Asking “what” in Mandarin Chinese is one of the most common and important phrases for beginner learners. Knowing how to ask simple questions is key to having basic conversations and getting information. In this comprehensive guide, we will explain everything you need to know about saying “what” in Mandarin, from pronunciation to spelling, context, and more.
The Basics of Saying “What”
The most common word for “what” in Mandarin is “shénme” (什么). It is pronounced more like “shummuh” with a falling tone. Here’s a quick primer on saying “shénme”:
Pronunciation: “shummuh” with a falling tone on the second syllable. Say it quickly, almost as one syllable.
Characters: 什么 – The first character means “what” and the second means “some.”
Usage: Place “shénme” at the end of the sentence to ask “What is…” questions. For example:
- Zhè shì shénme? – What is this?
- Nǐ shì shéi – Who are you? (Literally “You are what person”)
Responses: Answers will start with the object in question. For example:
- Zhè shì bǐ. – This is a pen.
- Wǒ shì Mǎlì. – I am Mary.
So the basic formula is: Ask a question with “shénme” at the end, get an answer stating the subject first.
Spelling and Romanization
In Pinyin romanization, “shénme” is written as shen2me. The number 2 indicates the falling tone. Here are some other common romanizations:
- Shen mo (broken into two syllables)
When writing online, Chinese speakers may type “sm” as shorthand for “shénme.”
The first character 什 can also be written with a simplified character that looks similar: 甚. So you may also see it spelled as 甚么.
Additional Ways to Say “What”
While “shénme” is the most common and useful, there are some other question words in Mandarin that can be translated as “what” in English:
- Nǎ (哪) – Which one. For example, “Nǎ ge?” (哪个 – “Which one?”)
- Nǎr (哪儿) – Where. For example, “Nǎr?” (哪儿?- “Where?”)
- Shuí (谁) – Who. For example, “Nǐ shì shuí?” (你是谁?- “Who are you?”)
- Zěnme (怎么) – How/Why. For example, “Nǐ zěnme le?” (你怎么了? – “What’s wrong?” or “What happened?”)
- Shéi (谁) – Who. For example, “Zhè shì shéi de fángzi?” (这是谁的房子?- “Whose house is this?”)
So in summary, while “shénme” can cover most situations, these additional question words can help add specificity or context.
Using “What” in Different Contexts and Sentences
Now that you know the basic word for “what” in Mandarin, let’s look at how to use it in real conversations:
- Introductions – “Nǐ jiào shénme míngzì?” (你叫什么名字?- “What is your name?”)
- Clarification – “Shénme? Wǒ méiyǒu tīng dǒng.” (什么?我没有听懂。- “What? I didn’t understand.”)
- Offers – “Nǐ xiǎng yào shénme?” (你想要什么?- “What would you like?”)
- Making a selection – “Nǐ xiǎng chī shénme?” (你想吃什么?- “What do you want to eat?”)
- Asking for an explanation – “Shénme shì…?” (什么是…?- “What is…?”)
- Expressing confusion – “Shénme wèntí?” (什么问题?- “What’s the problem?”)
- Finding something – “Qù nǎr zhǎo, shénme dōu méiyǒu.” (去哪儿找, 什么都没有。- “I looked everywhere, there’s nothing.”)
So in daily conversations, “shénme” can be used to ask for information, clarify what someone said, make offers, ask for explanations, and more. Listen for it when native speakers are chatting or in language learning dialogues.
Extra Grammar Tips
Here are some additional grammar tips to perfect using “what” in Mandarin:
- Add the particle “ne” at the end to soften the tone. For example, “Nǐ jiào shénme míngzì ne?”
- To ask “what kind,” add “yàng de” (样的). For example, “Nǐ xǐhuān chī shénme yàng de fàn?” (你喜欢吃什么样的饭?- “What kind of food do you like to eat?”)
- Use “shénme dōu” to say “anything.” For example, “Wǒ shénme dōu bù xiǎng chī” (我什么都不想吃 – “I don’t want to eat anything.”)
- For “what time,” ask “Jǐ diǎn zhōng?” (几点钟?- “What time?”)
- You can leave out “shénme” and just say the verb to say “what are you doing.” For example, “Zuò shénme?” (做什么?- “What are you doing?”)
Practicing “What” Conversationally
As with any new phrase, practice using “shénme” in real conversations as much as possible. Here are some ideas:
- With a language partner, take turns asking “What is this?” in Mandarin while holding up various objects.
- Roleplay introductions and ask “What is your name?”
- Practice clarifying by saying “What? I don’t understand” when your partner says something unfamiliar.
- Have a simple conversation asking questions like “What did you eat today?” “What do you want to do tonight?”
- Play guessing games asking “What am I?” and describing yourself. Have your partner ask “What?”
- Watch Chinese TV shows and listen for the phrase “shénme.” Pause and repeat each time you hear it.
The more you can use it conversationally, the more natural your pronunciation and usage will become.
So in summary, learning the all-important “What?” in Mandarin Chinese is pretty straightforward with “shénme” (什么). Master the pronunciation, grammar, and usage of this fundamental question word, and you’ll be asking for clarification and information like a native speaker in no time. From introductions to discussions and everything in between, no conversation in Mandarin is complete without the versatile “Shénme?”
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