I’m helping a Taiwanese graduate student review her thesis and it’s on an interesting subject that I hadn’t considered much in relation to Chinese – syllable contraction. Her paper uses prosodic phonology to analyse when and why contraction occurs. It seems that the syllable contraction in Mandarin is quite an active area of study in linguistics.
Syllable contraction is extremely common in English (I’ve, haven’t, we’re etc.), but not something you often think about with Chinese, especially when you’re in the early stages of learning. For Chinese learners I think the fact that it does occur will be interesting.
A basic example that is extremely common in Taiwan, and most likely other Chinese speaking countries, is the contraction of 這樣 （这样） zhè yàng to 醬（酱） jiàng. So instead of saying:
Is that how it is?
You would pronounce 這樣 as 醬:
Mostly unintelligible, unless you read it aloud, then it starts to make more sense. Here’s some of the contractions that the sentence contains, see if you can spot them all:
The original sentence:
Some of these contractions seems strange, such as 朋友 becoming 票. I’m sure the type of contraction used is based a lot on accent, so the contractions you’ll hear may depend on where you are in the Chinese speaking world.
I think this quote from Contraction and Backgrounding in Taiwan Mandarin (PDF) reveals why understanding about Mandarin syllable contraction is relevant to Chinese learners:
…in much of Mandarin radio broadcasting, even during what sounds like completely ad lib banter, there is often very little contraction at all, sometimes none. Radio hosts tend to enunciate each word clearly, even when making jokes. In English, even in the most formal news broadcasting styles, established contractions like don’t and aren’t are very frequently used. However, informal contractions like wanna and gonna tend to be avoided.
If you want to really improve your listening ability then you need to expose yourself to a wide variety of sources. Just listening to the audio from your textbook or even certain radio or television broadcasts is not enough, since they are unlikely to include any relaxed speech or contractions.
It seems that watching those Taiwanese variety shows that I hate might actually be the best way to hone your listening skills for the Mandarin pronunciation that is actually used by regular people.
It’s one of those things that I already knew, but this just clarifies it. I always remember the first time I did the listening section of the TOCFL test in Taiwan and heard the pronunciation. Crisp and perfectly enunciated, and it actually threw me off. I wasn’t used to hearing such clear speech. If you’ve ever heard the dubbing on Taiwan’s Animal Planet channel then you’ll know the kind of pronunciation I mean.
I don’t recommend everyone goes out and starts deliberately using contractions in their Mandarin. But knowing that it is happening and listening for it can certainly help in your comprehension of speech. When your Chinese improves some of these contractions may naturally work their way into your speech.