If 冬 in itself means winter, do adding 天 Impact the meaning, or perhaps refer to winter time instead of the season itself? Or is it because 冬 is monosyllabic and 冬天 has two syllables?

  • 5
    Does this thread help: chinese.stackexchange.com/q/31011/4136? It might not look related on first glace but you'll also notice this phenomenon where words are made up of two characters that practically mean the same thing.
    – Mou某
    Commented Jun 14, 2020 at 10:50
  • In English, "Winter" is both an adjective and a noun. In standard situations in Modern Chinese, "冬" should be treated as an adjective only. That is, saying a single "冬" is like saying a single "heavy", "noisy", "yellow", etc; without a noun it's not really grammatical.
    – dROOOze
    Commented Jun 14, 2020 at 11:29
  • 2
    Simple answer is Chinese has lots of homonyms, so in order for others to understand what was "spoken", compounding is used to express the idea without ambiguity. It's readable without ambiguity with only 1 character of course, but written Standard Chinese usually mirrors speech. I answered here listing other ways of Chinese word formation using multiple characters: chinese.stackexchange.com/questions/37320/… Commented Jun 14, 2020 at 14:29
  • @dROOOze what about 暖冬、寒冬、初冬? Surely 冬 here are not adjective.
    – joehua
    Commented Nov 29, 2020 at 22:57

2 Answers 2


In short, for disambiguation, at least oral disambiguation.

Most of the words in Old Chinese are monosyllabic words. However, when it comes to oral speech, it is too ambiguous to use. As time went by, we developed Modern Chinese, which encourages the usage of disyllabic words, for oral disambiguation.

In oral speech, the monosyllabic word "dōng" can mean 冬 (winter), 东 (east), 鸫 (thrush), 氡 (radon), etc, so it is too ambiguous to pronounce "dōng" only. Therefore, in Modern Chinese, we use the disyllabic word "dōng tiān", written as 冬天, literally "winter days", for disambiguation. You can also use the disyllabic word "dōng jì", written as 冬季, literally "winter season", for oral disambiguation.

Similarly, there is a monosyllabic word 锋 (fēng) and a monosyllabic word 利 (lì) in Old Chinese. Both of them means "sharp". However, in oral speech, "fēng" can mean 锋 (sharp), 风 (wind), 疯 (mad, crazy), etc, and "lì" can mean 利 (sharp, benefit), 力 (force), 粒 (grain), etc, so it is too ambiguous to pronounce either "fēng" or "lì". Therefore, in Modern Chinese, we use the disyllabic word 锋利 (fēng lì) for "sharp", for oral disambiguation.

Can I just write monosyllabic words but speak disyllabic words? No. They look too archaic. Nowadays, native Chinese speakers are familiar with Modern Chinese, but unfamiliar with Old Chinese. If you write monosyllabic words, native Chinese speakers may feel like "have you just time-travelled from thousands of years ago?" Actually, it is almost similar to the feeling if you speak Classical Latin in Europe.


You can use: 冬、冬季、冬天 even 萧条期 can mean winter: a bleak, desolate period. Why not have more than 1 word with the same meaning? That makes writing more interesting.

Winter is a word whose origin is unknown. It may be related to an old word for white, but that is just a guess.

In English you may say winter, or wintertime. As Drooze mentioned, maybe 冬 surfaces more, but not solely, as an adjective.

We might say: a winter coat

but I would not say: a wintertime coat

Robert Louis Stevenson called winter Winter-Time, nowadays we write wintertime.

Which brings me to his poem:

Winter-Time Robert Louis Stevenson - 1850-1894

Late lies the wintry sun a-bed,
A frosty, fiery sleepy-head;
Blinks but an hour or two; and then,
A blood-red orange, sets again.

Before the stars have left the skies,
At morning in the dark I rise;
And shivering in my nakedness,
By the cold candle, bathe and dress.

Close by the jolly fire I sit
To warm my frozen bones a bit;
Or with a reindeer-sled, explore
The colder countries round the door.

When to go out, my nurse doth wrap
Me in my comforter and cap;
The cold wind burns my face, and blows
Its frosty pepper up my nose.

Black are my steps on silver sod;
Thick blows my frosty breath abroad;
And tree and house, and hill and lake,
Are frosted like a wedding-cake.

Now, I'd like to tell you about the origins of 天, and my theory about aliens in Ancient China, but I'll save that for another time .....

  • Quote:- "...my theory about aliens in Ancient China, but I'll save that for another time...." Don't wait too long because 岁月不等人 Commented Jun 17, 2020 at 3:27
  • 是的,但是外星人不是人!You are the poet, please improve the translation! Should I write '沐浴和穿衣' or '沐浴和穿衣服‘?
    – Pedroski
    Commented Jun 17, 2020 at 21:58
  • Of course 沐浴和穿衣, because the 服 is, poetically speaking, redundant and only serves to "cloud up" the verse. In any case poems, unlike prose. are best written in short, succinct verses with a visceral punch to jolt the reader's sensitivity. So, without competing with your translation, may I humbly be so bold as to offer my poetic translation of the whole sentence, (as doing the whole poem would severely tax my aged brain too much) Here goes, "By the cold candle, bathe and dress" --- 冷落烛光下, 浴完则穿衣. (冷落 because it means "cold and indifferent", i.e indifferent to the bather's nakedness) Thank you. Commented Jun 18, 2020 at 3:05
  • BTW, IMHO, 沐浴和穿衣 gives the idea of bathing and dressing at the same time because of 和 which means "and" or "with" The use of "and" in English is, I believe, quite different from Chinese. I am sure you are aware of that. Commented Jun 18, 2020 at 3:34
  • "The use of "and" in English is, I believe, quite different from Chinese" I meant quite different in some incidences, i.e. when it joins actions separated in time. Commented Jun 18, 2020 at 3:43

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