Funnest Things to Say

DISCLAIMER: In case I have a Chinese reader, I should tell you “funnest” isn’t a real word.

This post started out innocently enough as a fun way to test the new audio plugin (thanks to Beijing Sounds for the tip) and celebrate the joy of speaking a foreign language. But in the end (as you’ll see at the end) I ended up documenting some bona fide “tone fudging” by a real, live, Chinese native speaker. So, don’t touch that dial!

First, here are some things that roll so nicely off the tongue that I’m constantly looking for excuses to say them.

Top 4 Favorite Things to Say in Chinese:

Tech support note: If anyone is having trouble playing these audio files, please let me know and I’ll try to figure out what’s going on.

4. guàibude 怪不得 = No wonder

Of course you can also say, “nánguài” 难怪, which may actually get used more by real Chinese people, but where’s the fun in that?

3. chàbuduō 差不多 = more or less, almost, nearly

In addition to helping you accomplish all your equivocating goals, it’s useful with an added “le” to mean:

chàbuduō le 差不多了 = That’s about enough (stop giving me rice / time to go home now, etc.)

2. suàn le ba 算了吧 = forget it / never mind

Here’s an example where you could use it with or without the “ba” :

A: yǒu méiyǒu hóngsè de? 有没有红色的? = Do you have a red one?
B: méiyǒu 没有 = No.
A: suàn le (ba) 算了() = Ok, never mind / forget it then.

Now, “méi guānxi” 没关系 also means “never mind” but it can also mean “it doesn’t make any difference.” If you really only want a red one (let’s say a lamp) then “suàn le ba” gets you out of buying one. But if you say “méi guānxi” it may imply that the color isn’t that important and you might still be interested in a white one.

But, as if our lives weren’t bitter enough, here’s an extremely confusing situation where “suàn le” 算了 means the opposite:

A: zhège duōshao qián? 这个多少钱? = How much does this cost?
B: wǔshíwǔ kuài 五十五块 = 55 yuan.
A: wǔshí kěyǐ ma? 五十可以吗? = 50, ok?
B: suàn le, suàn le 算了算了 = Ok, ok (it’s a deal).

The best way I can think of to explain this is: if the buyer says “suàn le” 算了, it means he doesn’t want it. But if the seller says “suàn le” 算了 to a price, it means it’s acceptable. I’d love to hear someone else take a crack at clarifying why that is.

1. niǔ niǔ niē niē 扭扭捏捏 = to be fake shy / to hesitate

While opportunities to say this are rare, it’s got to be the most fun thing to say in Chinese I’ve found so far. It literally means “twist twist pinch pinch” (again, someone please explain why).

To use it to scold your students for taking too long to decide who’s going to speak first in a dialog, you can add the imperative “don’t want”:

bú yào niǔ niǔ niē niē 不要扭扭捏捏 = don’t pretend to be shy

BONUS: Tone Fudging

You may have noticed that “niǔ niǔ niē niē” becomes “niú niǔ niē niē.” That’s codified. The ol’ “two 3rd tones becomes a 2nd and a 3rd” rule. But did you notice what happened to the “bú yào”?

When I recorded my informant saying the above phrase, I noticed a very interesting little phenomenon: she doesn’t say “bú yào不要 with a second and fourth tone like we’ve been told we’re supposed to. Instead, it sounds like “bǔ yáo” or maybe “bú yáo.”

I asked her if I heard that right and she said she could also do it the other “standard” way, but that the tone of voice (yǔqì 语气) would be different (she explains it all at the end of this post).

Here’s the standard way:

bú yào niǔ niǔ niē niē

Now, let’s listen to the first way followed directly by this “standard” way:

1. bǔ yáo niǔ niǔ niē niē

2. bú yào niǔ niǔ niē niē

And just for kicks, only the “bu yao’s” in isolation, repeated to really shine the spotlight on the phenomenon (sorry the “n” of “niu” is at the end of each–it sounds like “bu yaon” but we can deal with that, right?):

1. bǔ yáo

2. bú yào

Here’s her explanation of the difference:

bǔ yáo niǔniǔniēniē” jiùshì bǐjiào kǒuyǔhuà de.
“[the first way]” is relatively colloquial.

yǔqì méi nàme zhòng.
The tone of voice isn’t that serious.

bú yào niǔniǔniēniē” jiùshì yǒu yìdiǎn shēngqì de gǎnjué.
“[the second way]” has a little bit of an angry feeling.

So there you have it, straight from a native speaker’s mouth. It opens up a whole new discussion called, “Well, how do we know what tones can be fudged to express feelings?” The short answer: we don’t, only they do.

