Bochum seminar in linguistics

The description of spoken Mandarin

Jeroen Wiedenhof

 time & venue  texts  assignments  references

General information

The bare facts about spoken Mandarin can be quite different from the image that arises in grammars, dictionaries and textbooks. This is partly due a strong literary tradition, which favors written standards over spoken norms. The status of Mandarin as a national standard language likewise tends to obscure the linguistic picture. Even though variability is inherent to language, Chinese educational contexts often interpret change as deterioration from an ideal norm.

But Chinese linguistics also boasts a strong data-oriented tradition. One of the pioneers in this field was the Chinese-American linguist Yuen Ren CHAO ( Zhào Yuánrèn, 1892-1982). In a two-day intensive program, consisting of a lecture and three seminars, details from Chao's original work will be presented, together with an assessment of the relevance of his methods for new work in the description of spoken Mandarin.

 Lecture   "Spoken Mandarin since Chao"

Y.R. Chao was trained in mathematics and philosophy and went on to become one of the great contributors to Chinese and general linguistics in the 20th century. Throughout his long scholarly career, he combined outstanding powers of observation with great clarity of description.

The Grammar of spoken Chinese was published in 1968, when Chao was 76, thus bringing together a lifetime of experience, knowledge and insights in Chinese linguistics. The book remains the most accurate and complete account of spoken Mandarin to this day. However, nearly fifty years and a number of social revolutions after this publication, the language itself has changed in ways that deserve renewed documentation and analysis.

Taking the 1968 Grammar as a point of departure, new materials will be presented in this lecture to illustrate and discuss how Mandarin has changed since Chao's time.

 Seminars  "The description of spoken Mandarin: Chao's legacy"

In three separate sessions, Chao's texts on Mandarin will be read and discussed, with an emphasis on the methodology of collecting and analyzing spoken data. Participants are expected to read texts from the Grammar of spoken Chinese and prepare assignments prior to the seminar.

Time and venue



time venue activity

Friday, 27 May 2005

2:00-4:00 pm GB 04/59 lecture


4:00-6:00 pm GB 04/59 seminar

Saturday, 28 May

10:00-12:00 pm GB 04/59 seminar


1:00-3:00 pm GB 04/59 seminar

Texts / overview

All texts are taken from Yuen Ren Chao, A Grammar of spoken Chinese, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968.

Friday seminar

Saturday seminar: morning session

Saturday seminar: afternoon session



Friday, 27 May


Saturday, 28 May, morning session


Saturday, 28 May, afternoon session


for Friday, 27 May


  • pp. xxx-xxxi, "Abbreviations"
  • pp. 505-552, § 7.2, "Nouns" up to & including § 7.5, "Time words"

Questions and assignments


Please note down any questions about the text and bring your notes to class for discussion. In class, we will go over the text page by page, and you will be given the opportunity to present your questions as we go along.


When Y.R. Chao published his Grammar, Pinyin was not yet an internationally accepted system for the transcription of Mandarin. Chao used a system called Gwoyeu Romatzyh, or GR for short.

One of the main differences with Pinyin is that GR spells tones with letters instead of diacritical marks over the vowel. Compare, for instance:

Unfortunately, GR does not always spell the same tone with the same letter. If you are a control freak, please check out David Prager Branner's Guide to Gwoyeu Romatzyh Tonal Spelling of Chinese and the ScriptMaster online conversion tables.

Alternatively, you may simply try to get a feel for GR by attempting to read out each example aloud; Chao's characters will help you. After just a few pages, you will discover clear patterns in this spelling system. For instance:

  • double vowels (daa, guu) always indicate a third tone
  • a fourth tone may be indicated by -h (guoh, yuh)
  • a first tone syllable usually looks less complicated than the other tones (da, gu, guo, iu).

Also note that the neutral tone, which is marked in Pinyin by the absence of a tone symbol, is indicated by a dot preceding the transcribed syllable, e.g. in ta .de dong.shi 'his things'; more on this below.

Assignment: In the first paragraph of today's text (page 505, section 7.2. "Nouns"), eight Mandarin expressions are presented in characters, in GR transcriptions and in English translation. Please give Pinyin spellings for each of these expressions.

3.   When was Pinyin created? When Chao's text was published, what were the pros and cons of using Pinyin? When did Pinyin become internationally accepted? And why?

