NIUPAI VS SHIDE.

Victor Mair has another of his thought-provoking and informative posts about Chinese at the Log; this one is called Fried scholar’s and begins with the discovery that shìde 士的 on a Chinese menu, which looks like it should mean “fried scholar’s,” was actually a Mandarin borrowing of Cantonese si6 dik1 and meant ‘steak.’ He goes on:

The usual way to say “steak” in Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM) is niúpái 牛排, and that expression is also used in Cantonese, where it is pronounced ngau4 paai4. But si6 dik1 士的 (“steak”) is also used very commonly in speech and even, as on restaurant menus, in writing. This is a good example of how a parallel vocabulary develops in Cantonese and other Sinitic languages: one based on indigenous morphemes, and one on loanwords.

Cantonese has been especially prolific in borrowing words from other languages, and many of these words (I’ll mention a few of them below) have entered the standard MSM lexicon. Shanghainese has also borrowed many foreign words directly via their sounds (“clamp,” “captain,” “last car,” etc.), and these too have often passed into the MSM lexicon. The same is true of other topolects that are not normally written (or are not wholly writable) in Chinese characters. In contrast, MSM is more apt to create loan translations for new terms and ideas that enter the language from abroad through calquing or through recycling (by redefinition) of old words (e.g., the MSM words for “philosophy”, “religion”, “economics”, “literature”, and so forth). When the latter (recycled and redefined words) pass through Japan (China –> Japan [where the redefinition takes place] –> China), we may refer to such loans as “round-trip words”.
It is curious that, if we reverse the order of the characters for si6 dik1 士的 (“steak”), we get dik1 si6 的士 (“taxi”), one of the most successful Cantonese borrowings in the entire Sinitic lexicon. In MSM, 的士 is pronounced díshì (doesn’t sound much like “taxi”), but people know what it means, and they even use it comfortably and flexibly in expressions such as dǎ dì 打的 (“strike [i.e., take] a taxi”), dígē 的哥 (“male taxi driver”), and díjiě 的姐 (“female taxi driver”). In fact, díshì 的士 (“taxi”) prevails over the clunky trisyllabic neologisms based on native morphemes, chūzū chē 出租車 (lit., “vehicle for rental” — mainland usage) and jìchéngchē 計程車 (“vehicle that computes / calculates [the distance of a] journey” — Taiwan usage).

There’s more at Mair’s post, and of course in the comments; I find this sort of complexity in what is supposed by the authorities to be a unified language, and the borrowing of the officially disfavored Cantonese loanwords by the majority language, endlessly interesting.

Comments

  1. Most of the terms from HK Cantonese such as 士的["steak"], 的士["taxi"], etc… are from English due to HK being a colony of Britain before the handover back to China in 1997. After the handover, Mainland China started using HK Cantonese version of English words, due to being easier to render in writing than what’s used in Mandarin.
    A lot of Mainlanders use HK Cantonese terms such as 搭的 from 搭的士 which somehow became 打的 in Mainland China. 的哥 & 的姐 seems unnatural. Seems like someone who can’t speak Chinese trying to say _____’s sister or ______’s brother.
    The usual way to say “steak” in Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM) is niúpái 牛排, and that expression is also used in Cantonese, where it is pronounced ngau4 paai4.
    In Cantonese, it’s not pronounced “Ngau4 Paai4″ but “Ngau4 Paa4″!
    It’s NOT “Sinitic”: It’s called Chinese!
    I don’t like Victor Mair’s postings and I now hate his blog even more when he just takes off whatever he wants when he thinks people are being offensive. It’s your blog yes, but let Chinese people correct you when you having learned Mandarin for thirty plus years and is still wrong, most of the time! People are not trying to be offensive, they’re just telling you you’re wrong! Having learned Chinese for so damn long and you still f-g still call it Sinitic? No such word exists! Hello? Doesn’t he speak English?! I’m Chinese and offended by most of what Mair says. He tries too hard to be a Sinologist. Stick to being a professor instead. You’ll be better off. I read somewhere that he fabricates stories about Chinese culture, much like Marco Polo who never went to China.
    [I accidentally deleted another comment by Bryan, so I'm appending it to this one; sorry. —LH]
    I found this posting online about Mair: http://xahlee.org/Periodic_dosage_dir/bangu/Victor_Mair_and_fuck.html
    Wonder what he thinks.

