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In English, we have the word "tear", which has at least 2 unrelated meanings:

  1. Tear like paper (verb or noun).
  2. Tear like tear drop (verb or noun).

Here are more examples in terms of English (including homographs, words with the same text, which is what I'm wondering for Chinese).

In Sanskrit, we have words which resolve to the same text string, but have different parts of speech.

In Chinese, do you have this situation? If so, what are some examples?

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  • There are homophones in Chinese, i.e. words that have the same pronunciation but different meanings or lexical properties.
    – kathy
    Commented Nov 8, 2023 at 2:59
  • One example I can think of that may fit your criteria is: 作乐. It has two readings zuòlè and zuòyuè. The readings change depending on the meaning. The spelling (i.e.: the characters) remain exactly the same.
    – Mou某
    Commented Nov 8, 2023 at 11:35

6 Answers 6

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Probably the easiest family of Chinese homonyms to mention are 多音字 (polyphonic characters), these are Chinese characters with multiple pronunciations, and different pronunciation almost always entails different meaning. Many of the most common Chinese characters are 多音字.

One example of a 多音字 is the character 好. It's usually pronounced hǎo, an adjective meaning "good". It's also pronounced hào, a verb meaning "to be fond of", such as in 好学 (hàoxué) which is "fond of study" or "studious". (There are many other examples.)

For more than one character, an example is 好吃 (hǎochī) = "good to eat" vs. "tasty" and 好吃 (hàochī) = "fond of eating". These are 多音词, and this link gives a few more examples, such as 大夫, 分子, 便宜. They seem fairly rare. (After writing this, I realized there's also 好学 (hǎoxué) and 好学 (hàoxué) too.)

I would interpret words (like "bear (n.)" and "bear (v.)" in the aforementioned article) which

  1. are written the same (i.e. have identical characters), and
  2. are pronounced the same,
  3. but have different meanings,

as a single word with multiple meanings (and not different words). There are many words with multiple meanings in Chinese; just flick open a dictionary.

For example, the characters in 左右 (zuǒyòu) respectively mean "left" and "right". The word 左右 can mean "left and right"; it can also mean "about" (which is what students learn early on); it can also mean something like "influenced by" (which I usually see in 受到……所左右 or 被……所左右).

There are also quite a few Chinese characters and words with identical pronunciation, such as 权利 (quánlì) = "rights" and 权力 (quánlì) = "authority", or 经历 (jīnglì) = "experience" and 精力 (jīnglì) = "energy". (And if you disregard tones, there's even more, but usually we don't disregard tones.)

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    The examples do not satisfy op's standard of having unrelated meanings. At least the meanings listed here are related.
    – lilysirius
    Commented Nov 6, 2023 at 5:41
  • Wait, did the OP require unrelated meanings? Sure the word "unrelated" was used to describe an English example, but the title says: same spelling but different meanings or parts of speech, and asks for examples of "homonyms" as defined in the article as two or more words that have the same sound or spelling but differ in meaning. Besides, is the difference between e.g. 好 (third tone, adjective, "good") vs. 好 (fourth tone, verb, "to be fond of") not enough? They seem very different to me.
    – Becky 李蓓
    Commented Nov 6, 2023 at 6:16
  • 1
    I did get the unrelated part flagged after reading his question since it does not belong to the definition of homonym but get specially mentioned.But apparently he does not care about that. I agree 好 is a homonym, what I disagree is that these two meanings are unrelated. They have the same origin. In fact it is a common way to generate a verb from a non-verb to make it a 去声.
    – lilysirius
    Commented Nov 6, 2023 at 6:48
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    Bear the animal and to bear something aren't just different definitions of the same word. They are two different words with completely different etymologies that just happen to converge to the same spelling. They are so represented in dictionaries, being two separate entries bear¹ and bear², rather than different meanings under the same entry.
    – Curiosity
    Commented Nov 6, 2023 at 11:06
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1 和 ㄏㄨˊ hú 「和牌」when playing mahjong, all your tiles match a specific pattern and win the game. Most Chinese can't get this one right. They typically use 胡.
2 和 ㄏㄜˋ hè 「附和」、「唱和」going along, agreeing with others
3 和 ㄏㄢˋ hàn and, I believe more than 50% of the usage of 和 is for this one.
4 和 ㄏㄜˊ hé 「總和」sum,「講和」、「議和」negotiating peace
5 和 ㄏㄨㄛˋ huò 「攪和」mix、「和麵」kneading dough
6 和 ˙ㄏㄨㄛ huo 「暖和」warm

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  • They are called 多音字。Thanks。
    – PdotWang
    Commented Nov 8, 2023 at 2:23
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There are quite a few characters that have different multiple pronunciations and meanings, for example:

行 xing2 - to walk • to go • to travel • a visit • temporary • makeshift • current • in circulation • to do • to perform • capable • competent • effective • all right • OK! • will do • behavior • conduct

行 hang2 - row • line • commercial firm • line of business • profession • to rank (first, second etc) among one's siblings (by age) • (in data tables) row • (Tw) column

覺 jue2 - to feel • to find that • thinking • awake • aware

覺 jiao4 - a nap • a sleep

沒 mei2 - (negative prefix for verbs) have not; not

沒 mo4 - drowned • to end • to die • to inundate

I don't know whether they can be considered homonyms, though they do exist. There are some characters or character components that look the same today, but are derived from completely different oracle bone script characters, such as: 月 - moon and ⺼- a form of 肉, meat, which looks like 月 often.

