"I still am super grateful that all TV shows in China have subtitles (in Chinese) because even Chinese people will get a bit confused as to what's being said without the characters specifying which of the many homophones are being pronounced" from https://www.duolingo.com/comment/7272741

I read lots of comments like this suggesting that characters are necessary, as opposed to pinyin (or kana for Japanese) only, because of ambiguity due to homophones.

Suggesting that Chinese and Japanese are "crippled" in speech, since speech and pinyin (or kana) transcriptions are equivalent! So if one is insufficient than so is the other!

I find that hard to believe. I expect that speakers adapt the language to avoid ambiguity, for example by extending words (e.g. 2-syllable words in madarin e.g. adding "zi" to some nouns) or adding more context through more sentences.

In that case however the ambiguity argument for characters falls short. Not to mention Korean supposedly has many homophones aswell, and they are just fine with hangul.

I also saw the "Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den" poem mentioned as an argument for characters, even though that was written to promote the use of modern vernacular in which homophones are disambiguated as needed, as opposed to old/literary Chinese.

  • Not ambiguous, but more so than for example English. The simple fact that most words have two syllables and that there are many, many fewer syllables in Mandarin (including tones) than in English means that words will be more similar. A rigid syllable structure further adds to this. Then add slight variations between dialects or imperfections in how second language learners perceive/pronounce the sounds and tones, and you will certainly have ambiguity sometimes.
    – Olle Linge
    Jul 25, 2016 at 12:20

1 Answer 1


The "Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den" (施氏食狮史) is an anormality or a very "perverse" case. Characters will often have the same pronunciation (see Does xiang (third tone) mean "want" or "echo"?). However, with some context, in the form of either a "term" or a phrase that the character forms, it is possible to distinguish between characters. If someone says sha1 si3, I can probably safely assume that they mean 杀死 (unless there's some other parsing of their speech that makes more sense). If someone says hua1 yuan2 zhong1, I can safely guess that they mean 花园中.

This is possible even if the tones are missing: for example, I could guess the characters for ru guo quan shi jie wo ye ke yi fang qi (i.e. 如果全世界我也可以放弃) even though I had only had heard this phrase in a song. (Singing will obscure the tones used for characters.)

Consequently, issues of ambiguity in oral communication are, to the best of my knowledge, limited to cases where context cannot be provided, such as with identifying the component characters of people's names. These can be rectified if the speaker provides example usage of each character (e.g. 元朝的元, 责任的任).

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