Zenme lai?

When I first encountered ‘weishenme’ I thought of the English colloquialism, “what for?” and I wondered if there was any link. Well, lately I watched some kung fu movie in Mandarin and I heard a word as the subtitles were saying ‘why’. The word sounded to me like “zenme lai”.

How come?

You can say “ni zenme + verb” to mean “why did you…” in the sense of “how is it that you…”, just as in English. Would that be it?

Zenmalai (pronounced zemmalai) means ‘how did you get here’ The answer would be something like ‘I drove’ or ‘I walked’.

You may actually be hearing Ni zenma la?, which means ‘What’s wrong with you’? ‘What happened’?

If you try to associate Mandarin words with English colloquialisms you will be misled and confused. Think about concrete situations and what information or response you want and figure out what phrases in Mandarin will get you the information or response you want. For example, imagine you are picking up a phone? What do you say first? If you think back to English in which you would say ‘hello’, decide that ‘hello’ = ‘nihao’ and then say ‘nihao’ when answering the phone, you will be wrong. Instead, watch your movie and imitate what people actually say when picking up the phone.

Don’t refer back to English although that may be impossible at first.

Also, Kungfu movies are usually dubbed into a very strange kind of Mandarin. They are not good source material. Download some Taiwanese TV dramas (‘soap operas’) and watch those. Much better examples of how Mandarin is actually spoken in Taiwan.

“what for” in Mandarin would be “wei le shenme”. Just add a “le” and you are there.

Sure. There’s a clear semantic link between “what for” and “why”.

In my opinion, “weishenme”, meaning “why”, is better analyzed as “for what” instead of “what for”. Kind of like French “pourquoi”. And the English “why” originates from the instrumental case of “what” in Old English: “for what (purpose or reason)”.

As for “zenme lai”, it would be good to see the context in which it is used to get a better sense of it.

[quote=“rowland”]When I first encountered ‘weishenme’ I thought of the English colloquialism, “what for?” and I wondered if there was any link. Well, lately I watched some kung fu movie in Mandarin and I heard a word as the subtitles were saying ‘why’. The word sounded to me like “zenme lai”.

How come?[/quote]

As @Chris said, “weishenme” has a fortunately memorable parallel to “for what,” which suggests the meaning “why.” In English, “what for?” has an attitude, but the “for what” order appears in Romance languages.

More interestingly, how come you ended with “How come?” Why didn’t you end with “Why?” Since “zenme” means “how,” the “zenme” type of why question also has a fortunate parallel to “how come.” In English, “how come” can be exactly the same as “why,” yet it can also have a somewhat more expansive, emotional quality that “why” lacks without some sort of extravagant intonation or additional words. But “why on earth” or “why the hell” are much stronger than “how come” and are more like “ganma.” It seems to me that why-type questions with “zenme” imply a bit more emotion or surprise than “weishenme” can have on its own unless you add “ne” or “ya.”

你怎麼來了 could also be “What are you doing here?”

For example, “It’s a typhoon day, what are you doing at the office?” 今天放颱風假,你怎麼來上班呢?

(Of course that example presupposes that there is someone else in the office to ask this question… Maybe a security guard or a magical talking cockroach.)