Understanding “Nei Ge” – A Simple Explanation of the Controversial “N-word” in Chinese

nei ge Chinese

“What did you say?”

“Nei ge…”

If you’re reading this article, chances are that you’ve heard the word ‘nei ge’ – perhaps multiple times – when you hung out with Chinese people or when you passed them by. You cringed, of course, and wondered what the heck is wrong with these people. After all, it sounds an awful lot like the N-word in English, isn’t it?

Truth is: though most Mandarin speakers don’t even notice – ‘nei ge’ is one of the most commonly said words in the Chinese language. So, what on earth does the word ‘nei ge’ mean? Is it in any way connected to the notorious English racial slur? Or it’s just another innocuous coincidence?

In this article, we’ll lift the veil for you by clarifying the meaning and use of ‘nei ge” in Chinese and tell you why the word should not be labeled racist. Later on, we’ll teach you how to slip “nei ge” naturally into your Chinese conversation so that you’ll sound like a native when you speak.

Shall we begin?

What Does ‘Nei Ge’ Mean in Chinese?

what doe nei ge mean

‘Nei ge’, or more precisely – ‘nèi ge’ is the Pinyin romanization/pronunciation for the Chinese word ‘那个’, which literally means ‘that one’ but is usually translated to ‘that’. In spoken Chinese, ‘nèi ge’ is widely used as a filler word during pauses, similar to how words like ‘um’, ‘uh’, ‘well’, and ‘you know’ act in English.

People in China have been using ‘nèi ge’ in daily speech for thousands of years. This word has absolutely nothing to do with the English N-word, nor does it have any racist connotation whatsoever.

那个 Pronunciation: ‘nèi ge’ or ‘nà ge’?

Wait, isn’t the Chinese word for ‘that’ – ‘那个’ pronounced ‘nà ge’?

Let me guess, you’ve done a couple of Chinese lessons, and you’ve been taught that ‘那个’ is pronounced ‘nà ge’ in standard Mandarin.

Yes. If you look up the word in a dictionary, you’ll find that it indeed says ‘nà ge’. However, in real life, numerous native speakers pronounce the word as ‘nèi ge’ instead.

“How come?”, you ask.

Well, the word ‘那个 (nà ge)’ is essentially the short version of ‘那一个 (nà yí ge)’, which means ‘that one (thing)’ in Chinese (the numeral ‘one’ – ‘一(yī)’ can be omitted when it’s used directly before a measure word). And if you say the full version – ‘那一个 (nà yí ge)’ really fast, it’ll start to sound like ‘nèi ge’ in no time (voila!) Hence, both ‘nà ge’ and ‘nèi ge’ are widely used by native speakers when referring to ‘that’. The two versions can be randomly heard in daily conversation, at times alternating in the speech of the same person. (To be fair, ‘nèi ge’ is a bit more common in colloquial Chinese).

In case you’re wondering which pronunciation is considered to be more proper – ‘nèi ge’ or ‘nà ge’, or which one you should use, here’s my two cents:

Stick to the one that you already feel comfortable with.

Truth is: both ‘nèi ge’ and ‘nà ge’ are proper standard Mandarin. It doesn’t matter which pronunciation you adopt. It can just be a matter of personal preference or habit. (That said, you might want to be careful using ‘nèi ge’ next to people who don’t know any Chinese, within the social context of certain countries).

How to Use ‘Nèi Ge’ in Chinese?

Okay, we’ve solved the myth of ‘nèi ge’. Now let’s look at the different ways you can use the word in Chinese like a native speaker.

1. Use Nèi Ge to Say That

The fundamental meaning of ‘nèi ge’ is ‘that’ or ‘that one’, so you can just use this word as a regular demonstrative pronoun in Chinese.

For example,

  • 我要那个
    Wǒ yào nèi ge.
    I’d like that one.
  • 那个是什么?
    Nèi ge shì shénme?
    What’s that?
  • 那个人是我的朋友。
    Nèi ge rén shì wǒ de péngyou. 
    That guy is my friend.

You can pronounce 那 as ‘nèi ’ in all our examples. Just make sure you use the correct measure word after 那 when you talk about different things. (Not sure how? Read here)

Examples:

  • 我喜欢那只猫。
    Wǒ xǐhuan nèi zhī māo.
    I like that cat.
  • 那本书是我的。
    Nèi běn shū shì wǒ de.
    That book is mine.
  • 那双鞋多少钱?
    Nèi shuāng xié duōshǎo qián?
    How much is that pair of shoes?

Now, here’s the interesting part…

Just as 那个 is the condensed form of ‘那一个 (nà yí ge)’ and therefore is commonly pronounced ‘nèi ge’ in spoken Chinese, you can pronounce ‘this’ – ‘这个’ as ‘zhèi ge’, and ‘which’ – ‘哪个’ as ‘něi ge’ in similar fashion.

Simply speed up ‘这一个 (zhè yí ge)’ and ‘哪一个 (nǎ yí ge)’, and you’ll see what I mean.

  • 我不要这个
    Wǒ bú yào zhèi ge.
    I don’t want this one.
  • 这辆车非常贵。
    Zhèi liàng chē fēicháng guì.
    This car is very expensive.
  • 你更喜欢哪个
    Nǐ gèng xǐhuan něi ge?
    Which one do you prefer?
  • 哪位是你们的老师?
    Něi wèi shì nǐmen de lǎoshī?
    Which one is your teacher?

