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” 了 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” 吧:
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:
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:
yǔqì méi nàme zhòng.
The tone of voice isn’t that serious.
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.