Still in the first paragraph, the abbreviations "D" and "M" stand for "determinative" and "measure", as listed in the Abbreviations on pages xxx-xxxi.

a.  Of the eight examples given, the last three illustrate the use of "determinatives" and "measures". Have you come across other names for these grammatical units? (For instance, what terms do your Mandarin textbooks use?)

b. In the Abbreviations, what might have motivated Chao to list adverbs as "H", and prepositions as "K"?


a.  On page 505, line -5 (i.e., fifth line from the bottom), what is an "open class"?

b.  Can you provide concrete examples to illustrate that nouns "form an open class"?

c.  Which expressions could be regarded as a closed class in Mandarin? And in German?


On page 506, line 4, the GR spellings -tz, -l and -.tou correspond to -zi, -r and -tou in Pinyin.

a.  For each of these suffixes, please provide two Mandarin examples.

b.  Can you think of any counterexamples? In other words: do you agree that all Mandarin expressions ending in these three suffixes can be regarded as nouns?

7.   On page 506, lines 7-8, what is meant by the difference between textual and lexical occurrence?
8.   On page 506, line -11, the small z-shaped graph to the right of the character is a repetition mark used in handwritten characters. Have you come across alternatives ways to write this repetition mark?

On page 508, line 17, the Mandarin word for 'a model (to follow)' is transcribed as baangoyanq. The small subscribed circle indicates that the following tone may or may not be neutralized. In other words: baangoyanq is short for baangyanq ~ baang.yanq.


a.  Now consider the Mandarin word for 'ant', transcribed as maaoyii in the same line. Please give both readings of this expression in Pinyin transcription.

In line 10 of the same page, the Mandarin word for 'unmarried woman' is transcribed as sheau.jiee. The letters ee in jiee reflect a third tone: first tone jie, second tone jye, third tone jiee, fourth tone jieh.

Please verify that the GR .jie, .jye, .jiee and .jieh all reflect the same neutral tone syllable. GR distinguishes these four spellings to reflect underlying tones. Here, the word for 'unmarried woman' derives from a third-tone etymon jiee 'elder sister'. Therefore, the neutral tone is spelled as .jiee.


b.  Try to find three Mandarin expressions with a neutral tone which seems to lack an underlying tone.

c.  Can you think of ways to spell these three expressions in GR?

d.  What is the Pinyin spelling corresponding to sheau.jiee?

e.  Now please give GR and Pinyin spellings for the two-syllable Mandarin word meaning 'elder sister'.

f.  As a matter of principle, do Mandarin transcription systems transcribe characters or speech?

g. What are the consequences of different writing and spelling traditions for our knowledge about a language?


a.  How did Chao pronounce the Mandarin sentence for 'Please give me some of that wine!' on page 513, lines 15-16?

Hint: check the ScriptMaster GR conversion site to find out how bae is spelled in Pinyin.

b.  In your Mandarin class, how did you learn to say the same sentence?


The second paragraph of page 514 describes a distinction in the way Mandarin pronounces the sentences for 'There are two Wang Liangs.' and 'There are two weasels.'

a.  First, try to hear the difference by reading out both sentences aloud.

b.  Next, try to pronounce the first sentence with the same stress pattern as the second sentence.

c.  What is the meaning of this new sentence?


In note 7 of page 515, can you match the characters in the seal with the transcription given?

Hint: compare assignment #8.

13. What is the difference between Peiping (page 516, line 7) and Peking?

On page 517, line -9, the pronunciation of the same name is given first in slow reading spead, and then at a conversational tempo.

a.  Try to pronounce the difference clearly.

b.  Under what circumstances does a second tone change to a first tone?

15. On page 524, lines 14-15 it is claimed that lii 'inside' "cannot be followed by a verb, as ney can". Can you compose a sentence with ney followed by a verb?

Chao gives two variant names for the month of January on page 539, lines 1-2.

a.  Read out both names. Why is the first name indicated as "sic"?

b.  The end of the first paragraph documents a change in the meaning of the first term. Since Chao's Grammar was published, the meaning of this term seems to have changed again. Do you know how?


for Saturday, 28 May / morning session


  • pp. xxx-xxxi, "Abbreviations"
  • p. 194, § 4.1.1. "General"
  • pp. 258-285, § 5.1, "Expressions and constructions" up to & including § 5.3.5, "Class meaning of modification"

Questions and assignments


If you come across any questions about the text, please note them down and bring your notes to class for discussion.


