a dialect moment

May 19th, 2011

Now that I apparently have a spare moment or two…

Last Friday (yes, I know that’s almost a week ago, I’ve been busy) I took my wife and daughter up to the hospital for their 6-week check up. As my wife was off getting our daughter’s birth certificate and having her own check up, my mother in law and myself took my daughter to see her doctor. And the following conversation (more or less, relying on memory here) occured:

MiL: 她吃完了就ngè了。(As soon as she’s finished eating she [obscure dialect word])

Doc: 啊?吃完了就饿了?(Ah? As soon as she’s finished eating she’s hungry?)

MiL: 不是。吃完了就拉了。(No. As soon as she’s finished eating she poohs.)

饿 (è, hungry) is commonly pronounced ngè in Yanqing County and some variation on nè or ngè in the Northeast, so the doctor’s misunderstanding is quite understandable, especially in a context when she is checking on the health of a 6-week old baby.

I had never heard a word ‘ngè’ meaning ‘to pooh’ or anything similar until our baby was born and nappies needed to be changed. Apart from my mother in law, I have heard one other person say this, a cousin in law. So that’s a sample size of two (oh so statistically significant!), one Yanqing County born and raised, one from neighbouring Huailai County but living in Yanqing since marriage, both of whom normally speak Yanqinghua (indeed, I’ve never heard that cousin say anything that could be mistaken for standard Mandarin. My mother in law is capable of speaking Putonghua, and I’ve heard her speak Huailaihua, but she usually sticks with Yanqinghua).

Looking in my dictionary, going through in pinyin alphabetical order the characters that could be pronounced ngè in Yanqinghua, I mercifully quickly find “屙, ē, dial. discharge (excrement or urine)”. In Yanqinghua, an ng- initial seems to be commonly added to words that in Putonghua start with a vowel, and we have a change in tone, but the character seems to fit. Still, I wish my dictionary would give some kind of indication of the dialects a character is likely to be used in rather than just mark it as being used in some dialect or another. And I have things that need to be done half an hour ago, so I really shouldn’t sift through the rest of the e, ne and any possible nge entries to see if there’s another character with a similar meaning. In fact, I should just stop typing now and click ‘publish’ and go be productive.

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