In my last post I introduced THIRTY common words all pronounced “shi”. It probably won’t surprise you to learn that with so many homophones, Mandarin has some fantastic tongue-twisters. And by “fantastic” I mean “utterly impossible to recite”. But isn’t that the fun of all tongue-twisters??
One of the early tone mistakes learners of Mandarin are taught is that the words for “Mum” and “horse” only differ by tone (it later turns out that’s also true for “numb” and “to curse”). A little tongue-twister playing on this goes:
妈妈骑马，马慢妈妈骂马 – māma qí mǎ, mǎ màn māma mà mǎ
Mum rides a horse, [when] the horse is slow Mum curses the horse.
Here’s a little one I quite like – a fun little story that’s fun to say. There are variations on it (the picture has a slightly different version) but I like this one:
《盆 和 瓶 》《pén hé píng》 “Pan and Bottle”
桌 上 有 个 盆 ， 盆 里 有 个 瓶 ，
砰 砰 砰 ，是 瓶 碰 盆 ， 还 是 盆 碰 瓶 。
zhuō shàng yǒu gè pén, pén li yǒu gè píng,
pēng pēng pēng, shì píng pèng pén, háishì pén pèng píng.
On the table is a pan, in the pan is a bottle.
Bang, bang, bang. Was it the bottle hitting the pan, or the pan hiting the bottle.
Another classic plays with the difference between regional accents – it gets fun with the a southern Chinese accent, where the “sh” sound becomes something closer to “s”. I get soooo tangled up trying to say this! I think it’s harder when you keep the “sh” sound in there! It just says “4 is 4, 10 is 10, 14 is 14, 40 is 40” but MAN is it hard to get it right!!
Southern accent: sì sì sì, sí sì sí, sí sì sì sí sì, sì sí sì sì sí
Standard: sì shì sì, shí shì shí, shí sì shì shí sì, sì shí shì sì shí
This youtube video has an extended version of the “4 is 4” tongue-twister, along with two others, beautifully recited by one of those foreigners who speak Mandarin so well it almost makes you feel bad!
Since we’re talking about shi and si (and I already wrote about shi) I have to share with you the classic insanity of the shi poem. This is an entire story, albeit an odd one, using only words pronounced shi. That is 92 shi in a row – 97 if you include the title!! It was written in Classical Chinese, not Modern Chinese, so it uses words that aren’t common now, or that have a different usage, and the whole story would be phrased entirely differently in modern Chinese. Still, it’s a great example of the fun of homophones in Chinese!
“Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den”
In a stone den was a poet with the family name Shi, who was a lion addict, and had resolved to eat ten lions.
He often went to the market to look for lions.
At ten o’clock, ten lions had just arrived at the market.
At that time, Shi had just arrived at the market.
He saw those ten lions, and using his trusty arrows, caused the ten lions to die.
He brought the corpses of the ten lions to the stone den.
The stone den was damp. He asked his servants to wipe it.
After the stone den was wiped, he tried to eat those ten lions.
When he ate, he realized that these ten lions were in fact ten stone lion corpses.
Try to explain this matter.
That was the easy part. Now try saying it….!
《施氏食狮史》《shī shì shí shī shǐ》
石室诗士施氏，嗜狮，誓食十狮。shí shì shī shì shī shì shì shī shì shí shí shī
氏时时适市视狮。shì shí shí shì shì shì shī
十时，适十狮适市。shí shí shì shí shī shì shì
是时，适施氏适市。shì shí shì shī shì shì shì
氏视是十狮，恃矢势，使是十狮逝世。shì shì shì shí shī shì shǐ shì shǐ shì shí shī shì shì
氏拾是十狮尸，适石室。shì shí shì shí shī shī shì shí shì
石室湿，氏使侍拭石室。shí shì shī shì shǐ shì shì shí shì
石室拭，氏始试食是十狮。shí shì shì shì shǐ shì shí shì shí shī
食时，始识是十狮，实十石狮尸。shí shí shǐ shí shì shí shī shí shí shí shī shī
试释是事。shì shì shì shì