Beijing Sounds – 北京的声儿 has been going since last October, but I just found out about it via an e-mail from occasional commenter Xiaolongnu (thanks!). It’s syz’s blog about learning the Beijing dialect of Chinese, and it won my heart immediately with its sidebarred “WARNING: Contains explicit use of singular they, gratuitous passive voice, and shamelessly split infinitives.” A recent post asks “Does the Beijing-R mean anything?” and presents a discussion of the famous -r that gets tacked on to just about everything in the dialect:

The general perception among outsiders is that it’s just a way of speaking. It doesn’t really mean anything. HOWEVER, my two experts for today’s post, one six and one sixty-ish, say it ain’t so. There are words you can say with or without the Beijing-R (commonly called érhuàyīn 儿化音 or érhuàyùn 儿化韵), but often the different pronunciations really mean something different.

His best example is: “tāng 汤 and tāngr 汤儿 simply refer to two different liquids. The former means broth/soup, while the latter is the liquid that comes with your non-soup dishes, something cooked out of the meat or vegetables that you might spoon onto your rice.” This is backed up by a quoted talk with the two “experts,” and best of all, like all material presented on the blog, it’s got an audio link so you can hear for yourself. Excellent idea and presentation!


  1. Strangely, your link – with a “www” – delivers me to a completely blank browser page. – no “www” gets me there.
    I do not pretend to understand.

  2. Huh. I just tried it again and it works for me.
    I too do not pretend to understand.

  3. Huh. Now it works.
    They don’t WANT us to understand…

  4. 北京的声儿 ?
    I do not pretend to understand.
    But is 儿 really more used in Beijing than in the rest of Putonghua (or the rest of Putonghua as used in the north)?

  5. Yes, 儿化 is the mark par excellence of Beijing speech. It’s derived from 儿 meaning ‘child’ and is used as a diminutive.
    Beijing sounds is correct. People from the provinces believe that 儿化 is used indiscriminately, and they thus use it wrongly. So do foreign students. For instance, you can talk about the 门儿 ménr (‘door’) of your home, but the names of the ‘gates’ of Beijing never take 儿. That is, it is always 东直门 Dōngzhímén, never 东直门儿 Dōngzhíménr. Only a non-native would say that.
    If I remember rightly, there is at least one dictionary of 儿化, which I have in Beijing (I think). And there are indeed words which change meaning depending on the presence or absence of 儿.
    儿化 is rather similar in usage to the more standard 子 form. 猴子 hóuzi is standard Chinese for ‘monkey’; Beijing uses 猴儿 hóur. But the two are not automatically convertible. 老头儿 laotóur is a fine affectionate way of referring to an old man. 老头子 is less so.

  6. And of course, the 声儿 shēngr in 北京的声儿 is good Beijing speech!

  7. I have to wonder if there is any connection to the tasty drink I used to drink as a child named Tang by kraft foods. Maybe there was some form of inspiration to name the drink from someone’s visit to Beijing.

  8. 糖 táng ‘sugar’ (different tone) is one of the several semi-standard claims for the origin of Tang Drink Mix.

  9. I think that Beijing dialect with the “er” suffixes is part local dialect and part class-dialect. The capital has always had an enormous cultural preponderance in China, like Paris in France.
    My guess that it would be possible to distinguish the Beijing dialect of the lower-class Beijing natives from the Beijing dialect of the upper class Beijing natives and their imitators from elsewhere.
    As I understand, the Mandarin standard for China is standard Northern Mandarin, but without the Beijing specialties. Whether Beijing dialect still has special prestige I don’t know.

  10. The Mandarin standard for China is indeed “standard Northern Mandarin, but without the Beijing specialties”. However, I’m sure there is a tendency in some quarters to privilege Beijing over other northern dialects (when your competitors are Xibeihua, Shandonghua, and Hebeihua, I don’t think there is much of a contest).
    Attitudes to Beijing dialect vary around the country. Shanghainese regard Beijing as ‘hick’ compared to the cosmopolitan suavity of their city. Southern people (from Guangdong or places like that have their own cultural world that is a long way from Beijing. Beijing and other northerners are, I suspect, all regarded in much the same way. Southerners who actually go to Beijing are often surprised how different their Mandarin is from the local Beijing patter.

  11. I wouldn’t trade a plug on Languagehat for all the beer in sānlǐtúnr. Humbled by the honor.
    bathrobe: And now without beer, I eat vinegar thinking of your dictionary of 儿化.

  12. I have a super little book on this 儿 business, bought in Nanjing. Lovely. Written in very stylish Chinglish. Must work through it sometime.

  13. A final note: A friend of mine told me that in Taiwan Beijing-hua is not regarded as cool. It’s identified with old doormen and similar menial staff who came over from the Mainland with the KMT. Haven’t been able to confirm this.

  14. syz: Well, I’ll have a look to see if I actually have the book and let you know when I find it! After Chinese New Year, I’m afraid.

  15. When I was in Taiwan, some of the people of mainland origin seemed to be trying to assimilate to Taiwanese. Beijing-hua and very correct Mandarin, may have been associated with KMT loyalists.

  16. For instance, you can talk about the 门儿 ménr (‘door’) of your home, but the names of the ‘gates’ of Beijing never take 儿. That is, it is always 东直门 Dōngzhímén, never 东直门儿 Dōngzhíménr. Only a non-native would say that.
    Does this apply to Tian’anmen as well? I realize that this is a very different gate than the ones you’re talking about (the ones in the former walls which are now ring roads), but I’m just wondering because I could have sworn I heard a cab driver refer to “Tian’anmenr” when I was in Beijing.

