No Chinese Story Voices

In a comment on my Sign Language Expression post, commenter Justin writes:

> You know what else I noticed? Chinese don’t make any voices but their own when delivering stories. Of course relating real stories my “bad ass dad” voice and “bitchy mom” voice are nothing like my parent’s real voices, but they can reveal a lot about my attitude towards the things they would say to me. (Be it authoritarian or intentionally trying to annoy me by talk on about trivial affairs.)

Interesting observation! I had never thought about that before, but after going over it in my head a while, I couldn’t think of any personal instances to counter Justin’s claim. The only “voice” I can recall Chinese friends doing is the “foreigner accent,” or “Taiwan accent,” which is not the same thing.

I suspect there’s more to this… anyone have any anecdotes to add, or links to linguistic research on the cross-cultural role of “doing voices” in communication?


John Pasden

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


  1. There’s a children’s story hour on Taipei Philharmonic Radio 臺北愛樂where the host reads stories with many different voices like you describe. I also have heard friends imitate other people’s voices and accents when quoting them.

  2. Some of my students definitely have “bad-ass general voices” when bragging about their exploits in the new 三國無雙 video game. I’ve also heard the occasional “kungfu master voice” during break time.

  3. I don’t know, I had a teacher in my second year Chinese class who once brought in a children’s book and read it to us with all kinds of different “voices”. She was from Taiwan, not the mainland, so I’m not sure if perhaps there is some difference there. I can’t think of anyone I know from the mainland ever having done it, but in my experience “voices” are generally used when telling stories to children and/or talking to animals, and I haven’t been around many Chinese people in either type of situation.

  4. Interesting, but I’ve noticed that when my wife is telling a story and quotes somebody, she’ll go into a high-pitched “kiddie”-voice, regardless of who she’s quoting- me, her father, a child, anybody. I can’t think of any other examples, though, so maybe she’s the exception that proves the rule?

  5. I’ve noticed the same thing. I can’t remember ever hearing a native Chinese speaker use different voices. The native Chinese speakers I know just talk louder and/or faster.

    No one in my wife’s family does. My wife does occassionaly, but she has been living in the west for over a decade.

  6. brodie Says: May 6, 2008 at 8:46 am

    A heavily westernised friend of mine often uses voices, usually when recounting sexual stories, in a variety of ways. Often its pretty similar to voices used in american movies, like american pie. Another example of chinese picking up influences from foriegn languges?

  7. One important distinction I didn’t make clear enough is storytelling VS. telling a story in normal conversation and using voices. I think the former is much more likely to involve funny voices, in any culture. The latter is what this post is talking about.

  8. Peter Jeziorek Says: May 6, 2008 at 9:41 am

    I have to second Chriswaugh_bj that women will go into a higher pitched (嗲) and frantic voice when mimicking another person. I’ve heard this from my step-mom (who is from Mainland), and I think I’ve heard Jenny Zhu speak like that before too. I’d be hard pressed to find the exact lesson — but I’ll keep an open ear for it. And you can catch her if she does it too 😉

  9. On a related note, I guess one thing Chinese lacks is a way to write dialect or funny pronunciation. Think of Mark Twain’s Huck Finn, where there are something like 15 recognizable different dialects/accents of American English.

    I have asked Chinese friends about this– is there some way to express in writing Shanghai people’s lispiness, “Fulan” people’s pronunciation, etc? They said you would just write “…he said in a Sichuan accent.” Of course different regions have different word choice preferences, too.

  10. I overheard a conversation on the bus the other day where a woman was recounting a conversation with her child and she did a high-pitched baby voice for the sentences beginning with “ma ma”. So cute! But now that you mention it, I don’t think I’ve heard it anywhere else.

  11. Heard a Taiwanese woman do a great ‘Taiwanese mother telling her daughter she should get married already’ voice — in English! Dead funny. But that was in a Toastmasters speech, and there could be some western influences at work.

  12. Interesting comment — I have noticed a similar observation as Justin in my Chinese university classes, and have used this lack of “voice changes” as a teaching tool. (See link below) Love the blog!

  13. In the office yesterday I was just struck by exactly this… one of the secs was talking on the phone to a friend/family person and went into what was obviously an exaggerated mocking parody of someone. My chinese isn’t good enough to pick up the content but she was obviously semi-derisively making fun of somebody and all the other secretaries did that hidden quiet-snicker-to-themselves thing that is pretty much the local equivalent of uproarious uncontrolled laughter in the workplace. My assistant probably went home to her husband and declared it the funniest day at work ever.

    What was striking was that I’ve almost never heard/seen that kind of ‘impression’ in regular conversation.

  14. Abstract Says: May 7, 2008 at 9:47 am

    I disagree with the observation. I think the reason why you guys don’t encounter voice impressions is because Chinese people are more restrained in the presence of Westerners.

    Of course, voice impressions vary form person to person, but my parents for instance use voice impressions all the time.

    Chriswaugh’s observation is correct. All my female relatives use the kiddie voice all the time. In fact, it’s not limited to voice impression. Oftentimes, it indicates intimacy. For instance, two women greeting each other, who haven’t seen each other in a while, might use the kiddie voice. But I’ve heard it in the West also.

    There is a specific high-pitched, pseudo-Beijing voice impression which only mainland guys use. Since I grew up in an overseas Teochiu family, I never heard that voice until grade 12, when I switched to a high-school with a large mainland population.

