To er or not to er

"One of the hotly debated questions of language policy is to what extent rhotacization should be adopted as a feature of the standard language. Many nonnortherners are unable to pronounce such forms correctly and avoid the –r suffix as much as possible, even in those cases where it serves to distinguish different grammatical categories: for huà huàr ‘to paint a picture', many southerners will say huà huà."

--Jerry Norman Chinese, 1988:145.


The title of this piece is taken from Dayle Barnes ‘To er or not to er’, Journal of Chinese Linguistics, 1977 (5):211-36. The following is adapted from Zhou Jian ‘眼与眼儿’in Zicizhongde quwei (Humorous Chinese Character and Terms) Beijing: Xin shijie chubanshe, 1999:193-195.




In standard Chinese, particularly in colloquial speech, words or morphemes undergo a phonological process called rhotacization [also known as érhuà finals] which refers to adding a suffix -r to the final syllables. Rhotacized (érhuà) finals do not exist in isolation. In pinyin romanization, the suffix -r is placed after the original final syllable and the character 儿 is added after the word or morpheme.

Q: Does it matter if words or morphemes are not in their rhotacized form?

A: It doesn’t matter if some words appear in rhotacized forms or not. But for others it is essential because they function to semantically differentiate words.

Q: Why does fànguăn require a rhotacized form and not túshūguăn?



-Guăn (馆) does not appear in a rhotacized form for grand, dignified public institutions such as embassies, art galleries, museums, cultural history institutes or organizations, exhibitions halls and hotels.

The suffix –r can be added to informal places such as restaurants (饭馆儿), pubs (酒馆儿) tea houses (茶馆儿), and cafés (咖啡馆儿).

Rhotacized forms convey diminutive overtones and objects considered cute or familiar. Usually, cock and rooster do not habitually appear in rhotacized forms, but by adding a final -r to a small chicken or chick
(小鸡儿) it conveys something loveable or endearing.

The suffix –r can also serve distinguish parts of speech as in the following:

gài 盖  'to cover' 
gàir 盖儿'cover'   

jiān 尖 'pointed'; 'tapering' 
jiānr 尖儿  'point'; 'tip'






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