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LINGUIST List 22.4280

Sat Oct 29 2011

Qs: Origin of Erhua in Beijing/Northern Chinese

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        1.     Brent Woo , Origin of Erhua in Beijing/Northern Chinese

Message 1: Origin of Erhua in Beijing/Northern Chinese
Date: 27-Oct-2011
From: Brent Woo <bpwooucla.edu>
Subject: Origin of Erhua in Beijing/Northern Chinese
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Erhua refers to the phenomenon in Beijing and some other Northern
varieties of Mandarin Chinese where certain nouns and verbs are
pronounced with r-coloring, or where the coda of a syllable is
effectively replaced with the retroflex approximant. It is unique in the
relationship between Chinese writing and speech because it is the only
one of its kind in the language that when written down retroactively
affects the preceding syllable.

I have been unable to find conclusive information on the circumstances
of the appearance of erhua. On one hand, it would appear to be a
recent appearance since communities like Taiwan and Southern China
do not pronounce erhua. But on the other, more likely hand, it seems to
be a historical carryover from something since other Northern varieties,
in particular the enigmatic Dungan language of Kyrgyzstan and
certainly the Dungans separated long before Taiwanese Mandarin was

Some hypotheses I have heard is that erhua is an artifact from the
Manchu dynasty, reflecting the Tungusic language's influence on court
language (that would explain its presence in Beijing).

But if erhua appeared so long ago, how is it that both Taiwanese and
non-Northern varieties unilaterally reject erhua? Is it for purely
sociolinguistic reasons? That seems odd that the entire country save
for the capital would reject (or not acquire?) this very distinct

I have been unable to find any information on this other than informal
discussions concerning erhua as a synchronic phenomenon; the
internet seems uninterested in the history of this pronunciation. Also, it
should be made clear that I am not primarily asking about the
semantics of its use, although if it is part of the historical explanation, of
course information of that sort is welcome.

My main question, then, is: When and from where did erhua appear in
Mandarin Chinese?

I don't profess to be any sort of expert in Sinitic languages, so forgive
any premature assumptions I have made. But this question was
sparked on my preliminary investigation into the history and nature of
Dungan and I feel it would greatly inform my research if I knew more
about erhua.

Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics

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