"Chow Mien" and more (1893)

Douglas G. Wilson douglas at NB.NET
Fri Nov 8 04:27:01 UTC 2002

>... either "chow mien" has undergone a pronunciation shift in English from
>/myen/ to /mein/ or your source made a spelling error.

I think the "mein" is originally what would now usually be transcribed in
'Mandarin' "mian" (4th tone), meaning "flour" (thus "noodle"); an earlier
transcription (Wade-Giles) used "mien" and it sounds like "myen" /mjEn/ to
me. This could be corrupted to sound like English "main"/"mane" /mein/
maybe. Other 'dialects' have something similar, and it seems to be close to
the earlier Chinese pronunciation.

However the Cantonese equivalent seems to be "min" (6th tone), which sounds
to me like /miin/ or English "mean"/"mien". One might naively speculate
that this might be the first-heard form in the US. [The "chow"/"chao" is
/tSaw/ or /tsaw/ to my Anglophone ear in various 'dialects'.]

In English, written "mien" would seem more felicitous than "mein" in either
case. [Since "chao mian" is still conventional for "fried noodles" in
Chinese (at least on Chinese-language menus in the US and elsewhere), I
think we now see or will soon see a change (back?) to a pronunciation like
/tSaw mjEn/ at least within a certain segment of the Anglophone population.]

Once somebody 'authoritative' started writing "mein" (even if erroneously)
the die would be cast, given the US ignorance of Chinese (even more
profound in 1893 than now perhaps). It seems to me that the typical Chi-Am
restaurateur in 1893 may not have been highly literate in Chinese or
English. The spelling "mein" supports the pronunciation /mein/ by analogy
with "rein", "vein", "skein". Conceivably somebody reasoned that "me" /mi/
+ "in" /In/ = "mein" would be a good English spelling for the Chinese word.

Incidentally, the written character for this "mian" apparently has been
officially replaced (some might say "simplified") in the PRC with the
common character for "face" which has the same pronunciation ... so now the
character does double duty, for "face" and "flour"/"noodle". [So much for
the popular notion that the Chinese 'logographic' writing system is
valuable for distinguishing between homophones. (^_^)]

-- Doug Wilson

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