August 2, 2009

Why Is Nǎlǐ 哪里 Written Wrong?

Filed under: Uncategorized — ktetaichinh @ 10:01 am

Why Is Nǎlǐ 哪里 Written Wrong?

2009 May 24 – 7:16 am | Categories: Tones| Leave a comment

First of all, let’s just hear what nǎlǐ 哪里 is supposed to sound like when said by a native speaker (excerpt from Chinese 24/7 audio files):

(hopefully Firefox users won’t have trouble with these)

qù nǎlǐ 去哪里? = Where are you going?


Now by itself: nǎlǐ 哪里


It’s clearly a 3-3 combo, just like nǐ hǎo 你好:


If it were really nǎli, it would sound like other  3-5 combinations such as zǒu ba 走吧:


In a 3-5 combination the second syllable is basically a 1st tone (maybe a little shortened).  That’s not how nǎli sounds to me.  I’m not talking about the 3-3 turning into a 2-3, we know that.  I’m talking about whether the second syllable is up high (like a 5th tone would be after a 3rd tone) or down low (like a 3rd tone would be at the end of a compound word).  I can’t hear it as anything but a 3rd tone.

Ok, is everyone convinced?  It’s pronounced nǎlǐ (tones 3-3) and not nǎli (tones 3-5). I’ve never heard it pronounced with a 3-5 combination that I can remember.

Now let’s do a little research.  Check all your dictionaries and see how it’s written.  Here are my results:

  • Chubby: Nǎli – WRONG!
  • Lenny
    • “Where” (E-C): not present, only gives nǎr 哪儿
    • 哪里” (C-E): Nǎli – WRONG!
  • Big Red
    • “Where” (E-C): Nǎlǐ – CORRECT!
    • 哪里” (C-E): Nǎli – WRONG!
  • MDBG: Nǎlǐ  – CORRECT!
  • Nciku: Nǎli- WRONG!

So my questions for everyone are:

  1. What does your dictionary have for 哪里?
  2. Has anyone ever heard nǎlǐ 哪里 pronounced with a 3-5 tone combo?
  3. If so, where are you?
  4. If not, why is it wrong in 4/6 places in my dictionaries?

I didn’t think about this until after my book had already gone to print so I’m sorry to say that it’s consistently written as “nǎli” throughout the pages of Chinese 24/7.  I thought the variations in the writing of the tones was due to the “secret tone” phenomenon.  You know, like cōngming 聪明 or péngyou 朋友, where everyone knows what tone that second character has (2 and 3, respectively) but some people will pronounce the real tone (especially if they speak slowly) and some people will pronounce it as a 5th (”light”) tone.

If I’d only really thought about it, I would have seen that’s not the case with nǎlǐ 哪里.  Why, oh why did I trust the majority opinion of the dictionaries?  Why didn’t I listen to my heart?  If we ever do a second printing, I’m definitely going with nǎlǐ unless someone can back me off the ledge and tell me everything’s going to be ok.

[update 3 June 2009]

I guess I should have included more examples of what I’m talking about.  Here are three different ways to say “nali” 那里 with three different tone combos.

Before we get distracted, the real issue is not my pronunciation of these three examples.  I’m not a native speaker and I’m not claiming these are the “correct” ways to say these combinations.  I’m just hoping I got close enough to give ya’ll a ball-park idea of what the differnet tone combos might sound like.  Feel free to criticize the zhonglish tones if I got them wrong.

But the real question is: Which of these have you heard native speakers say? (We’re going for descriptive rather than prescriptive rules here.)

Option #1: nǎlǐ (na3 li3)


Option #2: náli (na2 li5)


Option #3: nǎli (na3 li5)


My theory is that we’ve heard #1 and #2 but never #3.  If that’s true, then it is written wrong (as option #3) in many dictionaries.
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