Alright, pretend when you read the upcoming pinyin you’re really listening to a shopkeeper in Guangzhou.
I was shopping for Shèngdàn lǐwù 圣诞礼物 in a big shopping mall in Guangzhou. I found a little silk scarf I was considering and the shopkeeper came over to convince me it was exactly what I wanted. I explained (just for the chance to speak Chinese) that I was looking for Christmas presents and especially one for my mom. She and her shopkeeper friend were thrilled to learn that and started pointing at other things in the shop. One picked up a decorative fan and said (ready for the imaginary listening practice?):
Zhè ge sòng nǐ hěn hǎo.
I was shocked. I transcribed it in my head to be these characters:
这个送你很好 = I’ll give you this for free, that’s good.
I thought, “Really?! You’d just give this to me. Just because I’m shopping for Christmas presents? It looks kind of expensive though. I mean, it’s a really fancy fan.”
So I clarified:
Zhège sòng gěi wǒ ma?
You’re giving this to me for free?
I’ve never heard so many “bù-s” in such a short time span, and coming from such smiling faces as one said:
Bú shì “sòng nǐ,” shì “sòng nǐ.”
and she made some hanzi characters on her hand.
Have you figured out the problem yet?
Thankfully, I’ve spent a lot of time down here in the South teaching Chinese students English majors, many of whom have the same pronunciation problem. I sorted it all out by saying:
The delight in the room could have lit all the Christmas trees in Tiānhé 天河!
The old “n/l” switcheroo is just one of the many widespread pronunciation problems we have to deal with in the South, and seems to be especially prevalent in Guangdong. The sounds are allophones in many fāngyán 方言 (including, apparently Cantonese) and so this sort of thing happens all the time. Many times you can figure out what it was supposed to be (“Nǐ qù lǎlǐ?”). This was just one of those times when both variations were possible and only one could be true.