Translating Mispronunciations

I was recently watching an episode of the once-popular TV series Everybody Loves Raymond where the plot involved the main character’s mispronunciations of a few words. Naturally, I was curious how these slips of the tongue were translated into Chinese. The Chinese subtitles are tiny and pixelated, but if you strain a little you can see for yourself in the video below (10:28-13:08):

So what’s interesting about this translation is that tricky sequences of consonants in English, mispronounced, are being represented by wrong tones in Chinese. Here’s exactly how it plays out:

1. ask / *ax, 问 (wèn) / *刎 (wěn)

2. asterisk / *asterix, 星号 (xīnghào) / *星蚝 (xīngháo)

3. cinnamon / *cinnamum, 肉桂 (ròuguì) / *肉鬼 (ròuguǐ)

Originally I spotted this translation on DVD, but I went looking for it online to save time. Turns out that the video on Youku is a different translation, but exactly the same trick is used. In the version I first saw, 问 (wèn) was mispronounced as 闻 (wén).

So how is the translation? Would native Chinese speakers actually routinely make slip-ups of a tonal variety the way Ray does with “ax” and “asterix?” Actually, yes, but likely only if the speaker’s Mandarin is heavily influenced by another dialect. For example, my father-in-law is from the mountains of Hubei, and his Mandarin is pretty normal, but there are a few words whose tones he routinely mispronounces.


John Pasden

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


  1. heilong Says: June 9, 2009 at 2:34 pm

    Now this is something I always pondered on when it came to wordplay and translating it to Chinese, you have enlightened me. Great post.

  2. This is FACINATING! Now, if we could only find some sort of analogy for the dropping of final consonants that my English students do, our 比喻 arsenal would be complete.

  3. “This clip has been blocked in your region.”


  4. Yeah, second hobielover, “this clip has been blocked in your region.” The significance of this is the existence of “boundaries” and “borders” even in cyberspace. The whole premise and principal of the Internet was built on shared knowledge (at least for those with access to the Internet). Now that Internet access is very much global, there are boundaries erected. Funny how life goes, always someone shitting on someone else, that’s just how it goes. Add this the list, joined by Pandora (doesn’t play in Canada due to copyright laws/rights).

  5. I’ll ‘third; it: “This clip has been blocked in your region.” How many regions have you heard that from so far?

  6. youtube blocked by china due to “nation security”,they also blocked youku becase there are tons of pirate video。
    Anyway,I use UltraSurf for blocked site like youtube,I don’t know if foreign can see video on youku use UltraSurf.

  7. “For example, my father-in-law is from the mountains of Hubei, and his Mandarin is pretty normal, but there are a few words whose tones he routinely mispronounces.”

    It’s probably due to 入声三派 (, that is the characters with ancient entering tone have now acquired different tones (tone 1, 2, 3, 4) in standard mandarin and other dialects around Beijing. However, in Hubei mandarin dialects, all entering tone characters acquired 2nd tone. So it’s quite common for people from Hubei, Sichuan and Yunnan to pronounce these characters in the wrong tones. For example, 两百 (two hundreds, 百 had entering tone) is pronounced in standard mandarin as liang2bai3 because both characters are tone 3, but for people from Hubei, they pronounce it like liang3bai2, and not changing the tone of liang3.

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