  17. When I was in Taiwan, some of the people of mainland origin seemed to be trying to assimilate to Taiwanese.
    Same here. I knew a woman who hung out with “native Taiwanese” and went so far as to learn the local variant of Fujianese, and was extremely hurt when she had an argument with one of them and he said “What would you know, you’re a mainlander.”

  18. David Marjanović says

    the rest of Putonghua

    Eh, no. The communist name “ordinary speech” is Orwellian. In Taiwan, it’s still called Guóyǔ, “national language”, and that’s what it is: an artificial idiom, mainly based on the Beijing dialect, but with mixtures of features from other Mandarin dialects* and presumably from Classical Chinese. It’s not really anyone’s mother tongue, much as with Standard German (Schriftsprache “script language”).
    * For example, there are dialects of Mandarin with an inclusive/exclusive we distinction: zánmen is inclusive, wǒmen is exclusive. Others lack that distinction and use wǒmen only (it’s the plural of wǒ “I”). Pǔtōnghuà has zánmen, which is inclusive only, and wǒmen, which is ambiguous…

    It’s derived from 儿 meaning ‘child’ and is used as a diminutive.

    That’s its origin. Nowadays it’s just a nominalizer — like 子 zǐ “child”. Or, as explained above, not “just” a nominalizer.
    (Incidentally, “son” is 儿子 érzi.)

  19. “For example, there are dialects of Mandarin with an inclusive/exclusive we distinction: zánmen is inclusive, wǒmen is exclusive.”
    Yes, I’d always thought this. But “zanmen” has another rather interesting usage where it’s used as a kind of attempt to create social solidarity.
    At work I would get cold phone calls from males asking about “zanmen gongsi” (our company, inclusive). Naturally I found this kind of mystifying. By what stretch of the imagination could the company I worked for be shared in common with this complete stranger. I gradually came to realise that such people actually meant “nimen gongsi” (your company). Presumably “zanmen gongsi” sounds much more friendly than “nimen gongsi”. In other words, the use of “zanmen” seems to be a matey way of asserting familiarity/solidarity. At least that’s how I interpret it. Perhaps someone else has a better insight.

  20. About 天安门儿, I’d have to check. You get conflicting advice on this kind of thing. For instance, I’ve heard 口音儿 from Beijing people, and have used it myself, only to be told by someone (I think they were originally Shandongnese but a long-term Beijing resident) that 口音儿 was an outsider attempt at sounding like a Beijinger and not actually used by Beijingers themselves. As the Americans say, “Go figure!”

  21. The term 国语 is now quite widely used on the Mainland. It seems to be particularly common in the south (my impression). I’ve also heard 华语 (which books will tell you is mainly used in Malaysia) in the hutongs of Beijing. A lot of things you read about Chinese are not totally correct.
    And of course, language changes. China has very aggressively standardised character pronunciations. Thus, 法国 is pronounced as Fàguó in Taiwan, and Fǎguó on the Mainland. And yet, some years ago I found that old-timers in Beijing still used the pronunciation Fàguó. I also found that 悉尼 (Sydney) used to be known as 雪梨 even in the north. Nowadays, of course, this name is only found in HK and Taiwan.

  22. Hi Folks! Tickled once again to see the Beijinghua dialog energetically chugging along!
    My thoughts on the usage limitations of the “R” are that the whole subject is frought with a certain ambivalence. My own experience includes some exposure to the examples already cited by others “Sanlitur”,”Tiananmer”and other similar examples. They seem to be relatively infrequent but do exist.While I’ll pay closer attention in the future,I can’t pass on the linguistic background of each speaker years after the episiode.Mostly the distinction already identified usually prevails…..but not religiously so! It may be nothing more than a simple principle that if you get used to doing something—–such as adding the “R”—–you sometimes get carried away,native speakers as well.We do that in English too!
    While I have never made any serious effort to sort out those elements which differentiate the (presumably) archaic class distinctions in Beijinghua,I have often been chastized by my mentors for having too frequently crossed the boundries. Now that we have moved from the caste system rigidity of the Qing Dynasty to a classless Beijing one might have thought the problem to have resolved itself.Hopefully it has.
    Great discussion Folks.Let’s hang in there!

  23. “The term 国语 is now quite widely used on the Mainland”
    Bathrobe: In Beijing, I never seem to hear it, but maybe I’m just not paying attention.
    It sure seems to be the norm elsewhere though. Last week I was lurking around the strip malls of Monterey Park (Calif) hoping to find a true Beijinger for what I thought would be an amusing post. Mostly had no luck — very few northerners generally — but ran into a lot of folks who were utterly mystified by being asked if they spoke 汉语 hànyǔ — which is what I always hear in Beijing. It seemed to be particularly problematic for the elderly, and a couple of times a younger person would explain to them that I was asking about 国语.
    And then on the subject of whether Beijinghua is prestigious: I’ll just comment that several denizens of Valley Blvd in Monterey Park found my lousy Beijing-tinged Mandarin quite amusing and then proceeded to giggle and speak in an over-the-top pseudo-erhuayin in response to my questions.

  24. Hi Syz….Happy New Year…..and welcome back to the States! There should be a few folks around the Monterey area to whom the Beijing accent shouldn’t be a discordant note.Both the Army Language School and the Monterey Institute of Languages have been pioneers in Intensive Beijing-focused language study.The Beijing-born brother of one of my Professors at U. of Hawaii was teaching there too. I have been gratified to see that there are large numbers of followers back here in the US of the ongoing “Does the Beijing R Mean Anything?” discussion back in Beijing! I have seen commentary as far away as Boston relating to our comments. Let’s continue to fan the flames. Best Wishes, Ken Grey

  25. Alas, Beijing Sounds only lasted another couple of years — the last post appears to have been in January 2010.

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