[l] and [r] as allophones?

Dminor

Senior Member
Dutch, the Netherlands
Hello there,

Is there any Chinese dialect/language that actually has [l] and some kind of r (e.g. [r], [ɹ], [ɻ]) as allophones of the same phoneme, either in complementary distribution or as free variation? Or is the confusion of English /r/ and /l/ merely because one of the two is lacking in (some?) Chinese dialects/languages? I saw Mandarin has /l/ as well as /ɻ/, which corresponds to the pronunciation of English /l/ and /r/. Does this mean that speakers of Mandarin do not conform to the stereotype of mixing up English /l/ and /r/? Thanks very much!
 
  • xiaolijie

    Senior Member
    UK
    English (UK)
    I'm not aware of any confusion between [l] and [r] in Chinese, although I wouldn't completely rule out the possibility of its existence in some dialects. However, in Japanese [l] and [r] can be considered one and the same.
     

    Dminor

    Senior Member
    Dutch, the Netherlands
    So the stereotype does not apply to Chinese at all (or maybe only in some dialects), but only to Japanese?! Do you know if both [l] and [r] (so an alveolar trill, or would it rather be [ɹ] or [ɻ] like the English r?) actually occur as allophones in Japanese, and if they are in free variation or in complementary distribution? Although this seems more of a question for the Japanese forum...
     

    xiaolijie

    Senior Member
    UK
    English (UK)
    Although this seems more of a question for the Japanese forum...
    The r/l in Japanese is a "flap" (probably represented by the phonetic symbol [ɹ]). It's just one sound, so one can't properly speak of "complementary" or "free" distribution. The confusion only occurs when Japanese people try to speak a foreign language such as English, where there are 2 sounds (L & R) which are relatively similar to the flap in Japanese. This necessitates Japanese speakers to learn the two new sounds and associate them with the single Japanese [ɹ].
     

    CapnPrep

    Senior Member
    AmE
    The confusion comes from the distribution of [ɻ] and [l] in Mandarin: the former can only be a coda consonant*, while the latter can only be an onset. In other words, they are in complementary distribution, so one could propose that they are allophones of a single phoneme.

    One piece of evidence for this comes from transliterations: e.g. Rome is luómǎ and Russia is éluósī, while Bill is bǐěr and Nepal is níbóěr.

    *Note that two different sounds are transcribed as "r" in pinyin. In this thread, I assume we're talking about [ɻ] in words like ér "son" and ěr "ear", not [ʐ] as in ròu "meat" and rén "person".
     

    xiaolijie

    Senior Member
    UK
    English (UK)
    Rome is luómǎ and Russia is éluósī, while Bill is bǐěr and Nepal is níbóěr
    This so-called evidence, if not pointed out, would mislead one into thinking that Chinese has indeed got this kind of complementary distribution. Chinese people transcribed foreign words in the ways shown in the examples because they perceive them as pronounced like these by foreigners. This is completely a different issue as to how r and l are distributed in the Chinese language itself.
     

    xiaolijie

    Senior Member
    UK
    English (UK)
    So what is the distribution of R and L in Mandarin, in your opinion?
    R and L in Mandarin are two independent sounds, and just like any other two independent sounds in the language, the behaviour of one is not related to the other.
     

    bighead+

    Member
    Mandarin Chinese
    Hello there,

    Is there any Chinese dialect/language that actually has [l] and some kind of r (e.g. [r], [ɹ], [ɻ]) as allophones of the same phoneme, either in complementary distribution or as free variation? Or is the confusion of English /r/ and /l/ merely because one of the two is lacking in (some?) Chinese dialects/languages? I saw Mandarin has /l/ as well as /ɻ/, which corresponds to the pronunciation of English /l/ and /r/. Does this mean that speakers of Mandarin do not conform to the stereotype of mixing up English /l/ and /r/? Thanks very much!
    1. 太专业,没太搞明白你具体问什么。中国部分方言里l和r不分(”我热死了/我乐死了“是个有点普遍的笑话):
    http://blog.sina.com.cn/s/blog_4b3ab4b90100i6as.html

    2. 普通话里没有told中l的发音,这是中国人说英语一个发音难点; lie中的l不是问题。r不是问题。
     

    CapnPrep

    Senior Member
    AmE
    So what is the distribution of R and L in Mandarin, in your opinion?
    R and L in Mandarin are two independent sounds, and just like any other two independent sounds in the language, the behaviour of one is not related to the other.
    Let me ask it a different way:

    1. What is the distribution of R in Mandarin, and how does it differ from the distribution of R in English, and could this affect the pronunciation of English /r/ by Mandarin speakers?
    2. What is the distribution of L in Mandarin, and how does it differ from the distribution of L in English, and could this affect the pronunciation of English /l/ by Mandarin speakers?
     

    bighead+

    Member
    Mandarin Chinese
    For an educated Mandarin speaker, he/she would have no difficulty with /r/ in "rice or peter" and /l/ in "lie". In Mandarin, we don't have the same /l/ in "told" and that's one of the pronouncing problems for most Chinese.
     
