Voice-activated lights

« previous post | next post »

I showed this mp4 video to a dozen native speakers of Sinitic languages (mostly Mandarin), but no one could identify, much less understand, what it was:


(from imgur)

Chau Wu ruled out Taiwanese, Hakka, and Cantonese, but he said that he heard words that sounded like chú sī 廚司 ("chef") and chǎocài 炒菜 ("stir-fry")

One colleague said that "the endings sound Cantonese and the 'melody' sounds Cantonese," but admitted, "I can't even guess what it is."

I myself detected strong influence from what sounded like Cantonese (e.g., many final "la" particles).

One native speaker of Mandarin, who also knows several topolects, thought that maybe the tape was being played backwards!

Neil Kubler's best guess was that it is some kind of Mandarin, but perhaps spoken by speakers in the Guangdong or Guangxi area, since the intonation on the final particles seems Cantonese-influenced.

Finally, after continuing to ask around, I found someone from close to the area of China where this kind of language is spoken, Zeyao Wu, who wrote back:

I think that the people in the video you sent me are speaking Mandarin but with a strong accent. The mother tongue of these people is probably the Guangxi Dialect. The three characters on the man's apron are "luósī fě 螺螄粉” ("snail noodles") [VHM:  a Liuzhou noodle dish made with river snail soup], a name of a really famous Guangxi food. Some Guangxi people also speak a kind of varied Cantonese, and their accents are a little bit different. My Guangxi friend called the Mandarin they speak "Nánníng Pǔtōnghuà 南寧普通話" ("Nanning Mandarin"), shortened as "Nán Pǔ 南普". We also have many different kinds of spoken Mandarin in Guangdong, such as "Kèjiā Pǔtōnghuà 客家普通話” ("Hakka Mandarin") and “Cháoshàn Pǔtōnghuà 潮汕普通話” ("Chaoshan / Teoswa Mandarin").

I transcribe the conversation in the video (translation by GT, with a few minor modifications):

Male:  Jiào gè shīfù guòlái bǎ dēng huànle, wǒ yī sháozi guòqù, ményá nǐ dōu bǎobuzhù. Jiào nǐ huàngè dēng, nǐ huàn shénme shēngkòng dēng ne (ō hǒu), háishì gè jiān jiào xíng de


"Call a master to come over and replace the lamp. If I do it with a spoon, you won't even be able to save your front teeth. I asked you to change a light. What kind of voice-activated light did you change? (Oh ho) It’s a screaming type.


Female:Nǐ bùshì shuō jiéyuē chéngběn ma


"Didn't you say to save on costs?


Male:Jiéyuē chéngběn yě bùnéng zhèyàngzi jiéyuē chéngběn nà (ō hǒu), nǐ wǎnshàng gǎo de wǒ bùshì fàng cuò cù, jiùshì fàng cuò yóu, qiè gè cài bǎ zhǐjiǎ dōu qièle (ō hǒu


"You can’t save costs like this (oh ho). What you did last night was that I either put the wrong [amount of] vinegar or the wrong [amount of] oil. I cut my fingernail while cutting vegetables (oh ho).


Female:Bùshì mǎile tóudēng ma? Nǐ dǎoshì dài ya!


"Didn't you buy a headlamp.  You should wear it!"


Male:Nǐ jiànguò nǎge chúshī dàizhe tóu dēng chǎocài de (ō hǒu)? Nǐ yǐwéi shì diàoyú ma? Hái dàitóu dēng. Kōumén de wǒ jiàn duōle, méi jiànguò nǐ zhème kōumén de (ō hǒu). Gǎnjǐn jiào gè diàngōng shīfù guòlái bǎ dēng huànl


"Have you ever seen a chef cooking with a headlamp (oh ho)? Did you think it was fishing? Even brought a headlamp. I've seen a lot of stingy people, but I've never seen anyone as stingy as you (oh ho). Quickly call an electrician to come over and replace the light.

Speaking of mutual (un)intelligibility….


Selected readings

[Thanks to Bob Bauer and Julie Wei]



  1. David Marjanović said,

    September 21, 2023 @ 10:35 am

    Out: howling at the moon
    In: howling at the voice-activated lights

  2. Jonathan Smith said,

    September 21, 2023 @ 11:02 am

    translation fails throughout but

    If I do it with a spoon, you won't even be able to save your front teeth.

    might take the cake. Do what with a spoon? This means 'me here waving this spoon around no telling when you'll find yourself missing your front teeth'

    What you did last night was that I either put the wrong [amount of] vinegar…

    "What you did last night?" This means 'At night thanks to you I end up either adding the wrong vinegar or…' (not wrong amount)

    The thing is, this is COMPLETELY standard indeed northern-like Mandarin in almost every respect where syntax and lexicon are concerned. Only phonology ("accent") presents challenges. Of course the sound quality is not great, but I would be very surprised to find a Mandarin-speaking commenter here claiming they had no idea this was even Mandarin…

  3. twosentz said,

    September 21, 2023 @ 2:10 pm

    @Jonathan Smith said

    "I would be very surprised to find a Mandarin-speaking commenter

    here claiming they had no idea this was even Mandarin…"

    Sorry to surprise you, Jonathan, but even though I speak

    standard Mandarin as well as several Mandarin

    dialects, including those of Sichuan, Guizhou, and Hankow (Hubei),

    I couldn't figure out what dialect the man in the video was speaking

    even after listening to him several times.

  4. twosentz said,

    September 21, 2023 @ 3:39 pm

    The video sound is good, the speech is well articulated.

    It's just that I can't understand a word of it.

  5. Jonathan Smith said,

    September 21, 2023 @ 5:52 pm


    Thanks. I am not disappointed, just surprised.

    I am NOT saying this is easy to understand, or easy to identity in terms of dialect (it's not.)

    I am saying that IMO e.g. at 24 sec any Mandarin speaker completely or practically completely understands


    And they certainly don't think it might perhaps be Cantonese, or played backwards…

    Altho here I must qualify my above comment as 的 in this position feels southern Mandarin…

  6. Jonathan Smith said,

    September 21, 2023 @ 6:04 pm

    FWIW, the tones here closely resemble those of the standard language, i.e., this is not some kind of Southwestern Mandarin like Liuzhou — rather, it is a local variant of Putonghua (like "Liupu" or something.) It is actually confusing/wrong to call such varieties [Place] Mandarin as they are more recent products of contact between the local Mandarin and PTH.

  7. Michael Watts said,

    September 21, 2023 @ 9:30 pm


    I really feel like this should mean "Do you think I'm an anglerfish?", but I am totally unable to substantiate the idea that 钓鱼 might mean anglerfish. Could it?

  8. unekdoud said,

    September 24, 2023 @ 11:45 am

    @Michael Watts: I would have completed 你以为是 (blank) with underground mining, so fishing with a headlamp is probably the correct interpretation.

    I see no mention of anglerfish, which are technically also fishing with headlamps.

  9. Michael Watts said,

    September 25, 2023 @ 4:28 am

    I guess I was hoping for Mandarin to be more right-headed than it is.

    It always bothers me a little that, for example, 钓鱼 is left-headed (fishing is a kind of activity, not a kind of fish), while 鲨鱼 is right-headed (a shark is a kind of fish).

RSS feed for comments on this post