Reductions: Missing Sounds

There are various reasons why listening comprehension in Chinese is difficult. In addition to those máfan tones, a homonym minefield, and countless regional accent variations, it’s also important to know Chinese has reductions. Much in the same way English has words that get crunched together and some sounds fall aways (like “going to” becomes “gonna”), here are some examples of Chinese reductions that can throw your listening comprehension for a loop if you’re not ready for them.

The reduced sound on the other side of the “->” arrow is my own approximation of what it sounds like to me, and is not standard pinyin.

bǐjiào 比较 ->bǐyào

Here’s a link to an audio file (you’ll need Quick Time) and PDF transcript where this reduction happens in the first sentence. This resource, Working with Spoken Chinese, headed up by Professor Hongyin Tao at UCLA would be great if it had English translations on the transcripts. But, it doesn’t.

duōshao qián 多少钱 -> duō’ao qián

I don’t have any recordings to prove this (yet) but, watch for it. That “sh” just drops right away.

bù zhīdào 不知道 -> bù rīdào

The “ri” there more resembles the actual Chinese pronunciation of the “ri” combonation (like in rì ). I’m sure it’s not exactly the same, but that’s kind of what it sounds like to me. Regardless or what it is, it certainly doesn’t have the hard “d” sound at the beginning of the “zh” that it usually does.

bú è 不饿 -> bè

Interestingly, the “be” combination doesn’t appear on the Pinyin Chart, but I’ve heard it clear as day when someone wants to say quickly how hungry they aren’t. Other common phrases starting with “bù” seem to leave out the “u” just like this (for example, “bù hǎo” 不好 sometimes sounds like “b’ hǎo” to me when it’s said fast).

For Listening Not Speaking

I’m not suggesting we talk like this, because there are probably various little subtleties to saying these reductions “correctly” that we don’t know about. I’m still going to try to say everything as clearly as possible (although, I must confess that I do try to use the reduced forms of these from time to time, just as an academic experiment to see if I’ll be understood). Identifying these is mostly to help with our listening.

If anyone else has noticed these or other reductions that I haven’t mentioned, please feel free to leave a comment identifying the phenomenon. Also, if anyone comes across any recordings that demonstrate these, for example at Chinesepod, please leave us the link and what time (approximately) in the file it happens at, so we can hear it for ourselves.

13 Replies to “Reductions: Missing Sounds”

  1. Great post! Becoming familiar with these reductions will save us learners a lot of grief.

    I’ve also heard xie4-e, that is, 谢谢 with the second “xie” reduced to the point of oblivion (but still noticeably different than a single ).

    It’s worth noting that some reductions have become so standard that they have their own characters. Thus, beng4, a reduction of 不用bu2yong4, is written , with the “bu4” on top and the “yong4” underneath. I also suspect that bie2, in the sense of “don’t”, is a reduction of 不要bu2yao4 (although I’m just guessing about this).

  2. Duo shao qian -> duo ‘ao qian (duo er qian)
    Is beijing/tianjin.., it’s not used anywhere else, because when I travel over the rest of china/asia the moment I say it people ask, for who long did I live in Beijing.

    bu ri dao.., haven’t heard, but the enunciation sounds very much like it’s from Shandong.., where they also say -> Zhi bu Dao.., meaning the same thing.., (in Shangdong).

    Probably the most common and offical contraction is Yi Hao -> Yao. It’s used all over chinese speaking asia. Yi Hao means the number, one. To separate it from the thousand other meanings of Yi. Yao means 1 as in telephone numbers, addresses and the like. Oddly enough beijingers believe they are the only ones who use it…, go figure…,

  3. BTW, bie is a word. But it does have a close meaning to bu yao. Bie is quite polite way of saying don’t. Bu yao -> don’t. Bie -> Please don’t.

  4. These reductions are a lot of fun. The culture of instant messaging has managed to do the same thing to the Chinese language that it has to English, and there are tons of these little conventions in regular use. Here are a few more common ones I know of and the characters they use for them:

    (jiang4, “sauce”) for 这样(zhe4 yang4, “like this”)
    (biao3) for 不要(bu2 yao4)

    There’s a complex world out there of 火星文 (huo3 xing1 wen2, “Martian”), the way people refer in Taiwan to wierd, unorthodox little conventions of speech used by young people on their cell phones. Totally contrary to what I thought when first understood Chinese was an ideographic language, there seems to be a way to write anything! Take this:

    偶口以吗?(ou3 kou3 yi3 ma?, “Can I?”)
    Some people use (ou3) for (wo3) and (kou3) for (ke3) because it represents how someone would say this sentence with a strong Taiwanese accent.

    They’ve got Taiwanese-isms, Cantonese-isms, even loan words that came from English through Japanese:

    麻吉(ma2 ji2) from Japanese マッチ(macchi, I think) from the English word “match”.

    The ones they use straight from English are the coolest:

    黑皮(hei1 pi2) from “happy”
    咕狗(gu1 gou3, “muttering dog”?) from “Google”
    3Q (san1 Q) for “thank you”

    Hope that was interesting. +U everyone! 886!

  5. Ian,

    Great to hear from you. It seems like it’s been a while since you chimed in. As always, you’re contributions are very useful and highly entertaining. I love the accent approximations and combos! I had no idea. But to people ever SAY “biao” when they mean “bu yao” or is it just for texting?

  6. kf,

    I never knew that’s where “yao” came from. But that makes sense. It’s kind of like my theory for where “zheige” and “neige” came from (the alternative pronunciations of “zhege” 这个 and “nage” 那个). I thought, probably people were saying “zhe yi ge” 这一个 so much it just became “zheige” when spoken because the number one (“yi” ) isn’t really necessary there. I just thought of that riding my bike home one day in Kunming, but maybe there’s some linguistic evidence that can confirm or deny my little theory. Anyone know?

  7. In Chinese, 1 is supposed to represent the most important thing/person.
    yīhào wénjiàn一号文件 : the important document
    dì yi míng : number one

    And, ‘important’ in Chinese is zhòngyào.
    There are some words like
    yàodiǎn要点:main point
    yàowén要闻:the important news
    Yàojiàn要件:the important document.
    So, I guess, maybe the people speak ‘yao’ to show the special meaning of ‘yi hao’.

  8. Nicki,

    Thanks for the tip! I’m now a subscriber of Beijing Shengr. I enjoyed some of the posts so much that I’m thinking about doing a little feature on them.

  9. kf and Helen:

    I don’t know of any evidence that “yao” is formed from and . There is a character for that yao1: . I don’t have any etymological dictionaries here that happen to include that character (it’s very infrequent), so I can’t check it and give you any reference, but I wouldn’t assume there was any relationship between , , and .

    People use when saying phone numbers and other non-quantitative numbers presumably to add more contrast with .

    You can say:
    一个, 两个

    But you cannot say:
    *幺个, *二个

    When yao1 is written nowadays, it is written like this: “1”.

  10. My first visit here, found the blog accidentally really, and I just wanted to say I’ve enjoyed my visit and had some good reads while here 🙂

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