Confusing Chinese “N” word: 那个(nà ge/ nèi ge)
In my first year as a high school Chinese teacher in India, I noticed that sometimes my students giggled when I spoke.
At first I thought it was my Chinglish and tones. But then one day they asked me: “What did you say just now?” I repeated but they laughed even harder and pointed out that I kept saying the “N” word again and again. At that time I didn’t even know what the “N” word was and I was speaking in Chinese not English.
Come on guys, be fair!
Fortunately, we finally figured out the issue. I didn’t get fired (woop, woop!) and my students learned some uses of “那个” pronounced as “nà ge” or “nèi ge”. I, know, it sounds similar to the “N” word, right? Therefore, I think it’s necessary to sit down and have a little chat about how Chinese people use this word, just in case you feel uncomfortable when you talk to a Chinese person.
“那个(nèi ge)” is often used as interjection to express thoughtful absorption, hesitation, doubt, or perplexity. It’s basically a filler word, pretty similar to “ummm” or “weeellllll”. For example,
Yesterday I went to that…that…
(Wǒ zuótiān qù le nàge… nàge…)
Note: I just can’t remember the name of the place, so I use那个to express I am thinking.
Yesterday we learned “lunch”, ummm… Today we will learn “brunch”.
(Zuótiān wǒ men xué le “lunch”, nèi ge… jīntiān wǒmen yào xué “brunch”.)
Note: Here 那个 is used to fill in the gap of two sentences. I need a second but I don’t want silence.
Using this too much will make your speech a bit stilted, but it’s better than complete silence if you plan on saying something else!
Most Chinese people like me don’t even realize the amount that we use this, which is why when my students asked me what I had said, it took me a really long time to work out what they meant. It’s so automatic that filtered it out when thinking over what I said. However, learners are more sensitive to it.
2. Demonstrative pronoun
Another interesting usage of “那个” is to express something you can’t say directly (for example you are too shy to say or you don’t want others know…)
Honey, tonight let’s XXXX.
(Qīn’ài de, jīntiān wǎnshang wǒ men nèi ge ba.)
Be careful, you definitely need a context to understand what “那个” means in this case.
3. Excuse me
“那个” can be used as “excuse me” to get someone’s attention.
Excuse me, where is the subway station?
(Nèi ge, dìtiězhàn zài nǎli?)
Note: It’s not as polite as “请问(qǐngwèn)”, but it’s still perfectly acceptable in an informal setting, such as in a corner shop.
This is the meaning you will probably know anyway from textbooks. It’s always used before a noun, since “个” is a measure word, therefore make sure the noun fits the measure word “个”!
(nà ge rén)
So, hopefully now you understand a little bit more about 那个 and won’t just think Chinese people are being really rude! We even don’t even know what the “N” word is! Hopefully now you can pick out how it is used in it’s many applications.
This Post Has 7 Comments
Great article! I have been here in China for 5 years and always wondered what Nei ge meant. I often would ask and, as you stated, the speaker never understood what word I was referring to and look at me quizzically and say that they did not say any such word. Now I know it is just a filler word. Thank you
Thank you for this! I have chinese coworkers and I swear they were saying the n word over and over but i was sure it was just another word in Chinese dialogue. Thanks for clarifying!
Great read. I used to travel to China and heard that word ALL THE TIME!!!! I also thought it sounded exactly like the N word. I would also ask what it meant but they never understood what I was asking. Now it makes sense.
I met my wife in China over 20 years ago. I heard her and her friends saying this, often. A friend explained that it is like Americans saying “uhhh, ummmm….”.
I’m from the South. I told her: Do NOT say this when you get to America! Nobody will believe me. They will say ‘Well, it’s obvious you are prejudiced and have taught her what to call black people’.
I hope someday people will not act like they are going to die because they heard a word. If you’re that sensitive, I don’t know how you survive at all.
ALL racism needs to end. I’m so sick of hearing black people call me “White Boy” or “That Old White Dude”. Sick of all the ‘sensitive’ hypocrites. But I don’t fall over and scream that I suddenly need psychiatric help because some idiot called me a name.
The first to cry “racism” are far too often the most racist people in America. Move on already.
2020 sucks. A teacher got fired for talking about this subject to his class in the context of understanding language differences.
Speak chinese wherever, whenever you dont say weather or not a chinese person says something because it makes you Feel sad 🙁 , what you do instead is jump off a cliff and join the rest of your SJW buddys in death as you all fail natural selection
Great article! Hopefully, more people will read this and reduce a lot of misunderstanding.
(I’m Chinese myself)