A Chinese analog to English "you know"

« previous post | next post »

It's only recently that I've heard a lot of students from mainland China say "nà shà 那啥" (lit., "that what").  At first it was hard to figure out exactly what they meant by it, but as I become more familiar with the contexts in which they deploy this phrase, I wonder if it is functionally something like the "you know" that is used so ubiquitously in English.

I think that 那啥 is basically a northeasternism that has swept across many other parts of China in the last few years.  It is a characteristic expression in comedic sketch (xiǎopǐn 小品 ).  Since this regional type of comedic skit has only lately become phenomenally popular outside of the northeast, that would account for the explosive spread of this term among my students, who come from all parts of China.  Prior to this year, I barely ever heard anyone not from the Northeast say it, but now I hear it spoken quite a bit by students from many different parts of China, although a few from southern China say they are not familiar with it.

Xiǎopǐn 小品 ("comedic sketch") is the Northeastern equivalent of xiàngsheng 相声 ("crosstalk; comic dialog"), centered in Beijing, but also much loved in Tianjin, Nanjing, and elsewhere, particularly in the north.  See "'Rondle it!'" (2/25/19) for an example.

Here are some different opinions on "nà shà 那啥" from PRC students:


Yes, I think "nà shà 那啥" is a pet phrase from the northeast, possibly becoming popular with the sketch (小品) performance of several famous northeastern actors and actresses. It is like "nàgè 那个“ ("that [one]") or  "you know" in English, just for a pause in a string of thoughts. It is more widely used by the generation younger than mine, except for those from its original regions. Another similar phrase is "nà shéi 那谁“ ("that who"), used in addressing a friend informally when making a request or starting a conversation.

[VHM:  I used to hear people begin to address another person by saying "nǐ nàgè 你那个" ("you that one / thing") and always thought that it sounded a bit odd, but when I got used to it it seemed all right as a way to ease oneself into a conversation with someone, although I personally would never use it because I would feel uncomfortable referring to a person as a thing, even implicitly.]

[VHM:  I have heard Chinese people say "nàgè 那个“ ("that [one / thing]") rapidly several times in a row — "nàgè nàgè nàgè 那个 那个 那个" ("that that that…") — with sometimes unexpected, undesired results.  See "That, that, that…" (1/24/16).]

I think "nà shà 那啥" has two meanings. One is the abbreviation of "nàgè shà láizhe 那个啥来着" ("that what's its name"). It’s like when you’re talking about something, but you cannot remember its exact name, then you say nà shà 那啥 to make a pause so that you can think about it. Another usage of nà shà 那啥 is when you want to say something but you are too shy or too nervous to say it. For example, "nà shà, wǒ xǐhuān nǐ 那啥,我喜歡你" ("Well, I like you) or "nà shà, wǒ wàng dài zuòyè le 那啥,我忘帶作業了" ("Er, I forgot to bring my homework", usually said to a teacher).

"Nà shà 那啥", literally “that which”, is often used as an introductory particle / sentence introducer (fāyǔ cí 發語詞), which may be translated as “Well then…”, “As for the…”, and so forth.

Nà shà, wǒ xiǎng shàng cèsuǒ 那啥,我想上廁所。 ("Well…. I want to use the bathroom.")
Nà shà, nǐ néng bùnéng zhuānxīn tīngjiǎng 那啥,你能不能專心聽講?("Well, hey, can you focus on the lecture or not?")
Nà shà, wǒ de guāndiǎn shì zhèyàng de 那啥,我的觀點是這樣的⋯⋯ ("Well then, here is my opinion….")

Another grammatical usage of nà shà 那啥 can be a noun phrase for ambiguous reference (móhú zhǐdài 模糊指代): “something something”, or simply, “THAT”, when both the speaker and the recipient of the speech information have a tacit understanding of the same matter that is referred to.

Nǐ gěi wǒ bǎ nà shà ná guòlái 你給我把那啥拿過來。("Bring THAT to me.") [When both sides understand what THAT means. Extremely commonly used in Northeastern Chinese families when parents make a command to their children — when you don’t understand what your mother’s "nà shà 那啥" ("that what") is when she asks for "nà shà 那啥" ("that what") from you — you’re in trouble!]

Nǐ dǒng wǒ de yìsi, jiùshì nà shà 你懂我的意思,就是那啥。("You know what I mean, which is, THAT.") [signifying a tacit understanding between both sides]

To sum up, "nà shà 那啥" ("that what") is a northeastern phrase, similar to "Well", "You know", or the Japanese "anō あのう" ("well; um; er​"). It does not necessarily contain any substantial meaning, but is often used to draw attention in a conversation.