  2. Victor Mair’s main sin is knowing more about Chinese than most Chinese do. This is not only impolite of him, it is literally incredible to a certain type of Chinese person.

  3. John Emerson says:

    It’s not true that Marco Polo never went to China.
    https://digitalcollections.anu.edu.au/bitstream/1885/41883/1/Marcopolo.html
    http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/mongols/pop/polo/mp_essay.htm
    For a fuller treatment see: Igor de Rachelwiltz, Zentralasiatische Studien 27 (1997), pp. 34-92.
    “Sinitic” is indeed a word. Mair uses this word to name the various different languages which are called dialects of Chinese. His point is that Hakka, Hokkien, etc. are not dialects of Chinese, but different languages the way German, Dutch, and English are different languages.
    The formation of states sometimes can make what otherwise be called two closely related dialects into two independent languages. (E.g. Norwegian / Danish, Spanish / Portuguese.) When there’s no state formation, though, widely different but related languages are sometimes called dialects of the official language, but linguistically this is unacceptable. (Mandarin / Hokkien, Italian / Sardinian; I would guess that some German “dialects” are treated as independent languages too, nand not just Yiddish). The designation of language v. dialect shouldn’t be purely political.

  4. Bathrobe says:

    Bryan’s comment that “的哥 & 的姐 seems unnatural. Seems like someone who can’t speak Chinese trying to say _____’s sister or ______’s brother” is just plain wrong. The term 的哥 is perfectly at home in Beijing and is used. (I’ve never heard 的姐).
    I can understand why someone might take a dislike to Victor Mair, not because his insights are wrong, but because he sometimes seems to protest too much. Sometimes he lays it on fairly thick.
    There is a slightly ideological aspect here. Professor Mair is a linguist who takes a peculiar delight in debunking the assumptions of those who accept linguistic and cultural myths at face value.
    For instance, he seems to like debunking the mindset of people who see Chinese as a harmonious language that can express itself purely through its age-old Chinese characters and does not need to borrow anything from anyone else. This is a powerful mindset amongst the Chinese, but it is demonstrably nonsense and Professor Mair goes out of his way to prove it, again and again. That’s the point of the post on 士的. Of course it gets up some people’s noses, especially people who hold conventional views.
    He also uses Sinitic as an antidote to the common and hopelessly vague perception of Chinese as a ‘language’. Perhaps he goes too far in the other direction, but the blurring of concepts and the mixing together of things (such as languages and their writing systems) that need to be kept conceptually separate causes massive fuzziness and confusion when discussing Chinese linguistic matters, and you can’t blame him for engaging in something of a crusade to knock the mythologisers whenever he can.
    As for the posting on “Professor Victor Mair and (x) (Fuck)”, well, I don’t put much store by Xah Lee. The whole idea of finding the most “Chinese” Chinese character is the sort of thing that many mythologisers like to engage in. Chinese netizens take the mickey out of the politically motivated 和谐 by changing it to 河蟹, so I don’t see why Xah Lee feels so offended at what Professor Mair has to say. Mair’s choice of Biang is his own objection to the complexities of the writing system, and there’s no need to get offended by that, either. Xah Lee’s suggestion is the highly offensive (x), a character usually avoided by the Chinese, which suggests the general tenor of Xah Lee’s response.
    So to repeat, I think Professor Mair does go a little overboard in his crusading ways, but people who choose to get offended really aren’t worth taking seriously.
    By the way, I’m having trouble posting this, which I suspect is being caused by the character for ‘fuck’, so I’ve replaced it with (x).

