Bloggers trade insults over a polite pronoun

Zhou Ling
Who says you can't learn anything from reality shows?

In an April episode of the recently-concluded competition to cast leading roles for the new TV version of Dream of the Red Mansions, a contestant for the role of Lin Daiyu uttered the word during a performance. Zhou Ling, screenwriter for the 1987 TV version of Red Mansions and a judge of the competition, cut her off: "Wrong. Please remember that nin only appears after the mid-Qing."

Entertainment journalist He Dong, who followed the competition quite closely, took Zhou to task last week when he found uses of 您 in plays from the Yuan Dynasty. The character even appears in Chapter 63 of Red Mansions.

Director Lu Chuan (of Keke Xili and The Missing Gun fame) was not convinced. On his blog, he called He Dong "completely uneducated," writing that Yuan dynasty zaju contained not 您 but 恁 (nèn), a word that could mean "you" but more frequently means "that," "thus," or "who." Using the polite form of "you" throughout, Lu wrote:

Just because the look the same doesn't mean they're relatives - did you really go to a library?

恁 is pronounced nèn (嫩), not nín, and has always been nèn. Later, in the Xinhua Dictionary, they gave it the pronunciation of 您. Mr. Literature Master, I say you're only at the level of the Xinhua Dictionary. But you must know that the Xinhua Dictionary is used by barefoot doctors to eliminate illiteracy in the fields, not to guide research into ancient Chinese.

And aren't Yuan zaju and Red Mansions common reading material that most households have? They're sold everywhere, and you're not looking for a rare or unique edition, so do you really need to go to a library? Isn't this just talking big?

Brother, you're not in research yet you come out with this nonsense, putting up a big-character poster on the front page of Sina.

You're truly fearless in your ignorance.

But then naivety is cute, eh, if you want me to say something nice...

It turns out that neither of them are correct. According to Zhou Ling, 您 as an honorific second-person pronoun first appears in Wu Jianren's 1902 novel Strange Things Witnessed in the Past Twenty Years; previously it had been written as 恁 and did not convey respect. Zhou said that noted linguist and educator Lu Shuxiang had investigated the character 您 and could find no trace of a relationship between today's usage and that of the Yuan Dynasty.

The issue is not necessarily settled: when The Beijing News talked to Wang Hongzhi, a professor of linguistics at Shanghai Normal University, he said that 您 appeared as an honorific in the Ming Dynasty.

But the entertainment pages have probably taken it as far as it will go. Lu and He have both written on their blogs that there's no ill will between them - this is just an intellectual argument between friends. And Zhou has dismissed them both: "To put it a bit rudely, I wouldn't take either of them as a student."

UPDATE: Further developments have transpired.

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There are currently 3 Comments for Bloggers trade insults over a polite pronoun.

Comments on Bloggers trade insults over a polite pronoun

Not just any old storm in any old teacup, but a linguistic one!

How very...... French.

Interesting. This seems like an argument that would never appear in the entertainment pages in the U.S. I wonder what Shanghai's resident linguist blogger has to say on the subject...

Like the other commenters, I prefer my media spats to be educational to the onlooker, so thanks for this.

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