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As a beginner, the thing I realized is there is a lot of word with the same pronunciation and Chinese is almost full of homophone words. For example: 良, 量, 凉, 粮, 踉 all have the same pronunciation: liáng. Pronouncing with the same tone is another problem for me but what does a native Chinese speaker understand when I exactly pronounce the "liáng" with right tone? The question can be likened to when English speaker is asked to distinguish the pronunciation between "knight" and "night". My questions are:

  • Can they understand which one I try to mean among those characters 良, 量, 凉, 粮, 踉?
  • What am I going to do when I'm not understood?

3 Answers 3

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This is exactly why multicharacter vocab is the normal state in chinese overall. Whether its because of homophones or ambiguious character definitions, all is immediately clear.

If I say 知道, you immediately comprehend "know" and if I say 小道 you immediately comprehend "path" no juggling the dozens of 道 definitions to figure out the most likely fit.

If I say 茄, you don't know if I am eating eggplants or tomatoes, but add a 番 character and its instantly clear.

If I say 瓶, you wonder did I buy a vase or a bottle or a jar? Oh, actually I said 寬屏, now you know its not even that character, but an artistic screen using a homophone, no confusion beginning to end in the second scenario.

Of course there are single character vocab in daily life, and there is nothing wrong with shortening to just one character when context is clear-- if I have been talking about tomato fried rice for the last five minutes, you will never think I am suddenly saying to add eggplants to the rice. If I am holding the object up to your face, you won't confuse a bottle or vase or screen for each other no matter what I say.

So multicharacter vocab is not always required but it is your friend, and should always be the default if no context to clarify the situation, as it promotes proper communication (^ν^)

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  • Ah yes, the term "multicharacter". This is what I have been thinking about but couldn't name it. Thanks for it. The solution I found was like "There is not much single character words in Chinese so it is also possible to create words with multiple characters. Instead of focusing one character(which in my opinion same as alphabet), create and memorize the words from these characters(alphabet)." This was my solution which may not make sense but your text made sense to me, thanks a lot.
    – user123960
    Commented Feb 29 at 3:11
  • @user123960 in the past there was a type of written chinese called classical chinese, it had no punctuation and was almost entirely in single character vocab, so the concept of all single character vocab isn't foreign to chinese. However even those most intelligent and educated people in the past would be constantly adding notes and scribbles to their text to try to figure out what it meant, the confusion is not easy. So it can help compare why multicharacter vocab became the norm. single character versions are valid as vocab((not like letters)), but not the most common form.
    – zagrycha
    Commented Feb 29 at 4:54
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If I say [naɪt], how would you know I meant "knight" or "night"? The same as in Chinese for different characters with the same pronunciation and tone as the samples brought up by you - 良, 量, 凉, 粮, 踉. However, a Chinese sentence is made up of a series of words, which are usually formed with more than one character, though a single character can be a word too.

In the sample characters above, only "凉" could be used alone in conservation as a word that means "cold/cool". The rest of the sample would require additional characters to make each of them a meaningful word or form a phrase, for example: "好 - fine/good"; "尺寸 - take measurements"; "食 - food/foodstuff"; "跳 - hop/jump". Even the single character word "凉" can add another character to form new words - "清/爽", both words share the similar meaning of "凉" "cool and refreshing".

Due to differences in meanings, each of them will appear in different sentences in conservation with distinct topics, thus, the chance for mistaking one for another is nill. For example, if I say "He is a [naɪt]", you should have no trouble picking the correct word "knight" instead of "night".

Correction:

In addition to "凉", "量" also can be used alone in short conservation, but still, one won't be mistaken for another. Examples:

  • Q: "凉嗎? - Feel cold?" A: "凉! - Yes, it is cold!"

  • Q: "量嗎? - Do you want to take a measurement?" A: "量. - Yes, I do."

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The questions on homophones of any language are basically two types. One is “why there are homophones in a particular language?” and second “how can people understand the dialogues if there are homophones?”

Human beings speak various languages but they all have the same articulating organs. They can only speak a limited number of vowels and consonants. They have much more number of meanings to express with a language. Facing the challenge, human beings are smart enough to use combinations to extend the vocabulary of their language. Nevertheless, there are still some homophones. Particularly in the Chinese language, there are much less syllables than English due to there are fewer combinations of vowels and ending consonants (codas).

No matter which language, people will identify the homophones with the help of the context. If some words confuse people very frequently, people will find another word to use. For the Chinese language, people use multiple syllables to form a word, instead of just one syllable. For example, people say 粮食 instead of just 粮,凉爽 not just 凉, 测量 not just 量.

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  • Though we all have the same organ, humans produced different sounds. I still wonder why Chinese has that much homophone. Mian, dian, xi, zi, Liang and so on. Why did people in the ancient decide to name everything in the same sound? Why they didn't want to create other different sounds? How this can be explained? It feels like "okay I want to call this 'mian', the other item 'zi' and the other again 'mian' ". Why? My little brain cannot understand this.
    – user123960
    Commented Feb 29 at 5:24
  • How this can be explained? Here is my theory. In history, the Chinese used 反切 (Inverse segmentation) to teach 汉字 (Chinese Characters). This method limited the otherwise abundant spoken language to a few numbers of 汉字 that people use often. It would be a very complicated process.
    – PdotWang
    Commented Feb 29 at 5:40

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