  5. John Emerson says:

    Mair’s “biang” character has to be a pure joke, on his part and on the part of whoever invented it. It strikes me as wrong, too. Most of the rare complicated graphs I’ve seen fit together a lot better than that. For one thing, the elements are all “radicals”, with no phonetics or other elements, and the nine radicals used (two of them repeated) all seem to be independent, with no two of them fitting into a recognizable character (sub-character?), as is the case with most complicated characters.

  6. Bathrobe says:

  7. Bathrobe says:

    Well, there’s the character, so I’m at a loss to know why I couldn’t post.

  8. That character for “fuck” looks like a character for “two people in a house”. Are these two notions indistinguishable in Chinese ?

  9. The character on top 入 means ‘enter’. The character on the bottom 肉 means ‘meat’ or ‘flesh’. The meaning is self-explanatory.

  10. And anyway, the word 日 rì seems to be becoming a more common word for ‘fuck’ recently. I think it has a dialectal origin.
    For word-play on this, see Humorous Anti-Japanese Puns.
    Recently I also saw some jokes about characters using 日. For instance, the most painful character is 旱 hàn, meaning ‘drought’, made up of 日 on top and 干 (dry) underneath. In other words, a dry fuck.

  11. Bathrobe, your first comment is a brilliant explanation of Mair’s approach and why it bothers some people. Thanks.

  12. narrowmargin says:

    Does this mean that the phrases “the Chinese language” and “learning Chinese” are meaningless?
    If Mandarin and Cantonese et al. are so different from each other as to require a native Mandarin speaker to learn Cantonese (and vice versa), then it doesn’t seem possible to use “Chinese” without qualifying it (linguistically, that is).

  13. If Mandarin and Cantonese et al. are so different from each other as to require a native Mandarin speaker to learn Cantonese (and vice versa), then it doesn’t seem possible to use “Chinese” without qualifying it (linguistically, that is).
    That is indeed the case. The problem is that there is strong ideological resistance to this (linguistically simple and obvious) truth; both Chinese tradition and the Chinese government insist that there is only one Chinese language, with various “dialects.” When people talk about “learning Chinese,” they almost always mean learning Mandarin. Wu (aka Shanghainese), with its 90 million speakers, and Yue (Cantonese), with its 70 million, are comparable to French in number of native speakers, but do not get the respect and awareness that they deserve.

  14. Bathrobe says:

    Actually, I have at times been asked “Mandarin or Cantonese?”, although I think mainly by people in Hong Kong. That is because learning Cantonese is a possible option — due to a strong language/dialect identity, a tradition of teaching to foreigners, availability of learning materials, etc.

  15. Just here to add that “Mandarin”, “Wu” or “Cantonese” aren’t single languages either. Beijing Mandarin is not at all the same language as Xining Mandarin with its post-NP case markers and other Inner Asian features; Standard Cantonese isn’t intelligible with Toishanese; take a spoken Shanghai Wu sentence and a Wenzhou Wu sentence with the same meaning and you won’t find many cognates (and nowadays with the establishment of Standard Mandarin as the lingua franca, Shanghai youth can’t understand their Suzhou pals any more); Fuzhou Min and Southern Min (Taiwanese, Hokkien etc) are more distinct than French and Sicilian — the list can be drawn on and on and on. I’m all for a sensible reconsideration of Sinosphere’s linguistic situation, but the more sensible view would be more like hundreds of tiny languages, not a family of seven languages of equal minimal inner diversity — just imagine we call Balto-Slavic a family with three languages, Lithuanian, Latvian and Slavic.
    @John Emerson: The biang thing is a running anecdote among the Chinese too, so I swear by the Pantheon of Immortal Linguists that it isn’t invented by Professor Mair, as much as I’m lukewarm with his antisinogrammism.

  16. @Bathrobe: According to a usual theory, rì is the regular Beijing reflex of 入 rù “to enter” (think of Japanese にふ < *ńip), and the character itself in its usual sense changed pronunciation to avoid the vulgar connotation.
    Compare the certain case of 鸟 niǎo “bird”, which, should be pronounced diǎo (てう). But today diǎo means “dick”, the extended sense of “bird” (he showed tae me a bonnie wee bird), and to talk about the real birds, only niǎo is possible.

