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Four = Death

Cartoon illustration for 'four = death' Here’s a handy cross-cultural tip: speakers of both Cantonese and Mandarin Chinese are often seriously freaked out by the number 4—to the point that hotels in Asia often ‘pretend’ not to have a fourth floor.

Why? It’s because in both Cantonese and Mandarin the words for ‘four’ carry a strong echo of ‘death’. This post explains why…


Cantonese


Tone #3

Tone #3

  • In Cantonese, if you say sei with a mid level pitch (“Tone #3”), then sei means ‘four’.

Illustration for Tone #4

Tone #3


Illustration for Tone #2

Tone #2

  • But if you say sei (same consonant, same vowel) with a rising pitch (“Tone #2”), then that means ‘death’. Uh oh!

Illustration for Tone #3

Tone #3


Cantonese speakers can actually tell the words apart pretty easily—Cantonese is a ‘tone’ language, which means that they regularly distinguish words based just on pitch. But because these two words happen to have the exact same consonant and vowel, the word ‘four’ gives off an unpleasant ‘death’ vibe!

Can YOU hear the difference in Cantonese? Test yourself >>> HERE <<<


 

Mandarin


Illustration for si - Tone #4

Tone #4

  • In Mandarin, si with a falling pitch is the word for ‘four’. (By coincidence, the falling tone is called “Tone #4” in Mandarin.)

Illustration for Tone #4

Tone #4


Illustration for si - Tone #3

Tone #3

  • Si with a dipping pitch is the Mandarin word for ‘death’. For this tone (Mandarin Tone #3), you start mid-level, dip really low (almost creaky-like), then rise back up high—it can sound kind of spooky!

Illustration for Tone #3

Tone #3


The situation exactly parallels Cantonese—Mandarin speakers can easily tell the words apart, but ‘four’ again takes on an unpleasant odor of ‘death’. So with more than a billion speakers of these two tonal languages, you can see why ‘four’ has become the ‘thirteen’ of Asia!

Can YOU hear the difference in Mandarin? Test yourself >>>HERE


Notes

  • Note that ‘Chinese’ is not a single language: Cantonese Chinese and Mandarin Chinese (a.k.a ‘standard Chinese’) are separate languages, and speakers of the two languages cannot understand each other—though they do share one writing system.
  • There are four distinctive tones in Mandarin, and six other tones (or nine, depending on how you count) in Cantonese.
  • Not every tone appears on every syllable (so there doesn’t seem to be a si with Mandarin Tone #2, or a Cantonese sei with other tones). But there is one more Mandarin si: si with with a high level tone (Mandarin Tone #1) means ‘to tear‘ (audio here).

    Illustration for Tone #1

    Tone #1

  • No-one makes any particular superstitious connection between ‘to tear‘ and ‘death‘, though—maybe because ‘to tear‘ doesn’t appear in the same practical contexts as the numeral four.

Vowel Notes

  • The vowel in Mandarin si is wierd, and linguists disagree about how to describe it.
  • Some linguists say it is similar (but not identical) to a vowel like the vowel in English ‘oooooh’, but without lip-rounding, namely the vowel ɯ.
  • It’s not just an ɯ though, because at the same time as you say ɯ in si, you also raise the tip of your tongue a bit. Linguists call this an ‘apical vowel’.
  • Strangely, other linguists say the second sound in si is actually a consonant: z. Yep, they think the word is pronounced /sz/.
  • Obviously you don’t touch your tongue as close as you would for a full /z/ though —so to the linguists who describe it this way, it’s like you’re making a z-light. See here for some more discussion.

Sources

Duanmu, San. The Phonology of Standard Chinese. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007. Print. (See pp. 34 ff for discussion of the vowel in Mandarin si.)

“Ethnologue.” Ethnologue. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 May 2014. http://www.ethnologue.com/

Images of die, gravestone, and skeleton with pot are from morguefile.com. Skull image is a public domain image from Wikimedia Commons (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:UserboxDeathExpandV2.png).

Other images and animations are original creations for DexterousTongue.

Audio recordings are by Zoe Lam

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