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Whoah! The same Chinese Characters but for Different Words? Tips to distinguish the homophones in Chinese

Before we start our topic today on Chinese homophones, let’s first look at the following two sentences:

(1)一朵漂亮的儿。(Yī duǒ piàoliàng de huār. )

(2)他今天了一百元。(Tā zuátiān huā le yībǎi yuán.)

We can see that both of these sentences have“花”, whose meanings are totally different. Have you ever thought about why this is so?  Are they one word or two words? If they are one word, why are their meanings so different? If they are two words, why do they use the same character?

In order to explain these questions, we should understand the concept of “homophones”. But before we get to that, it is necessary to explain first what is a homonym.

In Chinese, homonyms are a group of words with the same pronunciation, but their meanings are unrelated. This  is very common in many languages, and the reason for this is that syllables are quite limited, and with more and more new things appearing that need to be given words to define them, one pronunciation sometimes ends up expressing more than one thing.

As with other languages, Mandarin Chinese syllables are limited. Even with four tones, there are only about 1200 of them in total, so we end up with a lot of homonyms in Mandarin Chinese. Because Chinese characters also have special forms (depending on the glyph), homonyms in Chinese can be divided into homographs and homophones.

As the name suggests, homophones are a group of words with the same pronunciation, the same character, but different meanings which have no connection. Homophones are two or more than two totally different words (because of this, even native speakers sometimes confuse them with polysemes, which is just one word with several meanings).

Let’s look at the two examples at the beginning of this article again:

1 (huā): 一朵漂亮的儿。(Yī duǒ piàoliàng de huār. )

A beautiful flower.

2  (huā): 他昨天了一百元。(Tā zuátiān huā le yībǎi yuán.)

He spent 100 yuan yesterday.

We can clearly see that there is no connection between these two meanings, the first meaning is“ flower”, the second is“spend”. It just happens to use the same character.  So“花1、花2” is a group of homophones.

Now, look at the following two sentences :

(3)教室里。 (Tā zài jiàoshì li.)

He is in the classroom now.

(4)他们食堂里吃饭。(Tāmen zài shítáng li chī fàn. )

They have meals in the canteen.

We can see that in sentence(3) “在”is a verb, which indicates the location of a  person or thing, and in sentence (4) “在”is a preposition, which also expresses the location and time. Are they homophones? No, they are not, because there is a clear connection between these two meanings; that is, both of them indicate the location. So these two meanings belong to one word“在”.

Next, I will analyze several groups of homophones to help you understand them more clearly.

1. 花(花1、花2

“花” is a level three (HSK3)word in the book “International Curriculum for Chinese Language Education”. When this character was created in ancient China, “花” was meant as a pictographic character, which then became a phonogram, as the following illustration shows:

hic_1

“花1” indicates the very beginning of its meaning, which is“part of a plant from which the seed or fruit develops, often brightly coloured and lasting only a short time”. Other meanings of “花1” as shown in the following chart, all extend from this meaning.

1
Flower; blossom; bloom 一朵花 (yī duǒ huā ) a flower noun
anything resembling a flower 雪花 (xuě huā) snowflake
fireworks 烟花(yān huā) fireworks
young and beatiful girl or woman 校花(xiào huā)
multicoloured; coloured;variegated 小花狗(xiǎo huā gǒu) spotted puppy

花蝴蝶(huā hú dié) variegated butterfly

adj
blurred; dim 眼花(yǎn huā)have dim eyesight
Fancy; florid; flowery; showy 你的字太花了。(Nǐ de zì tài huā le .)

Your handwriting is too fancy.

 

“花2” is a verb, indicating “spend“ or „expend“. For example, “花钱、花时间”.

2
spend;expend 花钱(huā qián) spend money

很花时间 (hěn huā shí jiān ) take a lot of time

 

2. 白 (白1 、白2、白3、白4)

When learning colors, you will certainly learn how to say white, or “白色”. In the book “International Curriculum for Chinese Language Education”, “白”is a word in level 2 (HSK2), and it doesn’t point out “白” is part of a group of homophones.