    This voice impression really annoyed me. As soon as someone used it in a room, I would feel compelled to walk away in disgust. Before I switched schools, I looked forward to hanging out with mainland kids. However, my aversion to that voice overcame me. Therefore, in the end I hung out with Cantonese kids instead.

  15. The reason is simple…it relates to a superstition that originated centuries ago…in Chinese culture, imitating another person’s voice will result in the imitator’s sudden death exactly one lunar cycle after the death of the person being imitated. This goes back to the Qin Dynasty, where Qin Shi Huang died suddenly at Shaqiu prefecture. Shortly before his death, he had told a story about a battle where he had imitated the voice of an enemy soldier that was killed. And so the legend was born and became ingrained in the culture.

  16. Pete Braden, why do you say that? For example:


  17. Ni Eng Lim Says: May 7, 2008 at 12:46 pm

    We may have to take into consideration how we define ‘voices’. “Voices’ usually appears in story-telling because we want to convey our own stance on top of demonstrating the original teller’s speech. In this sense, maybe we can define ‘voices’ as direct reported speech.

    In this case, besides tone of speech, we may also look into gestures if they are re-enactments of prior actions done in accordance with speech acts, and if these also convey the animator’s stance.

    In response to John’s queries, we may look into research done by Goffman on Footing, Harvey Sacks on Second Stories, Clark & Gerrig on quotations and John Lucy on Reflexive Language.

    As to whether Chinese are more prone not to use reported speech…..well… wife from Dongbei have them littered all over her constant story-telling and gossips.

  18. Abstract Says: May 7, 2008 at 2:57 pm

    I just remembered another common voice impression. It’s a bit 嗲 (dia3) as Peter Jeziorek suggested above, but it impresses one as exaggeratedly placid (慢條斯理). When a woman uses this voice to imitate someone, she suggests that the person makes unrealistic suggestions.

    For instance:

    Xiao Zi: ranhou Xiao Mei jiu gen wo shuo: aiya, Xiao Zi, ni chi shao dian jiu hui shou xia lai le. 然後小美就跟我說:哎呀,小紫,你吃少點就會瘦下來了。

    This implies that Xiao Mei’s suggestion is absolutely unrealistic – that it’s easier to offer good advice than to take it, etc. Aiya is important. Usually, there’s aiya.

    The same voice, when used to imitate oneself, indicates that one states the obvious.

    For instance,

    Xiao Zi: Ranhou wo gen Xiao Mei shuo: Aiya, Xiao Mei, ni chi le wo zheme duo pianyi, ye yinggai gou le ba. 然後我跟小美說:哎呀,小美,你吃了我這麽多便宜,也應該夠了吧。

    In this example, the placid voice indicates that Xiao Zi has already been as reasonable as reason can be. Xiao Mei has been very guofen 過分.

    I really enjoy listening to the dia voice when spoken by Chinese women. It has a very “homegirl” feel. At least for me, since I grew up amongst women who gossiped with the dia voice all the time.

    I like women with a “downhome” side. Not just in relationships, but even as mere friends and acquaintances. There’s something very beautiful with a woman who’s not afraid to be downhome, natural, and totally unpretentious.

    When women are free to be women, and do the ten thousand little things which women do so naturally, then totalitarian governments will disappear.

  19. I’ve always considered dia3 as extremely unnatural, reducing women to babies. One woman who sometimes comes to the office always talks in the voice of a two-year-old, I can’t help seeing it as a sort of pretending she’s not a grown woman (which she is) but still a little girl.
    But now that I know it helps against totalitarian governments, perhaps it will annoy me less 🙂

  20. Chinese do voices all the time. Maybe not as dramatic or obvious as in English but it’s there. As for women talking in high pitched voices, I’m thinking it’s a global phenomenon. My voice tends to get higher and talks faster when I’m exited. I’m trying to control it as I know lots of people find it annoying and anti-feminism or something.

  21. Hi Micah, I wasn’t able to open the link you provided. And I confess I’m not sure I “get” the text, either. My point is that there seems to be no sure-fire way of writing down consistent substitutions and alterations that people make depending on where they’re from, how much education they have, their state of drunkenness, etc.

    A simple example in English would be dropped g’s on “-ing” verbs…Anyway it’s just an observation. I’m fully ready to be shown otherwise.

  22. It looks like WordPress sorta borked the link. That “Chinese” I pasted there came from a BBS, and is actually Shanghainese transliterated into Chinese characters. So at least for dialects, and ignoring the need for a standard (different SH-nese write their dialect using different Chinese characters), there is a way of writing them in Chinese. As for slurred drunken speech, or other “unofficial” variations on Mandarin pronunciation, my Chinese isn’t up to that level so I haven’t read enough to have run across them. It would be fun to play with that, though. How do you write Chinese with a lisp?

  23. Tibetans have great imitations of people speaking other languages.

  24. I hate the two-year old voice that some women do – it’s especially common on TV and movies. That said, they’re not imitating anyone when they do it and they’re not telling stories. They’re just pouting or trolling for a compliment or for someone to feel sorry for them.

  25. Abstract Says: June 9, 2008 at 1:07 am

    Yes, but it is the right of women to receive compliments and the duty of men to give them. No shame accrues to a man who defers to women in things which do not offend his principles. Indeed, it is to his credit if he can give women sincere flattery.

  26. I’ve heard my chinese friend do a weird naggy voice when describing her mom 骂ing at her.

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