Those Census-Confounding Chinese Tones

Recently Micah retweeted a short Chinese comedy routine [original] that was clever enough to be shared a bit more. The setup is that a census-taker asks a resident how many are in his household. Confusion ensues:

> “请问您家里是几口人?” [May I ask how many are in your household?]

> “是一口人。” [It’s one person.]

> “十一口?” [Eleven?]

> “不是十一口,而是一口人。” [Not eleven, but 1 person.]

> “二十一口?” [21?]

> “不是二十一口,其实一口人。” [Not 21. Actually, one person.]

> “七十一口?不会吧?” [71? For real?]

> “不是七十一口,就是一口人!” [Not 71. It’s just one person!]

> “九十一口?” [91?]

> “对,就是一口人。” [Right, just one person.]

OK, maybe I should have warned those of you that don’t read Chinese: the translation makes no sense in English, because the confusion is all based on tone-related misunderstandings:

– 是一 (shì yī) misunderstood as 十一 (shíyī)
– 而是一 (ér shì yī) misunderstood as 二十一 (èrshíyī)
– 其实一 (qíshí yī) misunderstood as 七十一 (qīshíyī)
– 就是一 (jiù shì yī) misunderstood as 九十一 (jiǔshíyī)

Although most of the misunderstandings above shouldn’t happen if both speakers are using standard Mandarin, I’ve witnessed quite a few cases where dialect influences tones, which, in turn, can lead to miscommunications. Personally, I find it a little comforting to know that even native speakers experience tone-related confusion, even if it’s not all that common (or comical!).


John Pasden

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


  1. Here’s hoping that, in this case, context would win the day 🙂

  2. Absolutely hilarious! I really like this one!
    Josh (我的中文名字“恩华”)

  3. remember reading an anecdote of a guy overhearing two natives messing up the zhi-chi pronounciation: in a TCM drugstore a woman overhears a customer order ma yi (ants) and asks “蚂蚁治什么?”. That person then got quite upset and started telling that woman off for asking stupid questions. How was she supposed to know?
    Only after they had both got themselves worked up quite a bit did they realise that that woman had understood “蚂蚁吃什么?”…eating and curing not quite the same thing 😉

  4. that’s hilarious.

  5. Still laughing about this.
    The census taker knew population density was really high, but found 91 people in a household to be rather shocking. I guess if there are any unusual patterns in the census results this year, a linguist may need to help explain 🙂

  6. 太搞笑了。

  7. Now I have another joke to tell if people ask how important the tone is to Chinese.

Leave a Reply