Why Is Nǎlǐ 哪里 Written Wrong?

First of all, let’s just hear what nǎlǐ 哪里 is supposed to sound like when said by a native speaker (excerpt from Chinese 24/7 audio files):

(hopefully Firefox users won’t have trouble with these)

qù nǎlǐ 去哪里? = Where are you going?

Now by itself: nǎlǐ 哪里

It’s clearly a 3-3 combo, just like nǐ hǎo 你好:

If it were really nǎli, it would sound like other 3-5 combinations such as zǒu ba 走吧:

In a 3-5 combination the second syllable is basically a 1st tone (maybe a little shortened). That’s not how nǎli sounds to me. I’m not talking about the 3-3 turning into a 2-3, we know that. I’m talking about whether the second syllable is up high (like a 5th tone would be after a 3rd tone) or down low (like a 3rd tone would be at the end of a compound word). I can’t hear it as anything but a 3rd tone.

Ok, is everyone convinced? It’s pronounced nǎlǐ (tones 3-3) and not nǎli (tones 3-5). I’ve never heard it pronounced with a 3-5 combination that I can remember.

Now let’s do a little research. Check all your dictionaries and see how it’s written. Here are my results:

  • Chubby: Nǎli – WRONG!
  • Lenny
    • “Where” (E-C): not present, only gives nǎr 哪儿
    • 哪里” (C-E): Nǎli – WRONG!
  • Big Red
    • “Where” (E-C): Nǎlǐ – CORRECT!
    • 哪里” (C-E): Nǎli – WRONG!
  • MDBG: Nǎlǐ – CORRECT!
  • Nciku: Nǎli- WRONG!

So my questions for everyone are:

  1. What does your dictionary have for 哪里?
  2. Has anyone ever heard nǎlǐ 哪里 pronounced with a 3-5 tone combo?
  3. If so, where are you?
  4. If not, why is it wrong in 4/6 places in my dictionaries?

I didn’t think about this until after my book had already gone to print so I’m sorry to say that it’s consistently written as “nǎli” throughout the pages of Chinese 24/7. I thought the variations in the writing of the tones was due to the “secret tone” phenomenon. You know, like cōngming 聪明 or péngyou 朋友, where everyone knows what tone that second character has (2 and 3, respectively) but some people will pronounce the real tone (especially if they speak slowly) and some people will pronounce it as a 5th (“light”) tone.

If I’d only really thought about it, I would have seen that’s not the case with nǎlǐ 哪里. Why, oh why did I trust the majority opinion of the dictionaries? Why didn’t I listen to my heart? If we ever do a second printing, I’m definitely going with nǎlǐ unless someone can back me off the ledge and tell me everything’s going to be ok.

[update 3 June 2009]

I guess I should have included more examples of what I’m talking about. Here are three different ways to say “nali” 那里 with three different tone combos.

Before we get distracted, the real issue is not my pronunciation of these three examples. I’m not a native speaker and I’m not claiming these are the “correct” ways to say these combinations. I’m just hoping I got close enough to give ya’ll a ball-park idea of what the differnet tone combos might sound like. Feel free to criticize the zhonglish tones if I got them wrong.

But the real question is: Which of these have you heard native speakers say? (We’re going for descriptive rather than prescriptive rules here.)

Option #1: nǎlǐ (na3 li3)

Option #2: náli (na2 li5)

Option #3: nǎli (na3 li5)

My theory is that we’ve heard #1 and #2 but never #3. If that’s true, then it is written wrong (as option #3) in many dictionaries.

33 Replies to “Why Is Nǎlǐ 哪里 Written Wrong?”

  1. @Alerbt

    To be a native, sometimes I also feel very strange for some Chinese word pronunciation. Some word you can’t seperate that from a sentence, if you did, the pronunciation will be different.

    For example:

    你周末要去哪里? nǐ zhōu mò yào qù nǎ li
    I believe the native with a good flat accent will pronounce 哪里 with “nǎ li”

    If someone pronounce that “nǎ lǐ”, that’s sound not smoothly. That means, in there,you needn’t foucus on “ only a light tone is ok,otherwise the pronunciation looks really like “LaoWai” do.

    If I speake “你周末要去哪里?” to a westen guy. I will speak this slowly and word by word. So, in this situation, “哪里” will be pronounced as “nǎ lǐ”, Becasue I want to foucus on each word. But this pronounciation will let Chinese native feel very strange.

    As same as 聪明,in the following sentence , I suggest you guys prounce as “cōnɡ minɡ”.

    Meanwhile, I don’t suggest you follow the dictionary’s explain. you learn Chinese, the goal is speak as a native. If the dictionary suggest you pronounce that 3-3 tone, maybe that can only let you get a right answer but lost the “native” pronunciation.

  2. @ShyNloc,
    Yes, you’re right. That’s how it sounds. But the question is not whether it’s “Nálǐ” (2-3) or “Náli” (2-5). Those are both pronounced very similarly (especially when spoken quickly). If it appeared in dictionaries as either of those I wouldn’t have written this post.