2. Use ‘Nèi Ge’ as a Filler Word

chinese word nei ge

Filler words are those seemingly meaningless words that you use to fill the silence when speaking. In Chinese, ‘nèi ge’ is the most common filler word. It might not seem useful, but it’s actually a very important part of sounding natural when you speak the language (native speakers use it all the time without realizing it).  

You can place ‘nèi ge’ just about anywhere in a Chinese sentence. It simply keeps you going while you come up with the rest of your sentence.

For example,

In the middle of a sentence:

  • 我想吃炸鸡还有…那个…薯条。
    Wǒ xiǎng chī zhájī, háiyǒu…nèi ge… shǔtiáo.
    I want to eat fried chicken and…uh…french fries.
  • 去年我去了美国,加拿大,和…那个…墨西哥。
    Qùnián wǒ qù le Měiguó, Jiānádà, hé… nèi ge… Mòxīgē.
    Last year, I went to America, Canada, and…um…Mexico.

You can say ‘nèi ge’ when you can’t think of the right word to use in Chinese, similar to ‘um’ or ‘uh’ in English. This gains more time for you to think, without an awkward, silent pause.

It may sound funny, but you can even say ‘nèi ge’ repeatedly in one sentence. It wouldn’t be unusual to hear native speakers say ‘我去了美国,加拿大,和…那个那个那个…墨西哥 (wǒ qù le Měiguó, Jiānádà, hé… nèi ge nèi ge nèi ge… Mòxīgē)’.

In the popular Chinese song ‘Sunshine Rainbow Little White Horse’ by Wowkie Zhang, ‘nèi ge’ is repeated throughout the chorus in this fashion.

You can also use ‘nèi ge’ to make a statement weaker or less harsh, similar to the English words “well” or “you know”.

  • 这个报告很重要…那个…老板一会儿会看。
    Zhè ge bàogào hěn zhòngyào…nèi ge… lǎobǎn yíhuìr huì kàn.
    This report is very important, well, the boss will read it in a moment.
  • 他看上去有点…那个…吓人。
    Tā kànshàngqù yǒudiǎn … nèi ge… xiàrén.
    He looks kinda…you know…creepy.

At the beginning of a sentence:

You can equally begin a sentence in Chinese with ‘‘nèi ge’ to draw someone’s attention, initiate a conversation you’ve been holding back, or simply pull yourself out of an awkward situation in a less harsh way.

  • 那个…‘地铁’粤语怎么说?
    Nèi ge… dìtiě Yuèyǔ zěnme shuō?
    Ummm (hey there), how do you say ‘metro’ in Cantonese?
  • 那个…地铁站怎么走?
    Nèi ge… dìtiě zhàn zěnme zǒu?
    Ummm (excuse me), how can I get to the metro station?
  • 那个…你能再说一遍吗?
    Nèi ge… nǐ néng zài shuō yí biàn ma?
    Ummm (sorry), can you say that again?
  • 那个…我有一件事一直想告诉你。
    Nèi ge… wǒ yǒu yí jiàn shì yìzhí xiǎng gàosù nǐ.
    Ummm (this is awkward)…there is this thing I’ve been meaning to tell you.
  • 那个…我得先走了。
    Nèi ge… wǒ děi xiān zǒu le.
    Ummm (sorry), I have to go now.

3. Use ‘Nèi Ge’ to Replace Words that Require Sensitive Handling

And there’s more use of ‘nèi ge’ in spoken Chinese. You can use it to refer to something that you are too shy or embarrassed to say directly, or when you want it to be implicit.

  • 你们俩做过那个吗?
    Nǐmen liǎ zuò guò nèi ge ma?
    Have you two done ‘it’ yet?
  • 你要对他有耐心,他有点那个
    Nǐ yào duì tā yǒu nàixīn, tā yǒudiǎn nèi ge.
    You need to be patient with him, he is a bit… (stupid/stubborn…)
  • 真是气死我了,他太那个了!
    Zhēn shì qì sǐ wǒ le, tā tài nèi ge le!
    I am really pissed off. He is so… (mean/crossing the line…)
  • 你也真太那个了, 那这件礼物我就收下了。
    Nǐ yě zhēn tài nèi ge le, nà zhè jiàn lǐwù wǒ jiù shōu xià le.
    You are so…(standing on ceremony/courteous…), in this case, I’ll just accept this gift.

Chinese people use ‘nèi ge’ this way frequently out of cultural shyness. You’ll definitely need to rely on the context to understand when you hear someone say ‘nèi ge’ without elaboration on what that ‘nèi ge’ stands for in such a sentence.

Wrap-up: Nei Ge’ in Chinese

‘Nei ge’ literally means ‘that’ or ‘that one’ in Chinese, but the word is widely used in daily speech by native speakers as a way to stall for time when they’re hesitating or trying to figure out what to say next. You can place ‘nei ge’ as a filler word just about anywhere in a Chinese sentence, and even string together several ‘nei ge’ in a row.

Over the years, there has been some international debate over the use of ‘nei ge’ as it sounds like the N-word in English. However, the word has nothing to do with racism in nature, and Chinese people have been using it innocuously for thousands of years.

What’s Next?

Chinese filler words

For a Mandarin learner, using filler words like ‘nèi ge’ appropriately can be a very helpful way to speak more confidently and fluently. However, like with anything else, overusing filler words can make you sound unprofessional, and at times make it hard for others to follow your sentences.

If you always have to beat your brains out to think of the right word to use when you speak Chinese, it might be time to either slow down your speech or study some more vocabulary. If this happens to be you, why not start off with practicing the core words in Chinese?