The capital of China, Beijing, is brightened by its glorious scenery. It’s the home to famous UNESCO World Heritage Sites: the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, to name a few. Breathtaking sites are not the only thing that draws the attention of visitors to travel to the capital. The culture, food, or unique Beijing dialect all trigger outsiders’ curiosity and make them want to pay a visit to the place.
Though Beijing dialect shares many similarities to Mandarin Chinese, it still has a lot of distinguishing features, such as the use of “érhuà” 儿化 (rhotacization) or colloquial phrases and words that are completely unique to the capital. Read on to learn more!
What is the Beijing dialect?
Every language has its own dialect. American English has a bunch of dialects – Texan, Bostonian, Floridian, etc. Chinese is no different. There are many languages in China and each with its own dialects, for example, Mandarin, Shanghainese, Cantonese, etc.
The Beijing dialect 北京話 (Beijnghuà), often known as Pekingese, is a prestigious Mandarin dialect. Beijing’s long history as China’s political and cultural capital has made the Beijing dialect regarded as a lingua franca. As a result, it’s the phonological foundation of Standard Chinese, the official language of the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China (Taiwan), and one of Singapore’s official languages.
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The distinctive feature of the Beijing dialect
The iconic characteristic of Beijing Mandarin is “érhuà” 儿化 or rhotacization. It’s a phonological process that adds r-coloring or the “ér” 儿 sound at the end of some words. Érhuà 儿化 has been used for grammatical purposes, but most of the time as a diminutive suffix (an ending that is added to a word to express smallness) for nouns in the Beijing dialect. For example:
Mǐlì 米粒 (rice) -> Mǐlì er 米粒儿
Huābàn 花瓣 (petal) -> Huābàn er 花瓣儿
Aside from being used as a diminutive, “érhuà” 儿化 is also used to differentiate words in the Beijing dialect, for example, báimiàn 白面 (flour) and báimiànr 白面儿 (heroin,” literally “small white powder”).
In Beijing dialect, “érhuà” 儿化 doesn’t always appear at the end of a word. Even though it must appear at the end of the syllable, it can be added to the middle of many words, and there is no rule that specifies when it should be put in the middle. For instance, bǎnrzhuān 板儿砖(brick), should not be bǎnzhuānr 板砖儿.
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How to speak like a native Beijinger?
“When in Rome, do as the Romans do”. Suppose you travel to Beijing for study, work, or vacation but only know basic Mandarin Chinese vocabulary; chances are you’ll either not communicate well with Beijingers or have a good grasp of what they mean.
Beijing has its own set of distinct colloquialisms that are not found elsewhere in China. Learn these words and phrases, and you’ll fit right in.
Bèi ér 倍儿 – very
Beijingers are known for leaning into their “ér” 儿 sound, and this is a great example. Instead of using only bèi 倍 to mean “very”, Beijingers would rather add the “ér” 儿 to the end of the word. While others would rather pronounce bèi ér 倍儿 separately to sound clearer, Beijingers blend the sounds together, making the word sound like ‘bay’ with an ‘argh’ tacked onto the end. Here are some examples of how Beijingers use bèi ér 倍儿:
- Bèi ér shuǎng 倍儿爽 – very happy
- Bèi ér xīn 倍儿新 – brand new
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Lū chuàn ér 撸串儿 – to eat
Beijingers prefer to use the word 撸串儿 instead of chī 吃 for a reason. It’s because Beijingers wholeheartedly enjoy lū chuàn 串儿, the delicious barbecued meat skewers that originally from Xinjiang. The word 撸 lū mean “strip out” and when it comes with lū chuàn 串儿, it creates the phrase ‘to strip the meat off skewers’, which is exactly how they should be consumed.
Xiōng shì chǎo jīdàn 胸是炒鸡蛋 – tomatoes with scrambled eggs
Here comes an expression of a famous Beijing dish. This phrase is translated as ‘chest is scrambled eggs,’ but it truly means ‘tomatoes with scrambled eggs. You may wonder how “chest” is related to “tomatoes”? Are they homonyms? Well, not really! Beijingers are well-known for speaking quickly – so quickly, in fact, some phrases are omitted entirely while others are mashed together.
Xīhóngshì 西红柿, meaning tomato, is pronounced as xiōng shì 胸是 by Beijingers, which explains why the dish is no longer called “Xīhóngshì chǎo jī dàn” but “Xiōng shì chǎo jīdàn.”
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Jī zéi 鸡贼 – chicken thief
This word refers to a frugal, stingy, or just plain cheap person. According to some sources, the word was coined in a book in which one of the characters, a landowner who owned a farm, woke up his workers before the sunrise with the sound of a cockerel in order to squeeze out a few additional hours of labor. Others claim that the word gained popularity due to a viral story on the internet in which a young guy broke up with his girlfriend after ordering a costly drink instead of a sparkling bottle of water.
Though it’s not a favorable reflection on one’s character, jī zéi 鸡贼 can be used as an unintentional insult between close friends.
Fà xiǎo ér 发小儿 – childhood friends
Fà xiǎo ér 发小儿 was a phrase used in ancient China to characterize rowdy children who would smash vases and play in the mud. This phrase now has a completely new connotation. Fà xiǎo ér 发小儿 describes an old buddy with whom you grew up. It’s a status designated for your closest friends, with whom you share a natural intimacy that dates back to childhood.
There’s a famous Chinese saying 友谊既能分享快乐，又能分担伤痛 (With clothes, the newer, the better; with friends, the older, the better) that explains why this term is imbued with such warm, fuzzy feelings.
Lǎo pào ér 老炮儿 – old loafer
This term describes seniors who spend their days strolling their dogs and playing mah-jong in the park. It can also be used to refer to respectable old men who have served their time in the working world and have maintained their upright and loyal character.
Lǎo pào ér was also the name of a Chinese blockbuster directed by Guan Hu and released in 2015, known in English as Mr. Six.
Yǎnlì jiàn ér 眼力见儿 – to act appropriately in social situations
This term refers to a specific sort of social nous, an awareness of social situations and how one should act. In Chinese culture, particularly in the business context, it’s important to understand one’s place in the social hierarchy.
For example, if your company holds a gala dinner, all the staff should wait for the boss to arrive before starting the meal. When he shows up, those who are seated at the table should stand up and greet him.
To say that someone is good at observing situations and acting accordingly with discretion, you would say yǒu yǎn lì jiàn ér 有眼力见儿.
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It’s time to learn some Chinese!
The Beijing dialect sure makes many people surprised with the use of “érhuà” 儿化 and unique colloquial phrases and words. It’s not easy to master the Beijing dialect, but when you’re proficient at these phrases, you will instantly win the hearts of your newfound Beijinger friends.
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