Actually, “白” includes  4 meanings: “白1、白2、白3、白4”.  Just like with ”花”,this character’s origins are in ancient China, and it indicates the shape of candlelight.

hic_2

It means “bright and clear“, as we can see in the phrase “东方发白(dōngfāng fā bái); 真相大白(zhēnxiàng dà bái)”. Later it would refer to the colour white: “我买了一条白裙子(Wǒ mǎi le yītiáo bái qúnzi) “ I bought a white dress”. There are some other meanings for “白1” the connections of which you can see in the following chart:

1
bright 东方发白(dōngfāng fā bái)

The eastern sky is turning fish-belly grey; day breaks.

adj
clear 真相大白(zhēnxiàng dà bái) Come out in the wash.
white 我买了一条白裙子。(Wǒ mǎi le yī tiáo bái qúnzi.)

I bought a white dress.

nothing inside 白开水 (báikāishuǐ) Plain boiled water.
funeral affairs 白事(báishì)
Look at somebody with the white of the eye—give somebody a supercilious or superior look 我白了他一眼。 (Wǒ bái le tā yī yǎn.)

I gave him a supercilious look.

verb

 

“白2” as an adverb has the following meanings:

2
in vain; to no purpose; for nothing 白跑了一回 (bái pǎo le yī huí)

Make a fruitless trip

adv
free of charge 白送  (bái sòng)  give away free (of charge)

 

“白3 ” as an adjective indicates  something written incorrectly or mispronounced (of a chinese character). For example, “你把字念白了” which means “you pronounce  the character wrongly”, the same meaning with the sentence ”你把字念错了”.

3
(of a chinese character) written incorrectly or mispronounced 你把字念白了。(Nǐ bǎ zì niàn bái le. )

You pronounce the character incorrectly.

adj

 

“白4” must combine with other morphemes to become a complete word and it cannot be used alone in expressing its meaning.

4
state; explain 我对她表白了。(Wǒ duì tā biǎobái le.)

I expressed love for her.

3. 别 (别1、别2、别3、别4

“别”is a level two (HSK2) word and also a group of homophones, including “别1”“别2”“别3”“别4”, four words with four meanings. The origin of this character is as an associative compound. On the left side, it is a knife, and on the right side, it is a bone. Combining these two parts , “别” has the original meaning “分剖 (fēnpōu)”, and this is also the main meaning of“别1”, as shown in the following chart:

hic_3

1
leave; part 别了,我的家乡。(Bié le, wǒ de jiāxiāng.)

Goodbye, my hometown.

verb
other; another 别人  (biérén)  other people pronoun
2
differentiate;

distinguish

区别真假 (qūbié zhēn jiǎ)

distinguish whether it’s true or false

verb
difference; distinction 男女有别 (nánnǚ yǒu bié)

there is a distinction between the sexes

noun
classification;

category

性别 (xìngbié)

gender

3
fasten with a pin or clip 把表格别在一起。

(Bǎ biǎogé bié zài yīqǐ.)

Pin (or clip)the forms together.

verb
stick in 把门别上 (bǎ mén bié shàng)

bolt the door

4
(used in giving commands or advice) don’t ; had better not 别忘了。(Bié wàng le.)

Don’t forget.

adv

4. 生气 (生气1,生气2

Homophones can be polysyllabic words, for example, “生气” is also included in a group of homophones. Look at the chart below:

生气1
angry 妈妈很生气。(māma hěn shēngqì.)

Mother is very angry.

verb
生气2
vital 小孩子是最有生气的。

(Xiǎo háizi shì zuì yǒu shēngqì de.)

Children are the most vital people.

noun

 

After reading this article, I hope you will see and understand how Mandarin Chinese can have homophones, where one word can have totally different meanings. But once you are aware of this, not only will your vocabulary improve, it will also give you more ways of expressing yourself when you speak or write in Mandarin Chinese.

Zhang Yu

After graduating from University majoring in Teaching Chinese As A Second Language in 2011, Zhang Yu worked as a book editor about Chinese traditional culture and juvenile reading for 3 years. In 2015, she became a graduate student of Beijing Foreign Studies University, and continued to study international Chinese education. Now she is a Chinese teacher in Confucius institute in Palacký University, Olomouc in Czech Republic.

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