by: Smart Coos
What’s a Chinese homonym?
Have you ever gotten the words, there, their, and they’re confused? Well, if you’re like most people, at some point in your life these three words used to trip you up all the time. Words like these, that are pronounced the same but have different meanings, are called homonym and, unsurprisingly, they exist in almost every language. In Mandarin Chinese, confusing 再 (zài) and 在 (zài) is equivalent to the English, there, their and they’re problem. While, 再 (zài) is usually used to indicate a location or a state of being like, “She is in/at the store,” 在 (zài) is used to indicate repetition or a sequence of events like, “again,” “another,” or “and then.” Though these two words are pronounced the same, the way they are used determines their meaning in a sentence. The way they’re written is also different; just like they’re, their and there.
Homonyms like these are usually a challenge to those learning a new language. Especially in languages that are heavily phonetic, like Chinese, where the stress you put on certain syllables can completely change the meaning of a word, you can accidentally turn a sentence as simple as “I’m going to sleep,” into “I’m going to dumpling soup.” And that doesn’t make much sense, does it? 睡觉 (pronounced: shuìjiào) means “to sleep,” while 水饺 (pronounced: shuǐjiǎo) means “dumpling soup.” The way in which you put stress on the vowels “i” and “a” determines if you’re going to take a nap or drink some soup, which makes a pretty big difference in a conversation. This emphasis on pronunciation is one of the reasons Chinese is considered one of the hardest languages to learn. The smallest of changes in your inflexion can completely change what you’re saying, and a lot of these homonyms can be tricky.
For all the trouble they cause while you’re learning a new language, homonyms can be fun sometimes, too. A lot of Chinese sayings and puns are derived from homonyms, eggs-actly like they are in English. The phrase, “老公，就是劳工. (Láogōng, jiùshì láogōng)” means “A husband is hard labor,” and it plays off the fact that “老公 (husband)” and “苦工 (hard labor)” can often be pronounced the same given the sentence they are used in. Adding some fun to the homonym confusion can also help you remember the subtle differences between the two words. Mixing them up can be both comical and memorable and there are plenty of sayings and phrases out there to help you remember them both.
When it comes to writing similar characters, there are also many helpful tips and tricks to remember the differences. For example, 鸟 (niǎo) and 乌 (wū) are written similarly, but 鸟 means “bird” and 乌 means “dark”. Children are taught to remember the difference between the two when they’re learning to write Chinese characters by being taught that 鸟 has a line that goes into the upper rectangle shape of the character, which resembles an eye, while 乌 has no eye and, therefore, cannot see, so it is in the dark. The 鸟 character also resembles the profile of a bird, which is another trick that is used to remember the subtle differences between the two characters. For a child, especially, associating words with tangible things always helps solidify the meaning in their minds.
Homonyms are tricky when learning a new language, but they can also be fun to play around with. You can come up with your own little jokes or sayings, to help you and your new little learner remember the differences between all these words, especially the really important ones. You may accidentally turn the great Qing (清) Dynasty in the great Green (青) Dynasty if you use the wrong character because they’re both pronounced “ching,” so watch out. But, most importantly, have fun. Smart Coos wants you to enjoy the language learning process with your child and, although new languages present challenges, they also bring opportunities and egg-cellent fun for your child.
About the Author:
Gelsey Brizo. A senior at the University of Florida pursuing a degree in English. Born and raised in Miami, Florida she speaks both English and Spanish fluently and loves to watch and play soccer. A book fanatic who enjoys to read and write, she can’t go a day without a cup of coffee, a good read or her favorite music.
Fang, Angela. “How To Use: 在 vs. 再 In Chinese.” How To Use: 在 vs. 再 In Chinese. 30 Sept. 2015. Web. 19 Nov. 2015
Grigg, Hugh. “Some Fun with Mandarin Homophones.” Some Fun With Mandarin Homophones. 25 Feb. 2013. Web. 19 Nov. 2015.
“Most Commonly Mixed Up Chinese Words Mandarin.” YouTube. SpeakMandarin, 17 Oct. 2014. Web. 19 Nov. 2015.