It's amazing what subtle effects can be achieved just with filler, unsubstantive words.  Here's an actual sentence spoken by my sister-in-law:

Nàme, nàgè rén zěnme nàme nà gè?  [the penultimate syllable spoken archly, beginning with a higher pitch than normal for a fourth tone, and with strong emphasis]


"Well, how can that person be so like THAT?"

Filler words are miraculous.  They enable you to do so much with so little.  Take "you know".  Here are some of its functions and usages from various dictionaries as assembled here:

1. A filler phrase used when one is thinking of what to say next. I like the one with the, you know, the red thing on top.
2. A question posed at the end of a statement to elicit agreement or acknowledgment. I can't describe it. It just felt a little bittersweet, you know?
3. A phrase used to emphasize or draw attention to one's statement. I have skills. I'm not just some office drone, you know.
4. You know the answer; you know what or whom I'm referring to. A: "Which one's your cousin again?" B: "You know, she's the one you met at the concert." A: "What's that?" B: "You know, it's the coin we found in the river when we were kids."

An expression placed on the end of a statement for pause or emphasis. (This expression is often overused, in which case it is totally meaningless and irritating.) Tom: Sure, I spent a fortune on this car. Can't take it with you, you know. Rachel: But there are better things to do with it here and now. Bill: Do you always lock your door? Tom: Usually. There's a lot of theft around here, you know.

You are aware, you see, do you remember, as in She's very lonely, you know, so do go and visit, or You know, this exhibit ends tomorrow, or You know that black dog our neighbors had? She was run over a year ago. This phrase is also quite often a conversational filler, equivalent to "um" and occasionally repeated over and over (as in It's a fine day for, you know, the beach, and, you know, we could leave now); this usage is more oral than written, and many consider it deplorable. [Late 1500s]


1 used when you are thinking of what to say next: He's, you know, strange. It's hard to explain.
2 used to show that what you are referring to is known or understood by the person you are speaking to: You know I bought a new bag? Well, someone stole it last night.
3 used to emphasize something that you are saying: I'm not stupid, you know.


Used parenthetically in conversation, as to fill pauses or educe the listener's agreement or sympathy:

Please try to be, you know, a little quieter. How were we supposed to make camp in a storm like that, you know?

In listening to (usually younger) people converse, I'm always amused by how often they invoke the holy "like" word:  "I / he / she was like".

1. interj. an emphatic or meaningless word that, when said frequently, marks the speaker as speaking in a very casual or slangy mode. (see also like, you know. Used in writing only for effect.) This is, like, so silly!
2. interj. a particle meaning roughly saying. (Always with some form of be. Never used in formal writing.) And I’m like, “Well, you should have put your hat on!”




Interspersed above.

[Thanks to Tong Wang, Diana Shuheng Zhang, Yixue Yang, Tianyi Zhang, and Yunzhu Huang]


  1. Andy Stow said,

    November 22, 2019 @ 10:36 am

    "nàgè 那个"

    Well, at least now I know what my colleagues were saying all the time on my trip to China. We (non-Mandarin speaking visitors) kept hearing "negaaah, negaaah" and joked that they kept using the "N" word like gangstas.

    I finally asked what it meant, and two of them consulted for a while before telling us it meant something like "well, well, well…"

  2. Jon Forrest said,

    November 22, 2019 @ 12:32 pm

    I think it's sad when I hear non-native speakers of a language start using speech tick words, such as "you know" or "like" in English. I know they do it because they think it makes them sound more like a native speaker, but they'd be better off spending their time improving their accent or grammar.

    Maybe I'm being too sensitive because also think it's sad when I hear native speakers of a language doing this.

    I know when I was learning Swedish I was tempted to use "liksom" and "va" (at the end of sentences) but I soon realized that it wasn't really helping.


  3. Philip Taylor said,

    November 22, 2019 @ 2:40 pm

    Thank you for glossing Japanese "anō あのう" ("well; um; er​"), Victor. I heard the word while watching Zatoichi's Flashing Sword in bed late last night, and my brain immediately interpreted it as "yes", presumably because it does mean "yes" in Czech and I was too tired to realise that no-one would use a Czech word in a Zatoichi film. Perhaps surprisingly, it means "well" (interjection) in Polish, just as it does in Japanese.