    The question is whether it’s ever pronounced “Nǎli” (3-5)?

    When the “li” is pronounced lightly (in a good flat accent), we just want to know if it’s light up high, or light down low?

  3. @Albert
    I peruse your post, however I really can’t understand what’s light up high or light down low?

    Would you pls clarify that clearly?

  4. I’m not a native speaker of Mandarin, but Albert is obviously right that 走吧 and 哪裡 have totally different tonal contours even though both are spelled 3-5 in pinyin.

    My best guess is that with a neutral tone is influenced to a certain extent by its “underlying” third tone, so that it behaves like a third tone except for being shorter and lighter. , of course, is not associated with the third tone in any way and so does not behave like this.

    Whatever the case, the dictionary compilers who write “nǎli” probably know what they are doing; they intend the word to be pronounced differently from a full “nǎlǐ”. But what they have in mind is most certainly not the tonal contour of “zǒu ba”.

  5. To answer your original first question “What does your dictionary have for 哪里?”, the iPhone QinWen application gives back Nǎli

    Maybe you can consider asking the Chinese teachers at http://www.chineseteachers.com to see how they say it – always best asking the natives.

    And with the free $5 credit until the end of the month, you can ask the question AND practice the tones for nearly 20 minutes with them for free!

    Hope you enjoy the offer – ends May 31st

  6. “nǎli” probably know what they are doing

    I agree!

    Example 1:
    Mother said to Mike: Mike,你明天要去哪里(nǎli

    Son: 和我朋友去参加聚会。

    I suppose , Mike’s mother had a feeling his son will go out and hope to make clear where he go…so , in this situation, 哪里 will be pronounced “nǎ li”.

    Example 2:

    My friend Mary: 你周末要去哪里?“Ná lǐ” (My opinion: “nǎ li” is also available )

    I 我要去长城。

    Mary totally don’t know what’s my plan at weekend, so she want to know what’s my plan at weekend—Where will I go at the weekend.

  7. I think this is one of those cases where it’s not really supposed to have a tone, eg in 喜欢, but people tend to put one there anyway, either by speaking slowly, for emphasis, or by force of habit.

    So I’m going for a 3/5, and I also believe that in 走吧 doesn’t have to be high – it’s only high when you are adding emphasis or again talking slowly, and in a normal situation it shouldn’t be high.

    I reckon the problem with these fifth tones is that when you are thinking about them over again in your mind you end up placing emphasis on them, which can be misleading.

  8. Well, books tend to give the “theoretical” tones for and even in words or sentences where they aren’t pronounced with that tone due to tone sandhi. I guess it’s the same here – the dictionaries use the “official” tone for even though it is obviously pronounced with tone 2 in 哪里. Another interesting example is 指甲which is often given as tone 3 – tone 3 but is pronounced something like tone 1 – tone 5.

  9. I wonder if there is a special, unwritten rule governing the pronunciation of 3-5(3) words (i.e. disyllabic words in which the first syllable is 3rd tone while the second has a neutral tone derived from a 3rd tone) like 哪裡 and 指甲? (指甲 is given as 3-5 in some dictionaries but, as Mikael pointed out, is not pronounced in the expected manner.)

  10. Toooooooo much complicated………..you know, native guys don’t care the things like sandhi etc. Just like western guys, do you guys learn phonetic symbol and pronounce according to it strictly ?

    Just like I learn english, the english phonetic symbol is very usuful when I began my english learning. But I found if I strickly pronounce according to it, it will lead me to a wrong way. becasue sometimes the western guy’s pronunciation have some small difference with what the phonetic symbol told me.

    So the best way for me to practice english is install a Satellite dish and watch CNN,BBC,Discovery, HBO. Becasue I know that’s the real pronounciation that native do.

  11. I absolutely agree with 哪里 having the wrong tones if it is written na3li5, since it is definitely na3li3. (or with tone sandhi: na2li3)

    走吧 is a true 3-5 tone combination.

    The from 哪里 can be pronounced lightly, but as can the from 你好, as can the from 没有, for example. Even if this is indeed pronounced lightly, it is still not a 3-5 tone contour.

    I am not a native speaker, but I pay very close attention to tones (having also been in a semi-Chinese speaking environment for years) and have studied some phonetics before.

    This is at least what I have noticed through personal experience.

    In respose to 大羽:
    I have never heard a native speaker of Chinese pronounce 哪里 with a 3-5 tone contour (which would be the same tone contour as 走吧). Perhaps this exists, but it does not sound like standard Mandarin. (at least not standard Mandarin from Mainland China).

  12. @ Bryce:

    I consider that again and again, I agree 哪里 should be pronounced 3-3tonebut sometimes the second 3tone is very shortened.

    Compare with 走吧 3-5tone, 哪里 shouldn’t be 3-5tone…

    Maybe I can find a way record my pronounciation and post the hyperlink there.

  13. @ 大羽:

    I think that the 3-3 tone combination is very rarely pronounced like it is taught in the classroom/textbooks. I had trouble with this years ago when I first started learning Mandarin..

