Chinese Corner

Sober, My Favorite Kind of Beer4 min read

Mandarin malapropisms across the Taiwan Strait – Ash Henson


Editor’s Note: A number of readers have pointed out that the American meaning of “napkin” is the same in the UK, while the alternative meaning offered in this post is not in circulation. For a more current example of the same word having different meanings across the pond, consider “fanny,” which falls gently on American ears and burns British ones. – Anne Henochowicz

Words mean what they mean. Or, do they? Say you’re an American on vacation in England. You go to a restaurant and ask the nice waiter for a “napkin.” You might get a look of horror instead of a cloth or paper to dab your lips with. That’s what a napkin is in American English, but in British English, it can also mean a sanitary pad. We may both be native English speakers, but your “napkin” isn’t my “napkin.”

Now imagine going to a pub in Taipei with your friend. We’ll call him Harvond. When the waitress asks him what he wants to drink, he says, in perfect Mandarin, “Nothing for the moment.” Thirty seconds later, she puts a bottle of Carlsberg in front of him. He and you look at each other with that, “Wait. What?!” look on your faces. Are we speaking the same language?

To understand why Harvond ended up with a frosty Carlsberg instead of nothing, you need to know something about differences in vocabulary, word usage, grammar and pronunciation on either side of the Taiwan Strait. Mandarin is the official language of both the People’s Republic of China and Repulic of China in Taiwan, but they are not exactly equivalent. In the PRC, standard Mandarin is called pǔtōnghuà 普通话, literally “common” or “ordinary” speech; Taiwan’s standard is called guóyǔ 國語, the “national language.” Technically, the two are divided merely by definition, but there are state-sanctioned differences. When it comes to “garbage,” one person’s lājī 垃圾 is another’s lèsè 垃圾. Then there are unofficial, customary differences, including divergent slang. The differences between pǔtōnghuà and guóyǔ are similar to those among American, British, and Australian English.

In China, if you want a taxi, you ask the airport information desk for a chūzūchē 出租車. Ask for one of those in Taiwan, and you’ll get sent to a car rental place. At the Taipei Hertz, you’d say xiǎojiě 小姐, “miss,” to get the attention of the young woman behind the counter. If you did the same thing in Beijing, you’d get slapped upside the head for calling her a prostitute. If you get peckish and ask – this time addressing her using the Beijing-appropriate fúwùyuán 服務員 – where you can get a “pre-made takeout meal” (biàndāng 便當), you’d be met with a blank stare. Biàndāng is one of the many terms imported to Taiwan from the Japanese bentō (弁当), but it hasn’t caught hold on the mainland.

One of the biggest differences in pronunciation lies in the retroflex consonants zh-, ch– and sh-. In both guóyǔ and pǔtōnghuà, these consonants sound like the first sounds in “jerk”, “church” and “shirt,” respectively, but are pronounced with your tongue on the roof of your mouth (i.e. with “retroflex articulation”). But in common Taiwanese pronunciation, you might hear these pronounced as z-, c-, and s-, which sound like the “ds” in “pounds”, the “ts” in “cents” and the “s” in “trucks.” It’s like asking for a “shirt” and getting a “cert” instead. (If only reliable certification could be ordered up like that!)

So what about Harvond’s beer? After the waitress had left, I asked him, “What did you say to her?” He replied, zànshí bùhē 暫時不喝 – “nothing to drink for now.” The waitress heard this as Jiāshìbó 嘉士伯, “Carlsberg.” Several factors lead to this misunderstanding:

  • A difference in preferred wording. A Taiwanese person would never say zànshí bùhē. They would say something like xiān bùhē 先不喝, “I’m not drinking at the moment” or xiān búyào 先不要, “I don’t want to drink at the moment,” or maybe děngyíxià 等一下, “wait a second.”
  • A difference in pronunciation. The official pronunciation of the word “temporary” is zhàn in Taiwan, but zàn on the mainland.
  • Harvond’s polite decline sounded close enough to one of the beers on offer.

Whether or not Mandarin is your native language, if you speak one version of the language and are introduced to another, what you really need is time to adjust. After surviving a few embarrassing situations, you’ll start to get the hang of it. You’ll be fine! Really. Or will you?

Featured image is from Wikipedia and in the public domain.