  17. “Victor Mair’s main sin is knowing more about Chinese than most Chinese do. ”
    What? He does NOT know MORE Chinese than MOST Chinese do, PUH-LEASE!!!

  18. Back to “steak”:
    Even though written as 牛排, niu2pai2 in Mandarin Chinese, it actually should be written as 牛扒, ngau4 paa4 in Cantonese. Shide is incorrect: accordingly, the 的 of 士的, si dik should pronounced with the rarely used “Di” in Mandarin which stems from Sichuan dialect, which somewhat reflects the Cantonese pronunciation of “dik”.
    From Cantonese, the Mandarin pronunciation should be “si di” instead of “shi de”.
    In Cantonese, si dik = steak, si tik = stick. Depending on who’s speaking, si dik could also = “stick”.

  19. “Does this mean that the phrases “the Chinese language” and “learning Chinese” are meaningless?”
    “The Chinese language” = The written language of the Chinese people [mostly referring to the characters, not pinyin, not the radicals, etc...]
    “Learning Chinese” = Learning [the most common form of spoken or written] Chinese, that’s Mandarin, due to it being the official language of Mainland China and of Taiwan, and that most dialects when written is based on Mandarin.
    Baihua, when used in Cantonese, means the Cantonese using the invented characters used for it: Example – 牛扒
    Whereas Chungmun ["Zhongwen" pronounced in Cantonese] = Chinese, based on Mandarin: 牛排.
    士的, based on English “steak” is an optional variation of 牛扒.
    牛排 is now used in Mandarin but it’s made up. Did Mair know the reason for this? I bet he never knew that 牛排 is 牛 + 排骨, where 排骨, is the Chinese word for “ribs”, which is made of pork, but since there’s no such original word for steak in Chinese, someone made it up: by using the definition: steak is somewhat like ribs, the bone is connect to the meat. So since steak is made of “beef”[beef = the name of the animal in French, not the meat, the name of the meat is later use of the French word for the meat], 牛 is used. It’s called 牛排, instead of 牛排骨, it’s shortened to 牛排 due to the rule that most Mandarin words are reduced from whatever the original is to two characters or less, so that when combined with other characters, you won’t have something like fifty characters to describe something so simple.

  20. It’s not true that Marco Polo never went to China.
    He never went to China. Don’t be misled: If he did go to China, he would at least have learned Mandarin or other Chinese dialects if he was a governor of a place where Chinese-speaking citizens lived. He would have mentioned the tea which was drunk by the Chinese, and not just kumiss, the drink made with mare’s milk or camel’s milk and liquor drunk by the Mongols. He would have mentioned The Great Wall of China, which was already established in it’s current form since the end of the Ming dynasty. He didn’t mention the Great Wall possibly due to the reason of why it was built: to keep out barbarians, one of which are the Mongols. But it’s a ridiculous way of saying that he was commmissioned by Kublai Khan and yet none of the CHINESE nor MONGOLIAN records ever recorded his name(s) nor his works.

  21. rì is the regular Beijing reflex of 入 rù “to enter” (think of Japanese にふ < *ńip)
    That’s NOT of Japanese origin: It’s of Shanghainese origin: remember Japanese borrowed most of the Chinese words from the Shanghainese dialect.
    Compare the certain case of 鸟 niǎo “bird”, which, should be pronounced diǎo (てう). But today diǎo means “dick”, the extended sense of “bird” (he showed tae me a bonnie wee bird), and to talk about the real birds, only niǎo is possible.
    Bogus analysis:
    鸟 = niao, never diao! diao = 雕, meaning “condor”, “vulture”, etc…
    PS Sorry, all the “bryan” & Bryan are the same person in this post. I’m sorry, I’ve forgotten whether I’ve used uppercase or lowercase. I rarely use uppercase in postings. I’ll revert to what I’ve used in the first post, with uppercase.

