To a non-tonal language speaker’s ear, Chinese can sound like just a jumble of similar sounds:
“Shi si shi shi si, si shi shi si shi.”
Once you get your tones down, and manage to avoid those tonal traps previously mentioned, you will be better able to distinguish between similar sounds according to their tone.
“Shísì shì shísì, sìshí shì sìshí”
14 is 14, 40 is 40
When you’ve got that in the bag, the wonderful Chinese language will then present you with an even greater challenge: homophones. Same word, same tones, different characters.
Don’t go thinking these are few and far between, no, indeed not. Given the immense number of characters and the fact that there are only a certain number of ‘phones’ to go round (and only 4 tones, yes, ONLY 4 – Cantonese has 9 tones if you can believe it), homophones are inevitable. They are just a fact of life, you can’t run from them, believe me I have tried.
Let’s have a look at some examples:
Same word, two meanings:
jìyì: 记忆 (remember) and 技艺 (skill; art)
jiāodài: 交代 or 交待 (to hand over; to explain) and 胶带 (tape)
mùdì: 目的 (goal) and 墓地 (graveyard)
xiāngjiāo: 香蕉 (banana) and 相交 (to intersect; to make friends)
yuányīn: 原因 (cause; origin; reason) and 元音 (vowel)
yóuyú: 由于 (because of; due to) and 鱿鱼 (squid)
Same word, three meanings:
shǒushì: 手势 (gesture; signal) and 首饰 (jewellery), plus 守势 (defensive position)
yìyì: 意义 (meaning; significance) and 异议 (dissent), plus 意译 (meaning-based translation)
And then check these ones out- same word, multiple meanings:
gōnglì, which can mean:
公历: Gregorian calendar
公立: public (facility, institution)
功力: merit; efficacy
工力: skill and force; manpower
shìlì: which can stand for:
势力: power; ability to influence
视力: vision; eyesight
示例: example; typical case
事例: to illustrate; typical case
势利: selfishly concerned with gaining advantages for oneself; favourable
Fun isn’t it? Actually, the Chinese do have a lot of fun with these. They are much easier to digest with a pinch of humour.
Nánrén, jiùshì nán rén.
A man is a difficult person.
Shēngzhí, biàn shì shēng zhí.
A promotion is an increase in worth.
Awesome. Pull these out as party tricks and you will immediately be accepted into the fold, for sure.
I heard a story about a British student who managed to do just that – impress his teacher with his mastery of homophones:
He read a book on Titanic in Chinese, and then wrote a comment about it:
“泰坦尼克，我们可以忍受你暂时的沉默，但我们不愿看到你最终的沉没”（ Tài Tǎn Ní Kè ，wǒ men kě yǐ rěn shòu nǐ zàn shí de chén mò ，dàn wǒ men bú yuàn kàn dào nǐ zuì zhōng de chén mò. Titanic, we can accept your temporary silence but we don’t want to see that you sank into the sea).
This “chénmò” can mean “silent; taciturn” (沉默 ) and “to sink” (沉没). He was lucky enough to find the perfect context in which to use both.
Have you found any other good situations to use puns in Chinese? Mention them in the comments section below!
This article was featured on Chinlingo.com (an online platform for learning Chinese).