January 6th, 2012

A Chinese word that has grabbed my attention of late is shǎi. I don’t know why I just noticed it now, but my wife and mother in law have been using it a lot, especially when discussing the colour or propensity to dye the water of baby clothes. At first I couldn’t quite figure out if it should be spelt shěr, shǎr, or shǎir, as the vowel in their pronunciation seems to fall somewhere in between those three, and I’ve never been much good at phonology. I also got to wondering if it was an alternate pronunciation of 色 (sè) or a different character. So, now that I’ve got my end of semester paperwork done and handed in and the baby’s asleep, I opened up the dictionary and had a wee look.

So I grabbed A Chinese-English Dictionary (Revised Edition) (FLTRP, 1997) and checked 色, and sure enough it had a see also shǎi note, and on seeing also shǎi the dictionary confirmed that that is an alternate pronunciation also meaning colour with an example sentence “这布掉~吗?” which just happens to be in the exact context I’ve been hearing so often. There’s also a little inf. notation, marking it as informal, and the word 色子 meaning dice.

My 《现代汉语词典(第五版)》 (中国科学院语言研究所词典编辑室编,商务印书馆,2005)confirms that, but also has a note (儿) confirming the 儿话音 I hear, and instead of inf., tells us (口) – I can’t find a list of abbreviations to explain, but it strikes me that there’s a difference between informal and oral. It also gives the word:


I wish dictionaries would indicate which dialect or dialects a word marked as dialect comes from. Anyway, in some unspecified dialect there is a word 色酒 meaning an alcoholic drink brewed from grapes or other fruit, generally coloured and with a rather low alcohol content. In other words, a noun for wine, fruit wine and other alcoholic drinks made from fruit. But why is beer not included? This word broken down means “coloured booze”, not “fruit plonk”, and beer is plenty colourful. And does anybody know which dialect or dialects use this word? I just asked my mother in law if she knows the word, and she semi-correctly guessed that it means wine (she asked, “是不是葡萄酒?”) but she denies ever having heard it before. Most curious indeed. What is it about the character 色, which means colour and seems to have no other meaning except in the term 色子, which would indicate specifically “alcoholic drink made from grapes or other fruit”? Sure, colour is used to denote traditional Chinese alcoholic drinks – 白酒 (white booze) and 黄酒 (yellow booze). But how does a non-specific “coloured plonk” tell us “plonk made from grapes”?

Now, I’m pretty sure that I’ve only heard my wife and mother in law and other residents of Yanqing pronounce 色 as shǎir. I’m not sure what that tells me. It’s marked as either informal or spoken depending on the dictionary, not dialect. My initial confusion over the vowel I certainly put down to accent and my wife’s code switching (Putonghua with most people, including me and our daughter; Yanqinghua with her parents, uncles, aunts, brother, cousins, etc), but my mother in law is a native of a village whose name bears her surname in Huailai County and is known to switch between and even mix Huailaihua and Yanqinghua, so she’s not always the most reliable source for information of a dialectological nature. And in any case, it’s not marked dialect in the dictionaries.

Side note: Although they lie in the same basin, Huailai and Yanqing have distinct accents and dialects. Well, a bit like Australasian accents and dialects – distinct to those who know them, indistinguishable to most outsiders. And Yanqinghua can be divided into Eastern and Western variants with even subtler distinctions, just as New Zild can be divided into Southern (Southland and (mostly rural) Otago) and The Rest of the Country, again, with the differences clear to Those In The Know and utterly mysterious to the rest of the world.

And why does 色子 mean “dice”? Is there a separate word for “die”? That would be unusual considering singular/plural distinctions in Chinese are generally limited to words for people and not very strict. Oh, wait, I’m being unnecessarily pedantic again.

Anyway, there’s my little linguistic discoveries for the day.

2 Responses to “shai”

  1. JB Says:

    My girlfriend is from Langfang, just south of Beijing in Hebei. She confirmed that she uses the words just like your wife and mother-in-law. She speaks great standard mandarin and also her local dialect (shengfanghua), but she wasn’t sure about this word. She did pronounce it shǎir. My guess is it’s 北方话 maybe?

    Also, she said 色子 can mean one or more.

    At least now you know it’s more widespread than just your area.

  2. wangbo Says:

    Thanks, JB.