  22. Bryan, I think a couple of things need to be clarified:
    1. minus273 mean “cf Japanese にふ < *ńip”. He wasn’t saying that 入 was of Japanese origin.
    2. My forte is not Chinese historical linguistics, but I think you will find that 鸟 would have been pronounced diǎo in Modern Mandarin, were it not for the fact that it took on an obscene meaning which niǎo was used to avoid. niǎo is an aberrant pronunciation historically.
    3. diǎo for penis and 雕/鵰 diāo for ‘eagle/vulture’ have different tones. Not sure why you would mix them up.
    4. Mair uses ‘Sinitic’ precisely to avoid the mess that results from defining “the Chinese language” as “the written language of the Chinese people”. If it’s purely the written language, why even worry how 牛排 or 牛扒 are pronounced? It’s cheating to talk about ‘the written language of the Chinese people’ and then trying to sneak pronunciation in the back door.

  23. 的姐 = female version of 的哥, which is a combination of 的士司機 [taxi driver: literally, "taxi chauffeur"] + 司機哥哥 ["reference to a male driver"] becomes 的士司機哥哥, a male taxi chauffeur, where in English, it’s usually translated as “driver”, and then shortened it to “的哥” by taking the first and last characters. For the female version, the character 哥, meaning “brother” is reversed by using it’s “opposite”, that is “sister” or 姐, therefore becoming 的姐.

  24. And Bryan – Marco Polo died in 1324, almost half a century before the founding (not the end) of the Ming dynasty. His trip took place long before the Great Wall took on its present form – you should take a look at John Emerson’s links.

  25. I’m aware that 的姐 is a parallel form to 的哥. It’s just that I haven’t heard it in actual use. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t used.

  26. You, Bryan, are the one who was telling us that 的姐 “seems unnatural. Seems like someone who can’t speak Chinese trying to say _____’s sister or ______’s brother.”
    It seems rather strange that you now turn around and try and tell us what it means.

  27. Bathrobe says:

    Japanese borrowed most of the Chinese words from the Shanghainese dialect
    Something of an anachronism, I would think.
    Bryan’s pronouncements on both Japanese and Chinese are increasingly erratic and uninformed. Over at Language Log he posted the following:
    “Also, 力士 means ‘sumo wrestler’ in Japanese.”
    Most likely from 大力士, the Cantonese word for “Heraklēs” in Greek or Hercules with the incorrect spelling as taken by the Romans. 大力士 is later used to mean anyone who’s as powerful as Heraklēs.

    I think we can ignore this guy. He doesn’t seem to be very well informed and yet has the gall to say: “He does NOT know MORE Chinese than MOST Chinese do, PUH-LEASE!!!”

  28. michael farris says:

    “Victor Mair’s main sin is knowing more about Chinese than most Chinese do”
    I’d qualify that a bit. Like almost every L2 user he’ll never have native level intuitions about certain things (and he certainly doesn’t claim that level of knowledge). But it’s absolutely true that he knows more _about_ written Chinese and spoken Mandarin including their history than most native speakers. By itself this wouldn’t necessarily make people angry.
    But, a lot of his shtick is poking holes in the cherished myths of Chinese speakers, especially ones that many Chinese have psychic investments in.
    All language communities have myths about their language and don’t much like people who challenge or poke holes in them.
    English speakers wouldn’t much like a linguist who spent a lot of his time poking holes in anglophone myths either.
    Suzette Haden Elgin had an anecdote about a time when she was giving a seminar to high school English teachers and presenting some facts that are pretty non-controversial among linguists when one person stood up, said something like “I do not wish to know this” and left the room. Elgin understood her perfectly.

  29. Bathrobe says:

    I would agree with Michael’s assessment.
    I’m afraid I haven’t been very charitable to our friend Bryan. Since our run-in with the expert on Quechua, I’m afraid I have less patience with people whose pretence at knowledge far outstrips their actual knowledge. Bryan keeps demonstrating that he hasn’t delved very deeply into things that he professes to have knowledge of, but based on something he had read presumes to accuse Victor Mair of fabricating stories about Chinese culture.