  4. Noel Hunt said,

    November 22, 2019 @ 3:33 pm

    It is interesting that Chinese, Japanese and Korean all use the distal demostrative 'that' as a pause-device. As Professor Mair points out, we have nàgè 那个/anō あのう in Chinese and Japanese respectively, but Korean also has 저 che (Yale), with a lengthened vowel.

    I also think that the use of 'like' and 'you know' have some kind of attenuative function, that is, they make a statement sound less direct, as well as sometimes simply being fillers/pausal devices. Japanese frequently use 'なんか/なんかさ nanka/nankasa' and '-とか' in a similar way. It seems to be particularly frequent in the speech of the young.

  5. Don Clarke said,

    November 22, 2019 @ 8:03 pm

    Do you hear these people saying 啥 in the 4th tone? I’ve never heard it except in the second tone.

  6. Mark Metcalf said,

    November 23, 2019 @ 10:44 am

    @Andy Stow

    Precisely. Here's Canadian-Indian comedian Russell Peters' hilarious (NSFW) comedy bit on his 那个 experience at a KFC in Beijing.


  7. Michèle Sharik Pituley said,

    November 23, 2019 @ 1:15 pm

    Doesn't Japanese also use etō?

  8. Carl said,

    November 26, 2019 @ 10:18 am

    Anô and ettô are both common filler words in Japanese.

    @Jon Forrest
    I disagree. As a non-native speaker, using a native filler word makes you feel more fluent and keeps your listeners from being distracted by your, how-you-say, non-nativeness. It would be great to just speak naturally without any breaks, but that's not how people talk in real life, so the choice is either to use a native filler word or a filler word from another language that your interlocutors might be confused by.

  9. Philip Taylor said,

    November 27, 2019 @ 5:47 am

    (filler words) — at least three members of my wife's Vietnamese/Chinese family (herself, her sister, her mother) use word-repetition as a filler rather than any actual filler word(s).

  10. Michèle Sharik Pituley said,

    November 29, 2019 @ 11:36 am

    @Carl: "Anô and ettô are both common filler words in Japanese."

    Are they using ô in romaji to mean the long vowel now instead of ō?

    It's been about 10 years since I studied at Soko Gakuen, so it wouldn't surprise me to learn it has changed. (Though I was last in Japan in Dec 2016, when it was still ō, so perhaps it is a newly-appearing change?)

  11. Carl said,

    November 29, 2019 @ 1:30 pm

    No, the macron is still standard.

    I have a Mac with a US English keyboard, so I can type a circumflex by pressing option-i, vowel. To type a macron, I have to copy paste or use a text expansion macro. It's pretty common to use circumflexes instead of macrons on the internet. Another issue is that almost all fonts contain circumflexes but surprisingly many fonts are missing macrons.

  12. Michele Niehe Sharik Pituley said,

    November 30, 2019 @ 3:11 pm

    @Carl: "I have a Mac with a US English keyboard, so I can type a circumflex by pressing option-i, vowel. To type a macron, I have to copy paste or use a text expansion macro."

    I have a Mac with USE kbd, too. Apparently, since at least 2013 with Lion, you can just hold down a vowel key and choose the accent mark. So for the macron, hold down the o key and choose 7: ō

    I just learned that today, in fact — I thought it required option-keys and macros, as you said, but I decided to google it to see if there had been any changes in the recent OS update. I guess I should have checked earlier….

    Anyway: now I can write my name without macros or option keys!

    -Michèle — grave is even #1! LOL

  13. Shall We said,

    December 4, 2019 @ 12:10 am

    I think "nà shà 那啥" is a idiomatic usage in Chinese, like "Excuse me 打扰一下" in English、"あのう 那个" in Japanese and other places all over the world. These words help us start to talk without being obtrusive, acting as buffers, especially when we talk with strangers or someone we are not familiar with or the situation likes we begin to speak suddenly in some quiet places. For example, if we want to ask somebody a question or just have a talk with him, we may speak "nà shà 那啥"、"Excuse me 打扰一下"、"あのう 那个" first to show ourselves, including direction and voice, so as to give him a cushion and them find out the situation. After that, we could better get into our main topic. Besides, these words also play an important role in helping us recall what we want to say when we unexpectedly forget. In the gap we say it, we could quickly organize our words again.
    Above all, I think "nà shà 那啥" is an indispensable word in communication.

RSS feed for comments on this post