Variant pronunciations of the word for "brothers" in Mandarin

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Yesterday morning in class, I had all the students from China pronounce a word I wrote on the board — gē'ermen 哥儿们 ("pals; buddies; brothers") — and everybody was astonished to hear with their own ears the enormous differences in the way the word was pronounced, even though each student thought they were speaking standard Mandarin.  This was not due to dialectal variation — because when I asked a few of the students to pronounce the word according to their home topolect, then it would come out in a quite different manner — but simply to individual differences in the realization of gē'ermen 哥儿们 in Mandarin.

Before listing the different pronunciations uttered in class yesterday morning, I should explain a few things about this expression.

First of all, the constituent morphemes are gē 哥 ("older brother"), ér 儿 (erization), and men 们 (plural signifier).

Second, even though the word is plural in form, it can be used in the singular to refer to oneself, e.g., gē'ermen bāng nǐ bàn 哥儿们帮你办 ("I'll help you do it").

Third, it is also written as gēmenr 哥们儿 and gēmen 哥们.

Fourth, it is very common to prefix gē'ermen 哥儿们 with dà 大 ("big") or xiǎo 小 ("little"), as in this strange Facebook message:  跨越大哥儿们在means i luv my mum in chinease… GOod morning and happy mothers day :P :D -Ross

Here's the list of variant pronunciations spoken in my class on "Language, Script, and Society in China" yesterday morning:

gēménr      (rising intonation on the second syllable, but shorter in length and not as pronounced as a regular Mandarin second tone)
gēmen(r)    (light 儿化 ["erization"])
gēmenr      (speaker from Tianjin, first syllable had a low, slightly falling tone – ge[21])
gómenr      (speaker from Chongqing or surrounding area; first syllable somewhere between gó and guó)
gēmen       (speaker said she "didn't usually say this word" [I had to coax it out of her]; may have been overcorrecting)

I have to add one version which I once heard from a rough fellow in Beijing:  gērAmon (the capital A indicates strong emphasis).

[Thanks to Brendan O'Kane for faithfully recording the individual pronunciations]


  1. Nuno said,

    September 25, 2013 @ 7:21 am

    Can someone please explain what that facebook post means? Especially the zài 在 at the end.

  2. Wentao said,

    September 25, 2013 @ 11:54 am

    Grown up in Beijing, I always say "gēmenr" and write 哥们儿. I have seen 哥儿们 plenty of times but would never say the word that way. "gómenr" clearly has a Southwestern flavor ("Sichuan Putonghua", or 川普 chuan1pu3) – whoever thinks he/she is speaking Standard Mandarin is totally mistaken. Not only is the first vowel pronounced differently, the tone values of both syllables sound dissimilar from Standard Mandarin to my ear.

    To me, the facebook message is simply nonsense.

  3. Peter said,

    September 25, 2013 @ 3:51 pm

    This was not due to dialectal variation — because when I asked a few of the students to pronounce the word according to their home topolect, then it would come out in a quite different manner — but simply to individual differences in the realization of gē'ermen 哥儿们 in Mandarin.

    I don’t follow how this argues that the variation is individual. Isn’t it the case that in situations like this (Chinese, Italian, Arabic…), where a prestige form coexists with a range of highly varied regional languages/dialects, the “standardised” prestige form can still exhibit some significant regional variation, albeit much less than the topolects?

  4. Victor Mair said,

    September 25, 2013 @ 8:54 pm


    The students from the PRC in my class all were taught Putonghua (Modern Standard Mandarin [MSM]) and can speak it fluently. A few of them are also capable of speaking a local topolect, but when they do that it sounds very different from when they're speaking Putonghua. The individual variation which they displayed when saying their versions of gē'ermen 哥儿们 was all within Putonghua. I must stress again that I did ask several of the students who could speak a non-Putonghua topolect to pronounce the word gē'ermen 哥儿们 in their local language and then it sounded much different. The speaker from the Chongqing area is an auditor over twice the age of most of the students, so his training in Putonghua was not nearly as good as the young students. Consequently, his pronunciation of gē'ermen 哥儿们 was more strongly influenced by his native topolect, though he was trying to speak Putonghua for the class. When he speaks real, unrestrained, earthy Chongqinghua, it would be well-nigh incomprehensible to someone who speaks only Putonghua. This is partially borne out by the following articles — which, by chance — I received today.

    Inventing new characters for the language of Chongqing

    As one of our classmates notes, these characters are "barely in accordance with liushu 六书. This not only reminds us of the real origination of some so-called suzi 俗字 that are quite popular, though not officially recognized, but also tells us that the gap between a scholar's idealistic construction and reality is so vast that once in a while we should leave the old papers aside and actually open our eyes to find out what is happening around us."

  5. JS said,

    September 26, 2013 @ 1:29 am

    I think gēmer is the word 'buddy' (singular!); it need not (and usually doesn't) refer to oneself. This is one morpheme, with mer no longer to be analyzed as the "plural"/"mass" suffix (among other things, that suffix doesn't take -r.) As a test, I searched for the string 哥们儿们 'buddies' (gēmenr+men), which sounded fine to me, and got 900,000+ Ghits.

    Gērmen, on the other hand, could in principle be Gēr 'brother' + men '(plural/mass)', but I don't think I've heard it said — though one certainly hears gēr+num., e.g., gēr liǎ 'two brothers', etc.

    Exactly the same contrast exists as regards yémer ‘stand-up fellow’ (singular and monomorphemic, with 1,500,000 Ghits for plural yémermen 爷们儿们, and now also an adjective 'stand-up') and yérmen (incorporates the suffix –men; ‘pair of an elder and a younger man’).

    Confusion arises because the first word above is often written 哥儿们; this may be because retroflexion extends throughout the word for many speakers (interestingly, ~20,000 Ghits for 哥儿们儿). So if you write "哥儿们", it's not clear what exactly is intended, a problem compounded by the fact that many Mandarins don't really contain the word gēmenr 'buddy' at all, or may pronounce it sans retroflexion as gēmen.

    So I basically agree with the opinion expressed here.

  6. Kellen said,

    November 6, 2013 @ 9:46 pm

    A few months back a Beijinger and I were talking to a few Taiwanese about the term. 哥们儿 was the way the Beijinger and I knew it. In Taiwan, it's pretty universally 哥儿们. One of the Taiwanese, a professor, couldn't believe anyone actually said 哥们儿, despite the Beijinger and myself insisting this is the more common way in (to my knowledge) the mainland.

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