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I'm learning a little Chinese out of curiosity, and I have a basic question about the language as a whole, rather than a specific technical question about a particular word or character. Sorry if this is too broad.

I just want to learn a little spoken Chinese, not the writing system, so I've been seeking out pinyin texts. Let's say I come across a word such as jiǎng that I don't know. I look it up on Wiktionary, and get something like:

jiǎng (Zhuyin ㄐㄧㄤˇ)

Pinyin reading of 堿
Pinyin reading of 桨, 槳
Pinyin reading of 滰
Pinyin reading of 獎
Pinyin reading of 繈
Pinyin reading of 繣
Pinyin reading of 膙
Pinyin reading of 蒋, 蔣
Pinyin reading of 襁
Pinyin reading of 講, 讲
Pinyin reading of 顜

Each of those characters seem to have totally different meanings: paddle, salty, reward... so my question is: how do the Chinese manage to communicate orally? Specifically, let's say one Chinese speaker says something to another. If there are 10 different definitions associated with each sound the first person makes, then how can the second person work out what's being said? Am I misunderstanding something, or is it simply that you have to work out which definition is being used from context?

To use a very specific example, what if a Chinese speaker said jiǎng to me? I mean what if they actually formed the sound jee-yah-ng - how could I tell what they meant?

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To some extend, you should consider the "context". Maybe not a proper analogy -- how English speakers understand only a single syllable? For English, more syllables play a role of the "context", just as more Chinese characters being spoken to make the sequence of sounds understandable. –  Stan Jul 14 at 14:15
    
@Stan Are you saying that the word is not the basic unit of meaning in Chinese? That a Chinese word is more like an english syllable - meaningless unless it's surrounded by others? –  Jack M Jul 14 at 14:21
    
@JackM When you say "Chinese word" what you mean are characters and yes, Chinese words consist of one or more characters similar to how English words consist of one or more syllables. That's where the similarities end though. In English syllables and characters have no meaning, only sound while Chinese characters and even the radicals they consist of have meaning and carry sound. –  Roman Reiner Jul 14 at 15:06
    
@JackM It was interesting, you used the phrase "basic unit". One Chinese character contains information of both "the meaning set" and "the pronunciation set". The basic unit of meaning is the elements of the meaning set of one character. However, jiǎng in the post is just a pronunciation, it can map to many possible meanings. Just like English, without more "context", you can't decide whether /nəʊ/ means "no" or "know". –  Stan Jul 14 at 15:47
    
Your title is wrong, I think. What you're actually asking is, "Why does Chinese have so many homophones?" –  200_success Jul 14 at 17:46

3 Answers 3

Chinese was once monosyllabic, where one character represented one word. But back then, thousands of years ago, pronunciation for characters was also much more distinct, and still is in certain topolects (like Cantonese).

Modern Mandarin, on the other hand, compensates for lack of precision in pronunciation by being polysyllabic, where mosts words are either disyllabic or trisyllabic. There are still monosyllabic words, but they are usually easily comprehensible by context (like 我 and other pronouns).

Most of the characters you list are rather rare, biut let’s consider the common ones. 奖 (獎), as in prize, award, is usually found in compounds such as Nuobei’erjiang (Nobel prize), jiangjin (money award), jiangpai (prize medal) and so on.

This could hardly be confused with 讲, speak, with compounds such as jiangjia (bargain), jianghua (talk), jiangjie (explain) and so on.

We could also refer to 蒋介石 (Jiang Jieshi), where 蒋 is a common family name. Context will mostly be evident when names are invoked.

Your strategy should therefore be to learn compound words. Since you do not want to learn written Chinese, just forget that there are characters, there are only words, and words are usually polysyllabic: women, gongneng, guangchang, gonggong qiche, laobanniang, dalu, mantou, chengyu, and so on.

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1  
So "jiang" is not really a word, but a syllable? –  Jack M Jul 14 at 14:47
    
If we have to compare Chinese characters with something similar in English, I will say one single Chinese character is equivalent to a syllable. In English, sometime the syllables in a word have meaning, sometimes not. E.g. unfair has 2 syllables, un for not, and fair for impartial. Another example: stupid has 2 syllables, but both stu and pid have no meanings. But in Chinese, each character (syllable+tone) has its own meanings, and we combine characters to form disyllabic or trisyllabic words. In most cases (maybe 90%) each character contribute something to the meaning of the whole word. –  孤影萍踪 Jul 14 at 17:19
    
Let's take the syllable stu for an example: student, stupid, study, studio, stubble, stubborn, stucco and etc. If those words were Chinese, the syllable stu would have a few meanings on its own, and other syllables like dent, pid, dy, dio, bble, bborn, cco would have their own meanings as well. We would combine stu and dent to make a new word student where stu and dent contribute something to the compounded word. –  孤影萍踪 Jul 14 at 17:29
    
Another example: in spaceship each syllable (space or ship) has its own meanings, and when combined together both syllables contribute their own meaning to the new word. I will say most of Chinese disyllabic or trisyllabic words are formed in the "spaceship" way. But this rule doesn't apply to the Chinese words transliterated from other languages, like 奥林匹克 for Olympic. –  孤影萍踪 Jul 14 at 17:33
    
@孤影萍踪 "stupid" consists of the Latin root "stup" and the suffix "id". Those do have independent meanings (historically at least - nowadays they sound very strange on their own), although "id" doesn't mean very much. –  Brilliand Jul 14 at 19:18

First, for the example you have given, besides 讲、奖 and 蒋 I don't think most people will think of any other characters than these when they hear the word jiǎng spoken by itself.

A lot of the other characters you have listed there are either somewhat uncommon or are just a prefix/suffix for other words.

It's somewhat like it someone just said the word 'which' to you in English without any context - maybe you will know it's 'which' but how can you be sure it's not 'witch'? Or 'for' - how can you know, just by hearing it seperate from other things, if it is, actually, 'for' or 'four'? (Or even 'fore' for that matter!)

It is impossible to know for sure without some context.

Even the three characters I listed for jiǎng just now have very, specific, different meanings:

讲 = speak, talk 奖 = reward, award 蒋 = the surname jiǎng

Even just from hearing jiǎng by itself you can make an educated guess at what the speaker is trying to say.

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In oral Chinese, it is rarely to use only one character/syllable (almost all of the characters are also single-syllable words) to carry a specific meaning as a word.

For example, the syllable "jiǎng" will be used with other character like "jiǎng + huà" (講話; speaking) or "dé + jiǎng" (得獎, receiving an award).

In addition, not every meanings of a syllable are commonly used. For the example of "jiǎng", actually only about three meanings are commonly used in everyday speech.

Why Chinese have this large amount of single syllable words? There is a theory suggests that the Chinese language, compared to alphabetical systems, is restrained by its own writing system that cannot freely constructs its spelling but have to use one character to represent one syllable.

I am a native Chinese speaker so I'm not sure about the difficulties for the non-native speakers. But I think a word (which may combined by several characters) will be easier than a single character for learning and remembering.

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This may be a separate question, but if "jiang" is considered a syllable, and "jiang hua" and "de jiang" are the completed words, why does pinyin insert spaces there? Why not "jianghua" and "dejiang"? –  Jack M Jul 14 at 14:44
    
Actually pinyin don't insert spaces in these words, the spaces was inserted by me for explanation. Moreover, "jiang" is not just a syllable, it also can be used as a full-meaning word. –  Peterlee Jul 14 at 14:47

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