I can’t help but think that this would have been called “Zhonglish” if it had come from a foreigner. But since it’s from a native speaker, it’s bona fide, acceptable Chinese. I’m sure there’s a lot more tone fudging going on with native speakers than we know about. I hope to get some more examples. Maybe I’ll start a whole new post category on it! Regardless, this is the first empirical evidence that what I wrote in Tone Wars isn’t as cut and dried as I originally thought.

18 Replies to “Funnest Things to Say”

  1. Nice 😉 Plugin works, only chokes part of a sec in the beginning while first replay (works after that). This type of thing appens quite often with flash (youtube etc), maybe there’s nothing to do about it, and maybe it’s only my computer. After all it’s the broken design of the windows scheduler 😉

  2. Glad you got the plugin jumpstarted. And the bǔyáo thing is intriguing. I’m sure there are more complicated “rules” to the tone game, and maybe you’re onto one of them here. Might be regional too. Hard for me to imagine Beijingers doing the same thing. But then again, my intuition’s pretty unreliable about this kind of thing. I’ll keep my ears open.

    About “funnest” — not a word? I’d argue it’s a word, but just one that you’d only use in a very casual register.

  3. Totally agree with the ‘suan le’ theory in buying and selling.

    suàn le (the seller says)= xíngba , hǎoba ( unwillingly)

    One case, the seller indeed charges a low price with being eager to sell his goods out.

    Another, the seller says suàn le to show that he’s given in to the bargaining, meanwhile, make the customer feel satisfied with this deal. Then, more regular customers.
    A sort of psychology? hehe

  4. Here’s my take on it. I don’t think I hear the two variations as:

    1. bǔ yáo
    2. bú yào

    I hear this:

    1. weak-bú very-weak-yào
    2. bú strong-yào

    I hear them both as bú yào, where the primary difference is in emphasis: (1) is not emphasized; (2) is.

    Our starting point is “bù yào” and the rule for changing it to “bú yào”. I interpret the rule to really be saying that bu comes in lower than yao and kind of slides into it. I think this is consistent with (1) and (2), primarily because I don’t hear a rising yao in (1). What I hear is a very de-emphasized, flat yao. In order for the the bu to come in under the yao in both cases, I think it might be going too far to say it’s bǔ vs. bú. I think it’s all about emphasis, rather than true tone modification.

  5. I haven’t visited in awhile but the new sound clips are a real treat! I’ll look forward to using them as well as practicing suanleba and bu yao niu niu nie nie as soon as the opportunity presents itself!

    Since you asked . . . the way it strikes me (as a total idiot) regarding suanleba is that it matters who the speaker in terms of what that speaker is referring to. If I say “suanle,” it means I’ll back off on what I was demanding, but if you are the one saying it, it means that you’ll back off on what you were demanding. As we notice, a highly contextual language!

  6. As far as I know,

    At first niǔ nie was described walking with swaying motions.
    Now it refers to squirming.

    Here, nie has little meaning of pinch.

  7. I recent came across this during one of the many tangents in my Chinese classes:
    我就是一只蛤蟆掉井里… *不懂*!
    “I’m just a frog that falls in a well… *bu dong*!”

    It’s not a set phrase; this joke is about the idea of connecting the sound a frog makes when it hits the water after a long drop with the meaning of “不懂”. Our friends said they used to use this as a joke in high school. but since it’s not a set phrase, it may take a little more finesse to use it.

    Question: does “我就是…” mean “I’m just a…” (no one special) or “I’m precisely/exactly/specifically…”? I had trouble getting that defined from my teachers.

  8. Whoops, forgot to say: I also find the reader’s pronunciation of “” or “niu” kind of weird (I heard it’s sort of a Singaporean accent, not sure on that). Niu is actually one of the pinyins which misleads people from it’s real sound like “q” and “x”. At least in Taiwan and Mainland, “niu” is pronouced as “nyo” or “nyo-u” when exaggerated and not “nyu”.

  9. I had dinner with a Chinese friend last night (from Shanghai). She was talking with my wife in Mandarin. I *clearly* heard her say “hen3 duo4” instead of “hen3 duo1” on the end of a sentence. When I asked her about it, she flatly denied it.

    Tone fudging: It happens.

  10. I am also a Firefox user, and strangely enough, it seems to have stopped working for me too. When I click on a play button, the page just sits there saying “buffering”.

  11. And what’s really weird is I’m also using Firefox and they work fine for me! Do they work in other browsers? Maybe an internet connection problem? Anyone?

  12. When I use Internet Explorer they do work fine, however whey I use Firefox they don’t.
    I tested with two different computers (using a different network). On one I have the problem that the status remains “buffering” when I hit play. On the other computer the buttons don’t even show up. I was first thinking that it might be an ad blocker, but even after having disabled them the problem remains.

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