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湖: Lake 湖泊: Lake

As you can see, they both mean the same thing. So why the extra word 泊? It just seems like "lake lake" to me. And they're both nouns. I'm very confused here.

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    Other similar compound words with repetitive meanings / synonyms are 寒冷, 身体, 忙碌, 宽阔 to name a few. Jan 13 at 2:41

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This question comes up fairly frequently, so I will write some longer explanation. To understand this phenomenon you first need to know that Chinese is a language that places heavy emphasis on prosody (rhythm). Hence most chengyu are four characters rather than three or five (although they exist as well): words of four characters sound more formal than words of other lengths.

It is for the same reason that modern Chinese heavily prefers two-syllable words over one-syllable words, although the latter kind is preferred in classical Chinese.

There are a number of different ways of how one-syllable words morphed into two-syllable words. For an good survey, you can read 董秀芳《词汇化:汉语双音词的衍生和发展》.

Structurally, 湖泊 is a 同义并列词 (juxtaposition of synonyms), as you have already observed: both 湖 and 泊 roughly mean "lake". Historically "湖泊" entered Chinese rather late. A search of corpus suggests Song dynasty.

宋 马光祖《景定建康志》: 《水經注》云,朱湖在溧陽,今溧陽湖泊為多,或謂之渰。名稱更易,古跡之可見者鮮矣。

In classical Chinese, when two words are placed together to form a coordinative phrase, 董秀芳 points out that there are two different structures 意合并列 and 形合并列.

并列短语可以分为两类,一类不用连词连接并列项,如“柴米油盐”……这样的并列短语没有外部形式标志,可以称为“意合并列短语”。另一类用并列连词连接并列项……可以称为“形合并列短语”。

The semantic difference between 意合并列 and 形合并列 is that, in general, the concepts juxtaposed in 意合并列 must be closer than those in 形合并列.

只有意合并列短语才有可能变为并列复合词,形合并列短语是不可能变为并列复合词的。这是因为形合并列短语一定长于两个音节,不可能构成一个韵律词,因而不可能词汇化。

Only 意合并列 phrases may possibily lexicalize. Therefore, one of the major preconditions of lexicalization is that the difference between the two parts in a coordinative phrase must be weakened. 董秀芳 gives the following example:

富与贵,是人之所欲也,不以其道得之,不处也。

Here 富与贵 is a 形合并列 phrase. There is a difference between 富 (rich) and 贵 (high in status), and therefore cannot yet be lexicalized. However, because being rich is often associated with being high in status, gradually the difference between the two concepts had been weakened, and they may appear in a 意合并列 phrase:

其妻问所与饮食者,则尽富贵也。

This is the beginning of lexicalization of 富贵.

Now back to the word 湖泊. 湖 is the general character for "lake", as in the well-known sentence 相濡以沫,不如相忘于江湖. 泊 refers to shallow lakes. (This theory comes from 段玉裁. 洦、泊古今字。洦,浅水也。) Over time, however, this distiction became weakened and forgotten. Hence 湖泊 can now be juxtaposed together to form a two-syllable word that is the general term for "lake" today.

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  • Great scholarly answer! Quote:- "...you first need to know that Chinese is a language that places heavy emphasis on prosody (rhythm)" Yes, when I first saw the question, I was ragging my brain to come up with this very phrase, and Wala!, this nailed it. It's actually similar in English where 3 syllable / alphabet abbreviations / acronyms have a certain satisfying feeling of "completeness" to them, like IBM, OMG, KFC, etc. I suppose all languages have not just the need to convey ideas / information but also "rhythm" to make it sound pleasant / palatable to the human ear. Jan 13 at 3:22
  • But in naming places single words are more common than the compound, we have 西湖 but no 西湖泊 or 西泊, am I right? Do you think USA is more pleasing than US when it means the United States of America? @WayneCheah Jan 13 at 6:56
  • Yes, this is because 西湖 is already a two-syllable word--there is no need for a third syllable 泊. 泊 is still used to name lakes that are shallow or seasonal. The most famous one is the dried-up 罗布泊. Also 梁山泊 in 水浒传. Jan 13 at 7:03
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湖泊 is a compound word that means "lake". The fact that both 湖 (lake) and 泊 (lake/ body of water) contain the meaning "lake" is immaterial.

Just like "燃燒" (to burn/ burning) is made up of 燃(burn/ignite) and 燒 (burn), it is still a single word for "to burn/ burning"

Most modern Chinese words are compound words, they are more precise than single-character words

Example:

老虎 can only mean "tiger" but 虎 itself can be used as an adjective for "vicious/ dangerous" (e.g. 虎狼之師 = tiger and wolf-like army = vicious/ dangerous army)beside its main meaning of "tiger"

老師 can only mean teacher, but 師 itself contains the meaning of "army"

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