为什么 (Wèishéme) means why and it’s a phrase you’ll come across constantly.
In the Peppa Pig episodes I’ve covered so far, 为什么 has showed up three times. In this post I want to explain a few different usages of 为什么 within contexts. It could get pretty tricky.
I also want to show you in a simple example why contexts and intonations are crucial for understanding the spoken Chinese language.
In general, I want to write about interesting snippets of Mandarin Chinese, using Peppa Pig examples. If you have a question about any specific expression, as long as you’ve come across it in Peppa Pig, please feel free to leave a comment to let me know or post on the community forum. I will either explain it or write a post about it!
I love questions because as a native speaker I don’t necessarily have the same questions about the Chinese language as someone like you who is learning it as a second language. Please let me know!
The basics of 为什么
为什么 means “why”. The easiest way to use it is simply to ask “为什么？”.
To understand why 为什么 is the way it is (为什么“为什么”是“为什么”, lol), you could break down the word into 为 and 什么. But “WHY” is such an important expression, you should just remember 为什么 as a set phrase.
什么 here can be translated as “what” or just a generic something. One of the many meanings of 为 is “for”.
A more academic way of asking the same question is 为何, where 何 also means “what” or an abstract something.
Use 为什么 to express “I wonder why” or ask for an explanation
If you’ve done S01E04 Part 2 as a beginner Chinese learner, you are probably intimidated by this super long question asked by Peppa Pig:
妈妈，为什么 不管 奶奶 说什么，波利 都 会 跟着说 呢
Fear no more. Just break this down into 为什么 + clause + 呢.
不管奶奶说什么，波利都会跟着说 is a complete sentence on its own. It means no matter what Granny Pig says, Polly would always repeat.
If you want to ask for an explanation for an observation, “为什么 + clause” is the sentence structure to use. It is simply “Why is it that + clause” For example:
- 为什么学校关了？Wèishéme xuéxiào guānle? Why is the school closed?
- 为什么恐龙从地球上消失了？ Wèishéme kǒnglóng cóng dìqiú shàng xiāoshīle? Why did the dinosaurs disappeared from the earth?
- 为什么灯泡坏了？ Wèishéme dēngpào huàile? Why is it that the light bulb isn’t working?
呢 is optional. But you can add it to any of the examples above. 呢 makes the question softer and it makes it sound more like “I wonder why” rather than “WHY? I want an explanation!”.
Use 为什么 as a noun to mean “reason”
In S01E09 Part 6, Mummy Pig said she also would like to know the reason why Daddy Pig’s glasses were sitting on the couch. She said “我 也 想 知道 为什么“.
想知道为什么 is more or less a set phrase to say “I want to know why”.
为什么 is used as a noun here, as in “why it is”.
You can also use 原因 which is a noun that means reason. But 为什么 is why more colloquial and commonly used.
Some related common expressions:
- 你知道为什么。 is a statement that simply means “You know why.” or “You know the reason.”
- 你知道为什么吗？ means “Do you know why?” 吗 turns a statement into a sentence.
- 你想知道为什么吗？ means “Do you want to know why?”
Use 为什么 to mean “Why don’t you” for making a suggestion
In S01E03 Part 1, Mummy Pig made a suggestion to Peppa Pig by asking:
佩奇，你 为什么 不 和苏西 去 你的卧室 玩？
The sentence structure is 你为什么不 … Why don’t you + clause. Mummy Pig is making a suggestion here.
So what Mummy Pig wants to suggest is “You (Peppa) should go with Suzy to play in your room”, Or, “你和苏西去你的卧室玩儿”.
你为什么不 replaces the first 你, turning the sentence into a suggestion.
For example, on using Learn Chinese with Peppa Pig, I want you to try it out. The action I want is 你试试, I would suggest by saying:
- 你为什么不试试？Why don’t you try it out?
The meaning of 为什么 can vary depending on the context
你为什么不 does not necessarily mean the clause is a suggestion. You could be questioning or asking for an explanation why somebody isn’t doing something. This is contextual, but you can tell by the way the sentence is said.
In S01E03 Part 1 , it’s clear what Mummy Pig is making a suggestion, rather than questioning “WHY are you NOT playing with Suzy in your bedroom?!”. However, if I were to read the sentence with a different emphasis, one may interpret it that way.
Can you tell the difference between these two recordings?
The first one is making a suggestion “why don’t you…?”. The second one is questioning “why are you not!?”.
Depending on the intonation and context, the meaning of the sentence can change!! This is not unique to the Chinese language. Generally, you should pay attention to how the sentences are said, and in what contexts.
This is why I urge you to learn Chinese through listening comprehension in contexts. Don’t just learn the meaning of words on paper!!
How this 为什么 discussion got started
I started writing this post because I wanted to discuss “什么” (Shénme). Have you ever wondered what exactly 什么 means and how to use it? When I wrote my show notes, 什么 kept coming up and I sometimes had trouble explaining it.
什么 is not a word I paid much attention to because it is kind of abstract, however it pops up so much it must be pretty useful. I thought I should write about it!
As I started writing about 什么, I came across the three instances of 为什么 in the Peppa Pig episodes I have covered so far. I ended up writing just about 为什么. I will leave 什么 to another day…..