    The second 3rd tone from 哪里 or 没有, etc. is rarely realized as a full 3rd tone, but can be effectively described as a low 5th tone/shortened 3rd tone (which doesn’t go up). However, it is not the same as the official 5th tone (the tone of which changes in all 4 tone combinations).

    What is confusing is that the official 5th tone has 4 different realisations (sounds?) depending on the tone which precedes it.

    Tone of first syllable,Pitch of neutral tone
    1 ˥ ˨ (2)
    2 ˧˥ ˧ (3)
    3 ˨˩ ˦ (4)
    4 ˥˩ ˩ (1)


    If one looks at the “true tones” of the 5th tone (where it actually “realizes itself” (not sure if that is correct Eng)), one will see that the tone contour of the 3-5 combination (走吧) is similar to a 3-1 combination, with the second tone being shortened.

    The 3-3 combination, when the second tone being shortened/pronounced lightly, (which is very frequent) is similar to a ˨˧˥ – ˩ combination. (this being my personal observation)

    (I think it is more clear when you look at these bars (like the ones used in Cantonese), since they represent the tone contours better than the tone numbers/diacritics in 拼音)

  14. (oh.. where did my last message go? It was here last time I checked… ) Ha anyway you can check out wikipedia for information about the neutral tone.

  15. @ Bryce

    That’s a great pronounciation lesson for me,hehe….It’s very impressive.

    Last time another western guy ask me, what’s the difference between “我们” and “咱们 I answered the question thoughtless,”Both are same….but 咱们 looks more friendly and intimate ” Few days later, that guy tell me what’s the difference, I totally agree with that.

    Thanks Bryce!

  16. I’ve just posted an update with me pronouncing the different tone combos. I hope that will clear up any confusion on what I’m talking about. I’d be very curious to know if anyone thinks my theory is right (i.e. that it’s never pronounced “na3 li5”).

    I hope I got those audio files and the link embedded correctly.

  17. Ah~~ now that I see your explanation, Albert, I realized that the na3li5 should indeed be a na2li5.
    (perhaps more clear than what I had written before : “˨˧˥ ˩”)

    It is also more clear with your sound files. Thanks for the update.

  18. @大羽

    You says “nǐ zhōu mò yào qù nǎ li
    but the “na3li5” I never heard.

    Pleae don’t confuse us, ok? if you think you are right, post a audio record.

    and I just ask several my chinese friends, in daily they just simply say “nǎr” ,and if read text on class ,it is “na2li3” .

    The “na3li3” just in single word, if in sentence, very few, because it’s too formal.

  19. It’s quite simple actually.
    It is at heart a 3-3 word. But the “li” goes neutral. Nonetheless, the phantom third tone of the “li” still carries enough weight to make the 3-3 tone sandhi come into play. Tht would of course make it into a 2-3 combination. But again, the “li” has gone toneless.
    Hence, 2-5.
    Na2li is the standard pronunciation.

  20. Zero,

    I think you’re right, and your explanation is great (I love the “phantom tones,” which was one of the original names for a Star Wars movie by the way, but it got changed in pre-production). But I don’t think that’s very simple. This is a very common word for first year (week) learners of Chinese to encounter and they shouldn’t be expected to figure that out on their own.

    I think an alternate explanation is that it’s really a 3-3 (like you and others have said) but that the second 3rd tone just falls away as so many do at the ends of words. In the sentence: “Wǒ yào hē shuǐ” 我要喝水, the final shui3 would sound “toneless” most of the time just because it’s a 3rd tone at the end.

  21. I searched many files in the library,the answer should be as following:

    When two 3rd tones come together, the first tone changes tinto the 2nd(but its tone-graph remains “V”). e.g

    你好nǐ hǎo” and “哪里nǎ lǐ ” is actually pronounced as “你好ní hǎo” and “哪里ná lǐ”

  22. One more thing,

    When a syllable in the 3rd tone precedes a syllable inthe 1st,2nd,4th or neutral tone, it is pronounced in the “half 3rd tone”, that is, the tone only falls but doesn’t rise.

    你们nǐ mén”—-> “你们ni(half 3rd tone) mén “

  23. 大羽,
    Thank you very much for the evidence that 哪里 should never be written as “na3 li5”. I think we’re all in agreement now that, judging by the way it is pronounced (we’re talking “descriptive” here people), the pinyin should be “na3 li3” OR “ni2 li5.” I think, given those two choices “na3 li3” is a MUCH better option since both and have 3rd tones when written by themselves.

    As for tone changes and combinations, I’ve mapped them all out. I wish I had an electronic copy to show everyone, but it’s just in my book. For complete explanations and diagrams of all two-tone combinations, see page 83-84 (unfortunately the Amazon “Search inside this book” feature isn’t up and running yet).

  24. Search up Mandarin tone changes.
    When a third tone is followed by a third tone, the first one alters to a second tone. This is more noticeable in oral communication rather than written.

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