    Let me ask it a different way:

    1. What is the distribution of R in Mandarin, and how does it differ from the distribution of R in English, and could this affect the pronunciation of English /r/ by Mandarin speakers?
    2. What is the distribution of L in Mandarin, and how does it differ from the distribution of L in English, and could this affect the pronunciation of English /l/ by Mandarin speakers?

    It's seams that 上海話 and 閩南話 don't have r/l contrast.
    Mandarin r is [ɻ] or [ʐ], [ʒ] is also acceptable. English r is [ɹw], which is a round consonant.
    To Chinese ear, [r] is more like [l] or [t].
    1. Chinese r is never flapped, which is very different from the "r" in other languages.
    2. Both Chinese /r/ and English /r/, the tongue position is a little backer than /l/.
    3. GA and RP r is [ɹʷ], which is "ru" to Chinese ear.
    4. To Chinese ear, [ɾ] and [r] is a sound between [l] and [d].
    5. Chinese er is not /r/, but a rhotacized /ɚ/ just like English 'er'.
    6. tr and dr, in some speaker's accent, is [tʂ]and [dʐ]. For people speak Mandarin, they are them as "ch" and "zh".
    7. English have a dark l [ɫ], which is velarized(just like /ʊl/). Chinese general pronounce 'oʊ' instead.
     
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    Angelo di fuoco

    Senior Member
    Russian & German (GER) bilingual
    I recently was listening to a Chinese opera competition where most of the pieces were in Italian. There were singers that pronounced the Italian alveolar flap and trill very well (although one singer pronounce it not quite, but a little bit alike to the French "r" à la Piaf), but sometimes they confused them - "l" instead of "r" and "r" instead of "l" was actually the most common pronunciation mistake. Once I even hear "ashpetti" instead of "aspetti" - quite funny, because that's how this letter is pronounced in this position in Neapoletan.
     

    DernierVirage

    Senior Member
    English - United Kingdom
    For an educated Mandarin speaker, he/she would have no difficulty with /r/ in "rice or peter" and /l/ in "lie". In Mandarin, we don't have the same /l/ in "told" and that's one of the pronouncing problems for most Chinese.
    A related issue to what you say above about the pronunciation of "told": my Putonghua teacher had huge problems pronouncing "work", which she always ended up saying as if it were "walk".
     

    bighead+

    Member
    Mandarin Chinese
    It depends on
    1). where in China she same from. Basically Chinese from Changjiang Triangle Region (Shanghai/Jiangsu/Zhejia) have the best English pronunciation due to a). early western culture influence. b). advanced English language training in public schools. c). Pronunciation of local dialects is relatively similar to English.
    2). whether she had her basic English training in rural or urban areas. English training in Chinese rural areas is much worse than it in the urban areas.
     
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    DernierVirage

    Senior Member
    English - United Kingdom
    Your post is very interesting, can I ask you what exactly you mean when you say that "prononciation of local dialects is relatively similar to English" ?

    It might interest you to know that the best English I have ever heard spoken by a non-native speaker was by a friend and colleague from Jiangsu. His grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation were basically at native speaker level, but when I met him first, he had never ever been outside China or met a foreigner (he came from a very small village near Xuzhou), and had learnt English at school with a lot of self study.....Incredible.
     

    Ghabi

    AL/OL/Ar/Zh mod
    Cantonese
    Your post is very interesting, can I ask you what exactly you mean when you say that "prononciation of local dialects is relatively similar to English" ?
    As you probably know, it's rather difficult for a Chinese to pronounce and perceive the voiced stops (b, d, g), since voicedness is not a contrastive feature in most Chinese dialects. However, many of the Wu 吴 and Xiang 湘 dialects do have voiced stops, which may give the speakers of these languages a certain advantage when learning to speak a foreign language.
     

    bighead+

    Member
    Mandarin Chinese
    1. That's what my experience tells me. People from these areas have some advantages from their dialects.
    2. To DernierVirage: I guess your friend from Xuzhou was most probably born after 1980. They could reach more original English materials than those born between 1960-1979. When I was in school&college, it's quiet hard for me to find any English magazines like Times/Newsweek etc....
     

    DernierVirage

    Senior Member
    English - United Kingdom
    Thanks to Ghabi and bighead+ for your above replies. Just to follow up on what you both say:

    - very interesting, the comments about the pronunciation in the Wu and Xiang dialects. Just for interest, does this apply also to the region of Jiangsu where I used to go for many years ? The nearest main city was 徐州 and the area in question is just to the east of 邳州市 (whose previous name was 邳县), the actual village is 港上镇.

