Both of these are pronounced in the same way. In latin they are spelt Yào and Yào. I thought each word had four tones. So now I'm confused at how to approach things like this

Am I looking at this from the wrong point of view?

  • They're two different words, unrelated meaning Feb 6, 2020 at 23:39
  • 1
    Each possible latin spelling has four tones(sometimes five), but every tone matches with many more characters. For example, 'Yao' has four tones, but for Yào you have 要、药、耀 etc.
    – sylvia
    Feb 9, 2020 at 2:22

3 Answers 3


要 and 药

Both of these are pronounced in the same way. In latin they are spelt Yào and Yào.

99% correct. When 要 means "to request" it is pronounced yāo. Although, most of the time 要 is pronounced yào.

I thought each word had four tones.

Incorrect. There are four/five tones in Mandarin (mā mǎ má mà ma), but individual characters are pronounced using just one. Each character in modern Mandarin has a single-syllable pronunciation comprising of an "initial", a "final", and a "tone".

Indeed, there's only a small number of possible pronunciations of individual characters (listed here: left = initial; right = final [and you can apply any of the tones]), so many characters are homophones.

How do we know what someone is saying?

  • Most words in Chinese consist of two characters (not one), e.g., 天气 (tiānqì) = weather. There's a lot more possible two-characters combinations.

  • Many words with single-character forms (cài) = "vegetable" (among other meanings) also have longer, more precise forms 蔬菜 (shūcài) = "vegetable" (no other meanings).

  • Whoever is speaking is aware of the potential for ambiguity, typically familiar with commonly misheard words, and phrases sentences accordingly.

Usually the most confusing one is shì:

是 事 市 式 试 室 世 视 适 示

These are all always pronounced shì, and they all arise fairly early in one's Chinese studies. But they're usually combined with other characters:

  • (shì) = "to be"
  • 事情 (shìqing) = "matter"
  • 城市 (chéngshì) = "city"
  • 日式 (Rìshì) = "Japanese style"
  • 尝试 (chángshì) = "to try"
  • 办公室 (bàngōngshì) = "office"
  • 世界 (shìjiè) = "the earth"
  • 电视 (diànshì) = "TV"
  • 适合 (shìhé) = "to suit"
  • 表示 (biǎoshì) = "to express"

So we can deduce the meaning of "shì" from the word it belongs to.


I thought each word had four tones.

Am I looking at this from the wrong point of view?

Unfortunately, yes.

Chinese characters represent single-syllable morphemes. They are not generally words, although if the morpheme represented is free, then the character also represents a word.

The tone is one of the essential properties of a Modern Chinese morpheme. Without the tone information, you just have a syllable and not a complete morpheme, so it is not correct to say that a morpheme has four tones.

Chinese phonology tended to produce homophones over the years, and this problem became even more exaggerated when romanisation schemes such as Pinyin were introduced - syllables became much more rigid and inflexible. 要 and 藥 represent different morphemes, although they are pronounced the same in Mandarin. To find out if homophones originally represented different morphemes, you need to trace their etymology. To give an English example:

The English syllable can represents two distinct morphemes:

  1. The meaning to be able to

    I can run marathons

  2. The meaning a cylindrical vessel for storing something

    I have a can of coke

The etymology of these two meanings are as follows (taken from Wiktionary):

  1. From Middle English can, first and third person singular of connen, cunnen (“to be able, know how”), from Old English can(n), first and third person singular of cunnan (“to know how”), from Proto-Germanic *kunnaną, from Proto-Indo-European *ǵneh₃- (whence know). Compare West Frisian kinne, Dutch kunnen, Low German könen, German können, Danish and Norwegian Bokmål kunne, Swedish and Norwegian Nynorsk kunna. Doublet of con. See also: canny, cunning.

  2. From Middle English canne, from Old English canne (“glass, container, cup, can”), from Proto-Germanic *kannǭ (“can, tankard, mug, cup”), perhaps from Proto-Indo-European *gan-, *gandʰ- (“a vessel”). Cognate with Scots can (“can”), West Frisian kanne (“a jug, pitcher”), Dutch kan (“pot, mug”), German Kanne (“can, tankard, mug”), Danish kande (“can, mug, a measure”), Swedish kanna (“can, tankard, mug”), Icelandic kanna (“a can”).

As you can see, the two meanings of can came from distinct morphemes, which have merged into one pronunciation in Modern English. The meaning to be able to came from Proto-Germanic *kunnaną, while the meaning cylindrical object for storage came from Proto-Germanic *kannǭ.

Chinese has a far greater homophone problem than English! The general idea is the same, though - if you want to find out what morphemes they derived from, you have to look at the etymology. In the context of Chinese, you would look at Old Chinese.

Zhengzhang reconstruction: *qews

藥 Zhengzhang reconstruction: *lawɢ


Haha, that's Chinese!

Use Chinese input, write zhi

I get 395 words to choose from, all zhi! Of course, they are not all the same tone, but a lot of them are also the same tone!

A long time ago I was reading a book about Chinese, it said English has about 10 000 different sounds. The book said, Chinese only has about 400!

An IT guy here wrote a quick program and looked at different Chinese sounds, he confirmed this!

You may be able to find this thread here on chinesestackexchange, I don't know how to search!

Watch out for that nasty virus, stay safe!

  • So if somebody says yào 要 or yào 药, how do you know which one they mean? What about yào yào 要药 together. Is it simply contextual and you pick the one you think fits best to the situation. Isn't there a situation where you could have multiple correct possibilities, then what? Feb 7, 2020 at 0:14
  • 1
    @ChristopherThomas Most of the time there is no confusion with context. The context may not only be the sentence the character is used (though often the sentence alone is enough), but also where / under what circumstances the sentence is said, what the conversation the speaker is having, etc., etc.
    – fefe
    Feb 7, 2020 at 1:18
  • I’m struggling to see where the answer to the question is. Could you clarify it a bit?
    – dROOOze
    Feb 7, 2020 at 3:56
  • 2
    @ChristopherThomas: Did you believe that there is any natural language in the world without ambiguity? Sometimes, you should think about your own native language to find a phenomenon, and you would find the answer to your question. For example, if somebody says "There is a seal on the box.", how do you know whether there is a sea creature, or some kind of binding, or maybe a stamp, on the box? Isn't this a situation where you have multiple correct possibilities? Then what? What about "It is a long tail/tale."? "We beheld the site/sight."?
    – user21820
    Feb 7, 2020 at 9:35
  • @ChristopherThomas: And since this post mentions the virus... if I ask you for a bat, I hope you give me something to hit a ball with, not a flying creature!
    – user21820
    Feb 7, 2020 at 9:44

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