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  • They are called 多音字。Thanks。
    – PdotWang
    Commented Nov 8, 2023 at 2:23
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Your question: "Does the Chinese language have homonyms (words with the same spelling but different meanings or parts of speech)?" "In English, we have the word "tear", which has at least 2 unrelated meanings. In Chinese, do you have this situation? If so, what are some examples?"

Yes, the Chinese Language does have "homonyms" based on your example and the definition of the term. I will provide the answer to your question in detail, along with some examples. I hope that will help you.

The definition of homonyms is here. Homonyms are of three kinds: (a) homophones, (b) homographs, and (c) the other homonyms. The definition of homophones and homographs is here.

(a) Homophones (Same spelling if you use Pinyin)

Homophones are called "同音字" in Chinese, which are a group of characters (of different shapes) that have the same "sound" but different meanings. We know that there are too many "同音字" in Chinese. For example, /yi1/ 一, 衣, 依, 医, 铱, 猗, 揖, and more.

(b) Homographs (same Chinese character if you think writing a Chinese character is kind of "spelling")

Homographs are called "多音字" in Chinese, which is one character that has multiple "sounds". For example, "和泥" /huo4 ni2/, "和平" /he2 ping2/. The character "和" has two different pronunciations in the two words, and means two things.

(c) The other homonyms

What are the other homonyms beyond the homophones and the homographs?

If one character with the same "sound", but has multiple meanings, we call it a "多义字". For Example, in "你和我" (you and me) and "和平" (peace), the character "和" reads /he2/ in both words.

If one character of the same meaning but multiple "sounds", we call it 异读字 in Chinese. For example, "李白" /li3 bai2/ can also read as /li3 bo2/. 异读字 has different sounds because of the historical changes in the pronunciations, or dialects in different regions.

If two characters read the same and mean the same thing, we call it 异体字. Two 异体字(s) can be just a little different, or a lot different. Two 异体字(s) can have different meanings in some sentences and have the same meaning in some other sentences. 繁体字 and 简体字 can be another kind of "异体字".

In conclusion, "多音字", "多义字", "同音字", "异读字", and "异体字" are difficult topics for a Chinese Language teacher to teach.

Note that, some people translate "多音字" as "polyphone", which is not correct. "多音字" is a character, a word. It is a homograph, not a polyphone. The word "polyphone" in English means a letter that could have different "phones" in different words. here

Also, there are other two concepts, (同义词 and 近义词), that are frequently used in the classroom in the Chinese language. There could be two different characters with different sounds but having the same or similar meanings. For example, "好" /hao3/ and "优" /you1/. They are not "homonyms" as discussed in this question, but closely related as a logic comparison.

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Phonetic loans are characters which have, at one point in the history of Chinese, been used for a word which is unrelated but sounded similar or the same to the word that the character originally represented. In modern Chinese, the following two immediately come to mind:

  • 「肆」 (Pinyin: ), under normal circumstances means unrestrained, wanton (original meaning), in a bank cheque this represents the financial numeral four (phonetic loan).
  • 「象」 (xiàng), under normal circumstances means elephant (original meaning), in a lot of multi-character words it means image, appearance (phonetic loan, unambiguously written as the derivative 「像」).

There's also a heap of one-character names for countries, which transliterate a core syllable of the name, e.g.

  • 「美」 (měi), under normal circumstances means beautiful, used to transliterate the name America.
  • 「德」 (), under normal circumstances means virtuous, used to transliterate the name Deustchland
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  • 像 is a late(r) invention, in an attempt to differentiate the two meanings. 美 and 德 are not used to refer to countries except when followed by the character 國 Commented Nov 10, 2023 at 3:14
  • One character being used for countries are used in more places than just "~國"; for example, when discussing bilateral or multilateral relations, one refers to the American side as 「美方」, not 「美國方」.
    – dROOOze
    Commented Nov 10, 2023 at 3:20
  • Those are abbreviations. 美方 is an abbreviation of 美國方面 Commented Nov 10, 2023 at 3:34
  • Ok, but...it is neither improper to use the abbreviation, nor rare that the abbreviations appear in formal publications. By that argument, 「美國」 in itself is an abbreviation for 「美利堅合眾國」 - nobody would claim that 「美國」 isn't a proper word.
    – dROOOze
    Commented Nov 10, 2023 at 3:41
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Using pinyin input, spell yu

I get 350 different characters with this pinyin spelling. Probably there are more.

Probably, most of these characters yu have more than one tone, each with different meanings.

Even 玉 which seems to have only 1 tone, yù, has various meanings, among which:

而恐太后[玉]体之有所郄也。——《战国策》[your]

So if you mean, the same character with different tones and meanings, yes, Chinese has many many homonyms.

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  • 玉 /yù/ has various meanings. That is called 多义字。(玉欲予域) are 同音字。
    – PdotWang
    Commented Nov 8, 2023 at 2:29

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