    - the young man with the amazing English was born in around 1975, so he must indeed have done his studies in a more open environment.
     
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    SpanishMike

    New Member
    English- Northeast General American
    As you probably know, it's rather difficult for a Chinese to pronounce and perceive the voiced stops (b, d, g), since voicedness is not a contrastive feature in most Chinese dialects. However, many of the Wu 吴 and Xiang 湘 dialects do have voiced stops, which may give the speakers of these languages a certain advantage when learning to speak a foreign language.
    Well, English also doesn't distinguish voicing in stops except intervocalically. Instead, we distinguish aspiration initially and vowel length before stops in the coda position (which are never released, and thus carry no information regarding voicing).
     

    MèngDié

    Senior Member
    Interesting discussion, although way too technical for me. I remember seeing this stereotype depicted on TV years back (come to think of it, it must have been the Wonder Years, with the endearing Kevin). Anyway, Kevin and his family went to this Chinese restaurant for Christmas dinner, and the waiters brought out a goose (maybe?) in lieu of turkey, and then started singing a Christmas carol for the family. However, instead of sining falalalala , they sang farararara. It was a very funny scene, but at the time I thought it quite unbelievable. I mean, I can see some Chinese people pronouncing the English r as an l , as the r is a more difficult sound in my opinion, but never the other way around...but then again, most waiters working in a Chinese restaurant during the Wonder Years would have been immigrants from the Hong Kong & Guangdong areas, so perhpas such confusion is possible for people who speak the 粤 dialect as their mother tongue?
     

    strad

    Senior Member
    English (American)
    ... I remember seeing this stereotype depicted on TV years back (come to think of it, it must have been the Wonder Years, with the endearing Kevin). Anyway, Kevin and his family went to this Chinese restaurant for Christmas dinner, and the waiters brought out a goose (maybe?) in lieu of turkey, and then started singing a Christmas carol for the family. However, instead of sining falalalala , they sang farararara. ...
    That was the movie A Christmas Story.

    And then there is that scene in Lethal Weapon where Mel Gibson is making fun of Uncle Benny by asking him for some "flied lice" to which Uncle Benny responds "It's fried rice, you plick"

    This is a very common stereotype (in America, anyway) that all Asian people (Koreans, Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, etc.) confuse the R and L sounds. As this thread points out, there is some truth to that as there are obvious differences between the phonology of English and many Asian languages, but like all stereotypes it has been generalized so much to be more false than true.

    <<Mod note: Removed YouTube link. >>
     
    Last edited by a moderator:

    Serafín33

    Senior Member
    Hello there,

    Is there any Chinese dialect/language that actually has [l] and some kind of r (e.g. [r], [ɹ], [ɻ]) as allophones of the same phoneme, either in complementary distribution or as free variation?
    Not that I know of, but not the more standard ones at least.
    Or is the confusion of English /r/ and /l/ merely because one of the two is lacking in (some?) Chinese dialects/languages?
    Cantonese doesn't have a distinction between /ɹ/ and /l/, having only /l/ (and hence the stereotype in Spanish-speaking countries that Chinese speakers use [l] for Spanish /ɾ/ /r/ /l/). This applies to many other dialects too.
    I saw Mandarin has /l/ as well as /ɻ/, which corresponds to the pronunciation of English /l/ and /r/. Does this mean that speakers of Mandarin do not conform to the stereotype of mixing up English /l/ and /r/?
    Correct. The idea that "Engrish" is something that Chinese people do is incorrect, that applies to speakers of Japanese and Korean. Mainstream North American culture has applied that to Chinese speakers mistakenly.

    At the most it would be a stereotype of pronouncing English /ɹ/ and /l/ as [l], as in Spanish-speaking countries, considering the large numbers of speakers of Cantonese over there. But nope, nobody said mainstream culture is savvy.
     

    Clement_Sun

    Member
    Chinese-mandrin
    Hello there,

    Is there any Chinese dialect/language that actually has [l] and some kind of r (e.g. [r], [ɹ], [ɻ]) as allophones of the same phoneme, either in complementary distribution or as free variation? Or is the confusion of English /r/ and /l/ merely because one of the two is lacking in (some?) Chinese dialects/languages? I saw Mandarin has /l/ as well as /ɻ/, which corresponds to the pronunciation of English /l/ and /r/. Does this mean that speakers of Mandarin do not conform to the stereotype of mixing up English /l/ and /r/? Thanks very much!
    I used to stay in Wuhan, Capital of Hubei Province. There are some dialects that might have [l] and some kind of [r] variation as allophones. I also suspected they put some variation of nasal/n/ with /l/ or /r/ as well.

    A friends of mine has problem distinguishing Liu4 六, Niu2 牛, Rou4 肉. when he says 溜牛肉Liu1Niu2Rou4, everyboday laughs. LOL He is from 沙市 Sha1Shi4, Hubei.

    hope this helps.
     
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