I’ve been editing Mandarin entries on Wiktionary for about a year now, and one unexpected phenomenon I have come across is, for the lack of a better term, “variant pronunciations”. Mandarin as we know it has been heavily standardised over the years, and we have come to think of “readings” of Chinese characters or word combinations as extremely fixed. However whilst the dictionary might dictate one particular way to pronounce something, in real life speakers are not so pedantic, and many variants exist.
Some variants are extremely common and are often not even questioned by the Chinese people since, for many, Mandarin is their first language (let us not forget that, for many other Chinese people, Mandarin is a second or even third language, but that’s for another post). Of course, you could argue that variant pronunciations are just as prevalent as in any other language, but paying attention to the differences is even more important for learners of Mandarin because tones play such a huge role in indicating actual words in the midst of so many homophones. To make matters worse, dictionaries and textbooks almost never mention them, perhaps because they don’t want to lose sight of teaching “pure” or “standard” Mandarin to the exclusion of real-life aspects of the language.
Anyway, what follows is a (very incomplete) list of variant pronunciations I have encountered. Try asking about them with your Chinese-speaking friends and see which ones they prefer to use; an interesting conversation is sure to follow.
Dictionary VS Real-Life
The first pronunciation (or, technically speaking, romanisation; if I knew IPA I would provide it for you), is the reading given in most dictionaries; the second is the most common “street reading” you’re bound to come across.
- 比较 bǐjiào or bǐjiǎo <adv.> comparatively <v.> to compare
- 绯闻 fēiwén or fěiwén <n.> news about sex scandals
- 酵母 jiàomǔ or xiàomǔ <n.> 1. yeast 2. leaven
- 勉强 miǎnqiǎng or miǎnqiáng <adj.> forced; inadequate <adv.> reluctantly; in a forced manner <v.> to force somebody to do something
- 偶尔 ǒuěr or ǒuér <adv.> now and then; sometimes
- 侮辱 wǔrǔ or wūrǔ <n.> insult <v.> to insult
- 因为 yīnwèi or yīnwéi <conj.> because
Mainland China VS Taiwan
There are considerable differences between Mandarin spoken in the PRC and Taiwan; these only scratch the surface.
- 息 xī or xí, as in 鼻息 bíxī or bíxí <n.> 1. breath; breathing (through the nose) 2. (archaic) power; influence; 消息 xiāoxi or xiāoxí <n.> information; news; etc
- 片 piàn or piān, as in 唱片 chàngpiàn or chàngpiān <n.> 1. LP record 2. CD album; 相片 xiàngpiān or xiàngpiàn <n.> (colloquial) photo
- 讽 fěng or fèng, as in 讥讽 jīfěng or jīfèng <v.> to satirise; to ridicule; 讽刺 fěngcì or fèngcì <n.> satire; mockery; ridicule <v.> to satirise; to mock; to ridicule
- 期 qī or qí, as in 按期 ànqī or ànqí <adv> on schedule; on time; 长期 chángqī or chángqí <adv.> long-term <n.> long term; 星期 xīngqī or xīngqí <n.> week
- 蜗牛 wōniú or guā’niú <n.> snail
- 质 zhì or zhí, as in 质量 zhìliàng or zhíliàng <n.> 1. quality 2. mass; 物质 wùzhì or wùzhí <n.> material; substance; etc
- 拥 yōng or yǒng, as in 拥抱 yōngbào <v.> to hug; to embrace; 拥挤 yōngjǐ or yǒngjǐ <adj.> crowded <v.> to crowd; to push and squeeze; etc
Whether the speaker stresses the second syllable in some words depends a lot on the region in which they are from. It has been argued that southerners tend to emphasise the second syllable with a marked tone, but this is only a generalisation; as Greater China becomes more and more interconnected and globalised, it becomes more difficult to pigeon-hole speakers’ accents into certain rules and regions. This can be compared to the situation in Australia, where although we definitely have a distinctive accent, many people – consciously or unconsciously – have adopted American twangs.
- 别人biérén or biéren <n.> others; other people
- 玻璃 bōlí or bōli <n.> glass
- 程度 chéngdù or chéngdu <n.> degree; extent; level; standard
- 窗户 chuānghù or chuānghu <n.> window
- 聪明 cōngmíng or cōngming <adj.> intelligent; smart
- 打算 dǎsuàn or dǎsuan <v.> to plan; to intend
- 打听 dǎtīng or dǎting <v.> to inquire about; to ask about
- 地方 dìfāng or dìfang <n.> place
- 姑娘 gūniáng or gūniang <n.> 1. girl 2. (dated) daughter 3. (slang) prostitute
- 护士 hùshì or hùshi <n.> nurse
- 困难 kùnnán or kùnnan <adj.> difficult <n.> difficulty
- 朋友 péngyǒu or péngyou <n.> friend
- 似乎 sìhū or sìhu <adv.> as if; seemingly
- 小姐 xiǎojiě or xiǎojie <n.> 1. Miss 2. young lady 3. (slang) prostitute
- 知道 zhīdào or zhīdao <v.> to know
The rest I’ve listed here because I wasn’t sure where else to put them. If anyone knows the regions from where the different readings originate, please leave a comment.
- 拜拜 bàibài, bāibái or báibái <int.> bye bye
- 别价 biéjie or biéjia <int.> don’t; stop
- 会 huì or huǐ, as in 一会儿 yīhuìr or yīhuǐr (or sometimes yìhuǐr)
- 血 xuè or xiě, as in 出血 chūxuè or chūxiě <n.> hemorrhage; bleeding <v.> 1. to bleed 2. (slang) to pay a large amount of money for something; 流血 liúxuè or liúxiě <v.> to spill blood; to bleed; etc
- 落地 luòdì or làodì <adj.> to be on the ground <v.> 1. to fall to the ground 2. to be born
- 谁 shéi or shuí <prn.> who
- 熟悉 shúxī or shóuxi <v.> to know well or be familiar with someone or something
- 哇塞 wāsāi, wāsài, wāsēi, wāsèi, wàsǎi or wàsěi <int.> wow
- 尾巴 wěiba or yǐba <n.> tail
- 榅桲 wēnpo or yùnbó <n.> quince
- 噱头 xuétóu or juétóu, xuētóu in Taiwan <n.> (colloquial) funny or amusing speech or acts; shenanigans; antics
- 作死 zuòsǐ or zuōsǐ <v.> 1. (slang) to seek death 2. (slang) to look for trouble