  30. Bathrobe says:

    Incidentally, we lost one cherished reader because we challenged certain myths about the Mongolian language. Psychic investments shouldn’t be underestimated.

  31. when one person stood up, said something like “I do not wish to know this” and left the room. Elgin understood her perfectly.
    I would not find it hard to “understand” such a refusal to accept facts. I am using “understand” here in one way Elgin might mean it: “understand the motives behind that refusal”, in the sense of “take note of what those motives seem to be”.
    But if by “understand” she means additionally “sympathizing with those motives, or even condoning them” – then I would find that hard to do.
    It’s not clear to me what Elgin is saying about herself – her views on the significance of facts and values in the practice of linguistics – by ending the anecdote with “I understood her perfectly”. Is this tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner ? Or perhaps the weaker form: “the more you understand, the less you give a damn” ?
    In other words, perhaps she means “I have learned not to let know-nothings get my goat”.

  32. michael farris says:

    Basically, IIRC (no time to look up original now) Elgin assumed that the audience member wanted to avoid the cognitive dissonance of realizing that a large percentage of what they were required to teach was pure nonsense.
    Again, IIRC, she thought she understood the motivations and to some degree sympathized with them without really condoning them.

  33. @Bryan: For the record, I’m the one who deleted some of of your comments on Language Log, not Victor. Why? Well, one of the last batch read in its entirely “It’s Chinese not Sinitic, fucktard!”
    The rest were longer — sometimes much longer — but not better informed or more civil.

  34. What? He does NOT know MORE Chinese than MOST Chinese do, PUH-LEASE!!!
    You have omitted a crucial word. He does not, nor was he said to, know more Chinese; he was said, and certainly correctly, to know more about Chinese than most Chinese. He is a linguist; ipso facto he knows more about a language he has studied, in the linguistic sense, than the vast majority of its speakers. The vast majority of the speakers of any language know less than nothing about it, as distinguished from knowing how to use it, any more than they know about how the interior of their body works, even though they know how to use their body.
    In general, you appear to be ill-informed and belligerent. I am always reluctant to delete (non-spam) comments, but if you start insulting people the way you did at the Log, I will delete yours. Forewarned is forearmed. And since it is clear you are not going to convince us nor we you, I’m not sure what you will get out of continuing in this vein.

  35. Bryan is just trying to make some thought provoking comments. Cut the guy some slack. What he said might be true since he’s Chinese. Chinese people have the right to inform foreigners when they’re wrong and in so correct them. Personally attacking someone on a forum is unnecessary. Just think: anyone makes mistakes. Just forgive. I’ve been to so many forums / blogs by foreigners, where most of them has this I-know-everything attitude. Nobody knows everything. Even if you had a lot of schooling and education it won’t mean a thing if you don’t know how to work and socialize with people. Some administrators and moderators have very bad attitudes and personally attack anyone who just makes a tiny comment, a thought provoking comment, and nothing much. What’s the reason everyone’s still much alive today? Not because of the Internet, but because people sit on their butt with no job, and nowhere to go and rather just stay away from socializing in the real world, just watching TV and going online, and not much else. If everyone were to respect one another without being belligerent and saying others are. If you’re not a native who speaks a certain language, there are always room for mistakes. No one’s the best, and no one’s perfect! Respect others and their opinions and you’ll possibly live longer, too.

  36. >> Posted by: Gpa (b11034078@klzlk.com) at August 10, 2011 10:01 AM.
    klzlk.com…

  37. What he said might be true since he’s Chinese. Chinese people have the right to inform foreigners when they’re wrong and in so correct them
    He might be Chinese, but that doesn’t make him right. minus273 is also Chinese AFAIK, but when he wrote this:
    鸟 niǎo “bird”… should be pronounced diǎo .. but today diǎo means “dick”… and to talk about … birds, only niǎo is possible
    Bryan shot down it down with:
    鸟 = niao, never diao! diao = 雕, meaning “condor”, “vulture”, etc…
    The guy is not only belligerent, he basically hasn’t got a clue.

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