Variant Pronunciations in Mandarin

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

Second-syllable Stress

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

Other Variants

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

12 Comments to "Variant Pronunciations in Mandarin"

  1. Ankichikun's Gravatar Ankichikun
    27/01/2011 - 1:16 am | Permalink

    Re 比较 bǐjiǎo, I have only ever noticed this in Beijing (although it’s quite possible that other parts of northern China pronounce it like this too). But Beijingers don’t always pronounce the 较 in the third tone – only when it is being used as an adverb (e.g. 比较好). When used as a noun (e.g. 作比较) or verb (e.g. 来比较一下) it is pronounced in the “standard” fourth tone.
    Re 片: In Beijing at least, if 片 is pronounced in the first tone, it is always rhoticized (儿化音), so a native Beijinger will say “zhàopiānr” for “photo”, but if asked to drop the 儿化, will say “zhàopiàn”.

  2. 28/03/2012 - 6:25 pm | Permalink

    It should also be mentioned that dropping the tone on the second syllable is much more common on the Mainland than on Taiwan. I’m not a native speaker, but as far as I know, many of the examples you bring up are typically pronounced with full tones in Taiwan.

  3. Ben Chen's Gravatar Ben Chen
    28/09/2013 - 4:02 pm | Permalink

    “血 xuè or xiě”
    This word is even more complicated; many people, especially from Beijing (and myself) pronounce 血 “xuě,” which is so widespread that it is included here: http://dict.cn/%E8%A1%80 on this online dictionary as the first entry (although not listed in most “standard” or print dictionaries).

    As far as I can tell, “xuè,” the correct “literary” form, is extinct to the point that many native speakers don’t even recognize it as valid. “xiě” is recognized officially as a “colloquial” variant of the (mostly defunct) standard “xuè.”

  4. David Gale's Gravatar David Gale
    06/07/2015 - 11:52 pm | Permalink

    This is an awesome list – and really shows the breadth of your vocabulary which is pretty impressive. Having a Taiwanese wife and having a mixed group of Chinese and Taiwanese friends alternate pronunciations has always been something I’ve been really interested in.

    A few additional ones and some comments:
    和 – The most infamous Taiwanese pronunciation – they often say han4, not he2 (which I heard apparently comes from an old famous new presenter who had an accent from a dialect).
    识 shi2 in the dictionary but shi4 in Taiwan (so they say 认识 ren4shi4, 识字 shi4zi4 结识 jie24shi4 etc – notably different)
    惜 xi1 in the dictionary, xi2 in Taiwan (so they say 可惜 ke3xi2 珍惜 zhen1xi2)
    剖 my wife says it more like po3 then pou3 (dictionary pou1)
    匣 xiá in the dictionary but I think it is jiǎ in Taiwan
    穴 xue2 is the dictionary meaning, but at least in Taiwan it is xue4
    跌 die1 in the dictionary, seems to be die2 in Taiwan
    携 – dictionary says xie2, but xi1 in Taiwan
    嫉妒 – My wife insists it’s ji4du4 not ji2du4 so I assume this is a Taiwan thing

    谁 – shui2 is the literary pronunciation, and should be used when reading poetry – I’ve also heard it in audiobooks
    地方 – di4fang and di4fang1 are actually different. di4fang means “place” (e.g. 什么地方?放在那个地方), whilst di4fang1 means “local” or “locality” (e.g. 地方法庭,地方组织,地方观念). Taiwanese speakers might still say di4fang1 anyway because they rarely use the neutral tone.
    熟悉 – I think shóuxi is more Southern but I have people from the North who say it.
    尽管 – the character 尽 can be pronounced jin4 and jin3 and these are actually two different words with subtly different meanings – there is a whole Chinesepod Qingwen lesson on it for those interested. Basically jin3 means “as much as possible” whilst jin4 means “to completely use up / exhaust”. Most native speakers aren’t too clear on this and if you say jin4 instead of jin3 (but not vice-versa) no-one will pull you up. 尽管 should be jin3guan3 but many people say it incorrectly as jin4guan3 (along with 尽量 and 尽快, which should both be jin3. Note 尽力 is jin4).

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