The difference between endocentric and exocentric constructions is explained on page 259. Can you give examples of these two construction types in German and/or in English?.


The end of first paragraph of section 5.1.4 lists examples of expressions which are not usually distinguished in writing.

a.  Read out each these examples. Can you make the difference heard?

b.  For sentences generally, can you point out similarities as well as differences between word order and prosody?

  20.   At the beginning of section 5.2, why does Chao describe the function of the two centers in a coordinative construction as having "approximately" the same function as the whole construction (page 262, line 6)? Can there still be a difference between these two centers?

Try to pronounce the examples under point (3) on pages 263-264. What does the "falling ending" sound like? If you do not know, please ask a native speaker of Mandarin to read these examples to you.


There are two different examples on page 268 in which shoei 'water' and huoo 'fire' are juxtaposed in coordination. For the first example (lines 2-3), two readings are given; also compare page 270.

a.  Is there a semantic difference between these two readings?

b.  Does the second example (line -7) allow the same two readings?


The sentence Bu hao hao. on page 269, line 3, is indicated with an asterisk. According to Chao's conventions (page xxi), this means that the expression "does not occur".

a.  Can you think of a meaning and context for Bu hao hao.?

b.  Should the asterisk be redefined or used differently? If so, how? And if not: why not?

  24.   On page 271, line -4, cases of close apposition are described as "subordinate phrases or compounds". Please comment.

The name of the raw-fish dish on page 275, line -6, is presented as an "apparent exception to the rule that the modifier precedes the modified". Can you name similar Mandarin examples?


The "logical product AB" is described on page 281, lines 15-16, as "equivalent to BA [...] if and only if BA exists". An example is given at the end of the same paragraph. Can you describe the relevance of these "logically equivalent forms"?


for Saturday, 28 May / afternoon session


  • pp. xxx-xxxi, "Abbreviations"
  • pp. 159-160, § 3.4.4, "Ionized forms"
  • pp. 435-480, § 6.2, "Verb-Complement (V-R) compounds"

Questions and assignments


If you come across any questions about the text, please note them down and bring your notes to class for discussion.


Consider the argument of "repetition after hesitation or interruption", starting at the bottom of page 436 and continuing on page 437. Judging from your experience on how people talk in your own language, do you have any comments to offer?

29. Please describe the difference between the two analyses of jieechwu 'release, relieve" (page 437, lines 19-20) in your own words.
30. The second paragraph of page 443 describes how the modern adverb heen 'very' evolved. Please describe this development in your own words. Can you think of similar developments in other languages?
31 In what order has the list on pages 444-446 been arranged?
32. Can you describe in you own words why we have a problem of "circularity of definition" in the second paragraph of page 448?

According to page 449, lines 9-10, tzuohj means '(keep) be(ing) seated'.

a.  On the basis of this, can you give a precise meaning for tzuoh?

b.  How does this use of the suffix -j differ from its meaning in expressions such shuoj huah 'be talking'? (Also compare the discussion on pages 464-465.


"Intensifying complements" are treated as a separate group on pages 450-452. Can this be motivated from a syntactic point of view? To answer this question, also compare the following data:

  • an analysis of chy de tay bao 'eat too full' on page 438 in terms of a subject chy de 'that ones eats' and a predicate tay bao 'too full';
  • examples such as Woo ley de heen. 'I am very tired.' (see also assignment #30).
35. On page 465, can you identify the printing errors in examples (a) and (b)?

The German prefix weg- is compared with Mandarin diaw 'drop, fall' on page 466, 15-16.

a.  Where does the German prefix weg- derive from?

b.  Can you see phonological and/or semantic parallels in the development of German weg- and the use of Mandarin diaw 'drop, fall'?

37. Can you explain the last example in note 54 (page 470)?
38. Please provide (a) a logical analysis and (b) a semantic explanation for Nii dei bae fann chy-baole. 'You must eat a full dinner.' on page 473, lines 11-12.
39. Which of the six expressions under point (6), page 478, can be used to mean 'take it out of a goose'?
40. Would it possible and/or plausible that the forms keh en chiuh (pages 479-480) are historically related?


 Sektion Sprache und Literatur Chinas, Fakultät für Ostasienwissenschaften, Ruhr-Universität Bochum

 David Prager Branner's Guide to Gwoyeu Romatzyh Tonal Spelling of Chinese

 Linguistic terminology

 Spoken Mandarin data

 general info  time & venue  texts  assignments

last modified: 18 May 2005