Who's Ed?

10 Nov 2003

A while ago I got an e-mail from a friend teaching not far from Hangzhou, in Shaoxing. Some of the veteran China blog readers might remember her from Shutty.net (R.I.P.). Hers was one of the original 10 or so blogs listed when I first started the China Blog List. Anyway, here’s an excerpt from what she wrote me:

as for me, i learned two new characters this week. ping and yin. meaning taste and print. only because i like ping. i see it all over and think “3 boxes, now that’s a good character. easy on the eyes. memorable. wonderful.” so i asked the kids and they provided answers. not without taking the piss first of course. and yin is because i always think in certain styles of font, it looks like “ED” which is my dad’s name. and i see that one everywhere too. when i told my kids the reason, it sent one girl into hysterics for the next 15 minutes. is it so hard to believe it looks like “ED”? it does!

I rather agree with her. It does look like “ED.”
A note about “ping” though. Many southern Chinese dialects don’t contain the “-ng” final, so when southerners speak Mandarin they often mispronounce that final. Some southerners know they have the southern accent and don’t care; others actively pursue a more standard accent. Some of them pull it off with flying colors, but others never quite do. In fact, some southerners not only pronounce the “-ng” final as “-n” sometimes, but they hypercorrect as well. They pronounce “-n” as “-ng,” trying to sound more “standard,” when “-n” was the correct sound in the first place. I think this was the case with “ping” above. It should be “pin.”

Despite the nonstandard elements of southern Mandarin (also, s/sh, c/ch, z/zh go undistinguished, all passing as s, c, z, respectively), I still think the south is a good place to learn Mandarin for the conscientious learner. It can be a little annoying to not be able to trust native speakers about the pinyin spellings of characters, but soon you learn that when a southern person says “zi” it could very well be “zhi” in standard Mandarin. Thus, learning Mandarin here — and comprehending Mandarin here — requires a greater deal of mental flexibility. I think it’s worth the extra effort, too. I can understand southern Mandarin easily, and that makes deciphering the full-on dialects easier. The best part is that when I go to Beijing, people sound like their speech came straight out of the audio tapes that accompany Chinese textbooks. It’s so crystal clear and easy to understand. It feels like the training weights strapped to my legs have finally been removed. The less standard elements of Beijing dialect take a little getting used to, but I feel it’s not very difficult.

Despite the relative ease in comprehension of northern Mandarin, though, there’s something comforting about being back south, surrounded by “substandard” speech. It feels realer somehow. To me, anyway, it feels more like home.

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John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.

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