Conquering your Homophone-phobia
Let’s face it, learning Chinese is a constant lesson in humility. While studying a foreign language is never easy, Chinese sometimes appears to have been specifically designed to trip up hapless foreigners. And when it comes to spoken Chinese, one of the most difficult aspects is undoubtedly homophones, or words that sound the same. Of course homophones exist to some extent in all languages, but they’re especially common in Chinese. This seems like it would lead to a lot of misunderstandings, but in practice native speakers use context and tones to distinguish between similar sounding words. However for those of us studying Chinese as a foreign language, this is not always so easy. A less than perfect mastery of tones and pinyin can (and has) lead to confusion, frustration, or even embarrassment for many a student of Chinese.
That is why, dear reader, we’ve collected 10 of the most common homophones that trip up learners of Chinese. We’ve also devised a number of practical strategies for dealing with them (apart from repeatedly yelling “LEARN YOUR TONES” at you).
- Sleepy Dumplings
shuìjiào睡觉 (to sleep) vs. shuǐjiǎo 水饺 (boiled dumplings)
If you’re a fan of Chinese food and/or naps, these are two words that need to be in your vocabulary. Of course, the easiest way to avoid sounding like a narcoleptic at your favorite dumpling stall (or like someone with a weird thing for eating dumplings before bed) is to LEARN YOUR DAMN TONES. Ok I know we promised not to yell at you but seriously, we can’t understate the importance of learning correct tones from day one.
As always with language learning, mnemonic devices can be really useful tools, and this is especially true for tones. For the uninitiated, mnemonic devices, or memory devices, are basically associations you make (usually stories, pictures, numbers, or colors) between two things.
For example, “shuìjiào”, with both syllables in the fourth tone, means “to sleep”. To remember this, one might imagine someone collapsing from exhaustion onto their bed after a long day, mirroring the “falling” of the fourth tone.
Conversely “shuǐjiǎo”, both syllables in the third tone, refers to a kind of boiled dumplings. In this case, you could picture the dumplings being dipped into, and then out of, a pot of boiling water, kind of like the “falling/rising” sound of the third tone.
Alternate Hacks: Measure words, verbs
If you really can’t remember those tones, you can always make yourself more clear by including the appropriate measure word or verb. For example, if you’re trying to order at a restaurant, instead of saying:
wǒ yào shuǐjiǎo.
I want dumplings.
..you might try:
wǒ yào diǎn yífèn shuǐjiǎo.
I want to order one serving of dumplings.
In the first example, pronouncing “shuǐjiǎo” with the wrong tone might confuse the listener. However, in the second example, the presence of the verb “diǎn点” (to order) and the measure word “yífèn一份” (one serving) makes it clear that you are ordering some kind of food, not asking for somewhere to catch some shut-eye.
- Ikea Issues
bèizi 被子(comforter/duvet) vs. bēizi杯子(cup/mug)
This one could become an issue if you’re furnishing a new apartment at Ikea or any similar homewares store. Telling these two apart is not made any easier by the fact that the characters look somewhat alike.
Alternate Hacks: Measure words
Once again, knowing the correct measure word is a good insurance policy in case you forget the tones. Because all the mugs in the world won’t keep you warm at night.
wǒ yào mǎi yígè bēizi.
I’d like to buy a mug.
For mugs the most common measure word in the generic “gè个”.But with comforters/duvets, you can use the more specific “tiáo条”.
wǒ yào mǎi yìtiáo bèizi.
I’d like to buy a comforter/duvet.
- Beer Goggles
yǎnjing眼睛 (eyes) vs. yǎnjìng眼镜 (glasses) vs. yānjīng燕京 (A famous brand of beer from Beijing)
These three are easy to mess up, especially if you’ve been drinking a bit too much of the last one.
Alternate Hacks: Measure words/verbs
Fortunately, all three have their own unique measure words that can help reduce ambiguity.
wǒ yào mǎi yífù yǎnjìng.
I’d like to buy a pair of glasses.
wǒ yào mǎi yìpíng yānjīng.
I’d like to buy a bottle of Yanjing.
zài lái yìbēi yānjīng píjiǔ.
Bring me another glass of Yanjing beer.
Usually, you don’t need a measure word for eyes, and most likely you’re not going to be buying a new set anytime soon (we hope?). For an individual eye, the measure word is “zhī只”, while for a pair it’s “shuāng双”.
tā yǒu yìzhī jiǎyǎn.
He has an artificial eye.
tā měi jiù měi zài nà shuāng yǎnjīng.
Her charm lies in her eyes.
For glasses, remember there is a special word for “wear” (dài戴) that is different from the word used to describe wearing clothing (chuānyīfú穿衣服).
nǐ dài bù dài yǎnjìng?
Do you wear glasses?
- Salty Fresh
xiān鲜 (delicious/fresh/umami) vs. xián咸 (salty)
These are two you definitely don’t want to mix up, especially if you’re talking about someone else’s cooking. Both are adjectives commonly used to describe food. However, whereas xiān鲜 is basically always positive, xián咸could be perceived as negative if it’s paired with certain adverbs like “too”( tài太) or very (fēicháng非常). For example:
nǐ zuò de tāng tài xiān!
The soup you made is so delicious!
nǐ zuò de tāng tài xián!
The soup you made is too salty!
Alternate Hacks: Context/synonyms
If you’re worried you might be misunderstood, you can always use multiple adjectives or explain yourself further to get your point across.
nǐ zuò de tāng fēicháng xiān, wèidào tài hǎole!
The soup you made is so delicious, the flavor is great!
tāng yǒu yīdiǎn tài xián, kěnéng fàng le tàiduō yán.
The soup is a bit too salty, there must be too much salt.
- Damn it Feels Good to be an Auntie
dàmǎ 大码 (large size; esp. of clothing or shoes) vs. dàmā大妈 (term for an older woman/Auntie) vs. dàmá大麻 (hemp/marijuana)
For fairly obvious reasons you’ll want to keep these three straight. “dàmǎ 大码” is a useful term if you’re shopping for shoes as Chinese stores don’t tend to carry many shoes in large sizes.
yǒuméiyǒu dàmǎ de xiézi?
Do you have large size shoes?
dàmā大妈 (literally: big mother) is a very colloquial and very common term for an older woman/women similar to “āyí阿姨” (Auntie). When Chinese people use this term it often brings to mind images of a boisterous older woman with a big personality. This is one of those words that does not really have an exact English translation!
zài zhōngguó, hěn duō dàmā xǐhuan guǎngchǎngwǔ.
In China, many dàmā like to square dance.
dàmá大麻 is the most common term in Chinese for marijuana. We strongly discourage you from doing any illegal drugs in China! But it’s always good to be aware of the pronunciation so you don’t seem like you’re trying to score weed next time you go shoe shopping.
Alternate Hacks: Context/verbs
If someone is talking about marijuana, it will most likely be accompanied by the verbs xī吸 or chōu抽, both meaning “to smoke”.
Ok, we know what you’re thinking. What if I want large sized shoes made of hemp?
yǒuméiyǒu dàmǎ de mábù xié?
Do you have any hemp shoes in large sizes?
Stay Tuned for Part 2!
Come back next week for the next five of our 10 Chinese Homophones You DON’T Want to Confuse! We’ve got five more funny, sassy and useful Chinese homophone pairs
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