Chinese Homophones

Written by Sally Guo Updated Jun. 16, 2021

There are some 1700 syllable characters in Mandarin, while the English language, in contrast, has over 8000 possible unique syllables. How is it then that a language with only 1700 syllable characters can express the same range of nuances as, say, the English language? The answer lies in the homophone or the syllable character that sounds the same but signifies very different things. This is most easily demonstrated in Pinyin (the transcription of the "phonemes" of Chinese languages into the Romanized-Latinized alphabet.

Chinese is not a true phonetic language, therefore the use of quotation marks.

Pinyin – Traditional Chinese
bā–吧 (bar, Internet café)
bā–八 (the number 8)
bā–芭 (an herb, banana)
bā–扒 (to cling to)
bā–豝 (corned beef)
bā–朳 (tree)
bā–蚆 (a kind of shell)
bā–笆 (something made of bamboo strips, such as a fence)

All of the above "bā"s sound the same, though they each have a different meaning depending on the context. Apropos this exercise, the aforementioned Chinese-American linguist, Zhao Yuanren, being a man with a sense of humor, wrote a short tale entitled The Story of Shi Devouring Lions in which he used only the syllable-character "shi​"; in spoken form, the story is, of course, utter nonsense, since it is the endless repetition of the same syllable sound.

In addition to the true homophones, there are near-homophones where only the accents, or diacritical markings, above the vowels, are different, but where the sounds are all distinctly different, though, to a non-Chinese ear, perhaps only slightly so. Some examples are the following:

Pinyin – Traditional Chinese
bǎ–把 (to grasp)
bà–爸 (father, dad... note that the homophone bà​(霸) means "tyrant" :) )
bá–跋 (to travel, to walk)
And for each of this left-hand side Pinyin forms, there can be numerous right-hand side hanzi forms, or true homophones, each with its own separate, albeit sometimes related, meaning, as in "dad" and "tyrant" immediately above.

To complicate matters more, some syllable-characters with different Pinyin representations (different diacritical markings) for, say, the same vowel "a" (ǎ, à, á, etc.) may even be pronounced the same, as in the following examples, where the phonetic component, 旁, or páng, in Pinyin ("beside", "one side", "other", "side" or "self") occurs:

Pinyin – Traditional Chinese
bǎng–榜 (scroll of/ list of names)
bàng–膀 (to flirt)
There are numerous separate meanings (separate right-hand side hanzi forms) for each of the above two Pinyin syllable-characters, not all of which contain the same phonetic element, 旁, and which therefore do not sound the same.

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