30. un malpaso said,

    January 28, 2012 @ 5:46 pm

    I agree with @Mark F. in that the "n" in "n'dunno" stands for "ummmm…" It's also, after all, somewhat acceptable to just say "dunno" for "I don't know", the 1st person being implied.
    Or, as it appears more often in my local southern/casual American slang, /auo/ with nasalization throughout, and the /u/ being realized as the half-open, unrounded "u" in "cup" with a slight touch of voiced labiodental approximant (since I am too lazy to copypaste the IPA). Or something like that. Never realized how hard it was to transcribe grunts :)

  31. David B. said,

    January 28, 2012 @ 7:23 pm

    I do this with some phrases, though I've heard it's a symptom of my lazy midwestern speech background. For example I'll typically say something like "Muh putcha over'na chair" instead of "I'm going to put you over in the chair".

    I know some people see that as a devolving sort of thing, but aren't things like that how languages eventually morph into new ones?

  32. Zev Handel said,

    January 28, 2012 @ 8:35 pm

    Contractions are natural in the connected speech of speakers of all languages, and it is not uncommon for contractions that are commonly heard in speech to end up becoming the ordinary form even in careful, slow speech and, ultimately, writing language. In English, one can note the development of "God be with you" into "Good-bye" and then ultimately just "bye". Or note how in spoken language "they are" and "they were" are often nearly indistinguishable: is spoken "They're gonna go" a past-tense or present-tense formulation? (How do those English speakers understand each other?) Or note the common pronunciation "jeet" for "Did you eat?". One could go on and on.

    What would be really surprising is if such allegro forms weren't found in Chinese!

  33. Victor Mair said,

    January 29, 2012 @ 10:53 am

    My favorite example in English is still "sup" < "What's up?", which I heard in a bar full of sailors. They were all giving high-fives to each other and saying that. I had absolutely no idea what it meant. I knew that it must be something very common in their English (in fact, it was the most frequently uttered expression in that bar), but I felt so silly not being able to figure out what such a common expression meant. One after another, the sailors would walk by each other and say, usually very casually and perfunctorily, "sup". Finally I had to ask someone, and they looked at me as though I were daft. "Sup, man. Sup." It took me several tries before I found someone who was patient enough to explain to me that it meant "What's up?" Whereupon, I explained, "OMG! How can they understand each other?!" I might have come from another world, for I certainly didn't understand them.

  34. Rodger C said,

    January 29, 2012 @ 1:19 pm

    @Victor Mair: Or as we said forty years ago, "Sapnin?"

  35. Victor Mair said,

    January 29, 2012 @ 1:33 pm

    I should note that the sailors I mentioned in the comment above usually didn't even give a rising intonation on "sup" to indicate that it was a question. More often the intonation was level or even downward trending.

  36. Jason Cullen said,

    January 29, 2012 @ 1:50 pm

    @Victor Mair
    Of course they had a a falling intonation in their question! Wh-Questions, or questions beginning with {who, what, when, where, why, how}, almost always have a falling intonation. Only Yes/No-Questions (those using either do-support [e.g. 'do you have a question?'] or tense-bearing auxiliary inversion [e.g. 'are you coming? would you even care?'] have rising intonation. The allegro form might have deleted the 'what' in 'what's up', but "sup" is still a form of Wh-Question.

  37. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 29, 2012 @ 1:56 pm

    @Victor Mair: I assume the level or falling intonation is because "Sup" is a greeting, not a request for information.

    "C'est un langage estrange que le Basque, c'est le vieil Espagnol, comme le Breton bretonnant est le vieux Anglois. On dit qu'il s'entendent, je n'en crois rien…"

    Scaligeriana. Sic on the "il".

  38. Fuxing Saucy Lotus said,

    January 29, 2012 @ 6:28 pm

    @Victor Mair

    If you ever come across another “sup” situation, you can check out

  39. Keith said,

    January 30, 2012 @ 4:58 pm

    Whenever I go to a bar, I sup.


  40. Ponder Stibbons said,

    January 30, 2012 @ 11:00 pm

    The popular Taiwanese band Mayday has a song titled 噢買尬 (Ō mǎi gà):

    This phrase has 5,540,000 hits on Google.

  41. Victor Mair said,

    February 1, 2012 @ 10:38 am

    @Fuxing Saucy Lotus

    Unfortunately, I didn't have a computer or iPhone with me that night in the bar.

  42. Jason Cullen said,

    February 1, 2012 @ 11:07 am

    @ Jerry Friedman 'How are you' is also a greeting (as it's long been noted that it is not, in fact, a request for information about the other party's health, emotional state, etc., since the most common answer is simply 'fine, you?'), and, as a Wh-Question, it has falling intonation.

  43. V said,

    August 18, 2014 @ 3:21 am

    Brad Daniels said:
    "Am I the only one who stumbled over the
    crash blossom in the title? I parsed it as
    referring to a Pekingese (i.e., a dog) forming
    OMG moments induced by allegro…"

    I just learned the etymology of the word the word пекинез in Bulgarian thanks to you.

RSS feed for comments on this post