Free Gifts

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:

O! Nǐ de yìsi shì “sòng lǐ”–sòng lǐwù de lǐ–bú shì “sòng nǐ.”
Oh! You mean “to give as a gift”–the “li” of gift–not “to give you for free.”

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.


  1. I first noticed this problem when trying to pay for my meal, instead of hearing shí kuài I was hearing sí kuài. At the time my listening was worse than it is now (admittedly still not that great) it took me a few times hearing sí kuài in a patient voice that I finally understood, this was at a local minority 饭馆儿, he was most likely from the north east. Now I pay more attention to tones as I should be.

  2. Interesting post.

    The sound change that has been going on in Cantonese for decades, at least in Hong Kong, is initial “n” turning into initial “l”. I have NEVER heard of the reverse phenomenon. But of course there is great dialectal variation in South China, even within Guangdong province, and it’s easy to imagine that places exist where people turn “l” into “n”. I guess the shopkeeper came from one of those.

  3. Carl,

    Yes, there are a variety of differences in most southern accents. The “s/sh” switcheroo is a particularly tough one because, as you said, it makes the tones more important (our worst nightmare).

    Ho Sun Yan,

    I hadn’t thought about which was more common until now. But yes, it seems as I scan my memory that it’s more common to hear initial “n” -> “l.” But even when I was in Kunming, I heard one student say she wanted 牛奶 and pronounced it as “liu2 lai3.” All her Chinese friends apparently make fun of her for that all the time. This country is indeed a crazy melting pot of countless pronunciation variations. I’m sure if you look around China long enough you’ll find places where initial “n” turns into the “ch” of the Scottish word “loch.” :)

  4. I noticed classmates from Taiwan doing a sh/s and zh/z switch, which is pretty disarming until you get used to it. Doesn’t Sichuan do both an n/l and f/h switch?

  5. It’s sometimes perplexing how such easy things can make it impossible to understand what somebody is saying. I’m living in Taiwan and people here have the same pronunciation problem. Since I’m from Scandinavia, I tend to be “a bit” more tolerant to cold than people here, so I constantly have people asking me “你不會冷嗎?“ which should be easy to understand. The first time somebody said that though, “ni bu hui neng ma” (sorry, no tones), I was clueless. Even though my friend repeated the sentence three times, i still didn’t get it. She had to use body language for freezing before i understood.

    Another example is from yesterday when I bought tea and the lady asked me “le4 de ma?”, and I thought, what, do I want happy tea? What’s she talking about? Then i figured, ah, she’s saying “re”, not “le”. Another common problem. The strange thing is that even though I know this is common, I still run into these basic communication problems. Perhaps it’s because for me, these sounds are so obviously not the same that I can’t get it into my head that they can’t distinguish between them. Well, hopefully I’ll learn. Some day.

  6. A: What? Do you get used to it? :) I’ve lived her for over a year and I still think it’s very, very hard to understand people sometimes because of the sh/s, zh/z, ch/c switches.

  7. Interesting observation about the initial onset switching. All the sounds mentioned here are very similar sounds… have the same place of articulation, but using different articulators. You guys are talking about the switches of speakers in their native languages (whether be Cantonese or Putonghua). I SHALL look into my students’ pronunciation of English and start analyzing. I am sure there’s some L1 interference for them.

  8. Albert, were you just being lighthearted or are there really places in China where initial “n” turns into Scottish “ch” (IPA /x/)??

  9. David,

    No no. Just a little phonetic humor there.

    But if you want some weird examples, I’ve met Chinese people who turn initial “h” into “k.” I discovered it because they pronounced the English “hi” the same as “key!” The weirdest though was when I met two people from very different parts of China (I met them in two different cities, in fact) who pronounced all Ls as some sort of uvular plosive (IPA /G/ ???). That should probably be classified as some sort of speech impediment though because no one else in their family produced Ls that way, and with (a lot of) coaching from me eventually had the ability to produce the dental/alveolar L we’ve all come to know and love. But no, the /x/ thing was just a joke.

  10. I learned my Mandarin in Malaysian schools but grew up in the States and frequently watch Taiwanese shows 😀 I noticed that when I was in a Chinese school, we were taught to differentiate between the s/sh and z/zh sounds but when we speak Mandarin, the s/sh merge and the z/zh merge (I think Singaporeans do this too).
    Therefore, when hear a Taiwanese speaking or hear anybody merge those sounds, I’m used to it. I actually think it’s easier to understand than the Beijing Mandarin and their, in my opinion, really strong accent.

  11. Jane: How can merging two separate sounds make something clearer? I mean, yes, you might be used to it, but it seems to defy logic that merging sounds in a language such as Mandarin, which already has very few sounds to start with, would make it easier to understand? I can understand that you think Beijing accents are difficult to understand, but I have a hard time believing it’s because of the separation of z/zh and s/sh.

  12. Olle Linge: Let me try again – I don’t think I actually merge the sounds, but when I sound it out, they’re close enough, so it sounds like I’m saying the same thing. You’re right that the Beijing accents are hard to understand not because of the separation of z/zh and s/sh. I’ve actually been thinking about that and trying to pinpoint what it is that makes it hard to understand.

  13. If someone from an area that pronounces an “n” as an “l” were more educated, would they strive to not have that quirk. I guess I am asking if it is wrong for them to do it that way or is it just different?

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