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I just realized that Chinese can have several unrelated meanings under the same sound (though often they are given different Chinese characters/symbols).

For example, gān can be:

  • 干 (to interfere, dry, to dry out, empty)
  • 甘 (sweet)
  • 竿 (rod)
  • 肝 (liver)
  • 酐 (organic or inorganic anhydride in ochem)

There are probably many other better examples than this though as well. How would I construct a sentence which was something like this?

We dried the sweet smelling anhydride into a liver powder.

It would be like:

We gān the gān smelling gān into a gān powder.

How could you tell which use was where, given you were speaking this and didn't have the benefit of seeing that the characters might be different? If my sentence seems contrived, and if there might be alternative words which you could switch out which are synonyms, then think of another better example that demonstrates the key point: how would you use the multiple different meanings of one phonetic word in the same sentence?

English does this it seems to a lesser extent. For example, all English atoms/molecules are given unique names, whereas in Chinese the names are reused from other contexts. But in English we still have words like "bear" which can be an animal, or "to carry". I can't think of a better example of words like this in English, but you might contrive a sentence like:

The bear beared the bear bearing bears.

But English has affixes and sentence structure to help clarify which is which even in that case. Chinese I don't think has such distinguishing factors, so wondering how you would do it in Chinese. I don't really speak Chinese so it would be hard for me to figure out this more complex situation.

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4 Answers 4

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Yes you are right. Chinese is a high context language. Chinese has much more homophones than English and a lot of other language.

However, most of the homophones don't need context to understand. There are some methods for understanding.

1, in verbal chatting, characters are not spoken one-by-one at the same speed and same tone. The rhythm of your sentence

We dried the sweet smelling anhydride into a liver powder

in verbal Chinese should be : 我们将 '甘味酸酐 干燥成 '肝粉(space means a very brief pause, and ' means emphasizing)。So the homophones here become different words, like: womenjiang ganweisuangan ganzaocheng ganfen. In other words, Chinese characters are not equal to English words. You can treat Chinese characters as English syllables. English also has many same syllables, but they don't affect understanding.

2, Although too many homophones in Chinese dictionary, verbal Chinese often try to avoid them. Like in your sentence, People use "甜" more in verbal Chinese to mean sweet not "甘"。

  1. Yes sometimes, homophones are inevitable. Native speakers will found it quickly and explain it after the homophones, or listeners can ask to explain directly. I remember an example about my friend and me. He asked: 你听过wǎn hūn 吗?(Have you heard wǎn hūn?). He wanted to ask if I heard a song named 晚婚(late marriage), but wǎn hūn can also mean 晚昏(evening twilight). So he quickly explained it after asking me.
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I had a few like that in old emails, can't find them now. Found this one:

  1. 《施氏食狮史》的文言文短文内容是什么 【原文】石室诗士施氏,嗜狮,誓食十狮。适施氏时时适市视狮。十时,适十狮适市。是时,适施氏适市。氏视是十狮,恃矢势,使是十狮逝世。氏拾是十狮尸,适石室。石室湿,氏使侍拭石室。石室拭,氏始试食是十狮尸。食时,始识是十狮尸,实十石狮尸。试释是事。

翻译为:

【白话及解题】住在石头做的屋子里的姓施的诗人,喜欢狮子,发誓要吃十头狮子。姓施的常常到市集里看狮子。十点钟,刚好十头狮子来到市集。这时,刚好姓施的(也)来到市集。姓(施)的看这十头狮子,仗着箭的力量,使这十头狮子死了。姓(施)的收拾这十头狮子,到石头做的屋子。石头做的屋子潮湿,姓(施)的命令侍者擦拭石头做的屋子。石头做的屋子擦(好了),姓(施)的开始尝试吃这十头狮子。吃的时候,才知道这十头狮子,实际上是十座石头做的狮子的尸体。试解释这件事。

Also found this one: 《季姬击鸡记》

季姬寂,集鸡,鸡即棘鸡。棘鸡饥叽,季姬及箕稷济鸡。鸡既济,跻姬笈,季姬忌,急咭鸡,鸡急,继圾几,季姬急,即籍箕击鸡,箕疾击几伎,伎即齑,鸡叽集几基,季姬急极屐击鸡,鸡既殛,季姬激,即记。

English is not capable of so much alliteration! I don't think any other language is!

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    你這比較像繞口令(tongue twister) Oct 19, 2022 at 23:52
  • Maybe it was in Cantonese or reading in other southern district speaking habit, so originally it was not difficult to pronounce^^ Oct 20, 2022 at 4:10
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“种种花种种种种,种种种来种种香”

此句可读为:

zhǒng zhǒng 花 zhǒng zhǒng zhòng zhòng (每种花,每种都种一种)

zhǒng zhǒng(every kind of flowers), zhǒng zhǒng(each one of every kind) zhòng zhòng(grow)

zhǒng zhǒng zhòng 来 zhǒng zhǒng香(每种都种一种,每种花都香)。

zhǒng zhǒng(every kind) zhòng 来(have grown), zhǒng zhǒng(every kind) smelling good

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    Good example. Interesting.
    – r13
    Oct 18, 2022 at 16:31
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    Can you add some English in the description, I don't speak Chinese that well. Describe what is happening, and how it works, in English.
    – Lance
    Oct 18, 2022 at 16:42
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    I agree with the others that some English clarification would be helpful given this is a site often for second language learners.
    – user31212
    Nov 1, 2022 at 0:54
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How to create a Chinese sentence using multiple different meanings of the same sounding word?

I just search all 4 tones of a random pinyin, in this case, /yin/

The result is a list of words

因 音 陰 蔭 姻 殷 茵 氤 銀 言 吟 齦 淫 寅 飲 隱 引 蚓 殷 印 引 癮 尹

Look for words I can use and I get

names: 殷茵 and 尹言

verbs: 飲, 隱, 引, 印

Finally, I get

殷茵 - Yin Yin

吟 - chant

淫言 - obscene words

引銀 - attract money

尹茵 - Yin Yin

因 - because of

飲癮 - drinking problem

隱 - hide

殷茵吟淫言引銀; 尹茵隱, 因飲癮

Yīnyīn yín yín yín yǐn yín; Yǐnyīn yǐn, yīn yǐn yǐn

Yin Yin utters obscene words to attract money, Yin Yin hides because of a drinking addiction

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