One of the frustrating things about learning Chinese for a foreigner is the number of homophones (or homonyms, if you prefer) -- words that sound either exactly the same or nearly the same. In English we have plenty of homonyms. I'm sure English learners struggle with "two," "too" and "to," but it's nothing compared with Chinese.
The number of homonyms make it easy to misunderstand Chinese when hearing a word or phrase taken out of context.
I was reminded of this when going through my Chinese flashcards the other day. On my phone, I often use a flashcard program called Memrise to help me remember vocabulary. I have it set up to sometimes play the audio for a word, then ask me to provide the definition. When you don't know the context of how a word is being used (like, say, in a flash card program), sometimes it's hard to guess its meaning. A simple word like shī could mean "teacher" (师), "wet" 湿 "poem" 诗, "lion" 狮 or "corpse" 尸. And if you aren't careful to listen for the intonation of each word, it might be impossible. Change tones and you could wind up with "time" "ten" "true" "stone" "food" or "to know." And that's just with the second tone - there are more than. There's even a famous Chinese poem concocted to show the limitations of pinyin (courtesy of wikipedia) that only uses the sound "shi":
Shī Shì shí shī shǐ
Shíshì shīshì Shī Shì, shì shī, shì shí shí shī.
Shì shíshí shì shì shì shī.
Shí shí, shì shí shī shì shì.Shì shí, shì Shī Shì shì shì.Shì shì shì shí shī, shì shǐ shì, shǐ shì shí shī shìshì.Shì shí shì shí shī shī, shì shíshì.Shíshì shī, Shì shǐ shì shì shíshì.Shíshì shì, Shì shǐ shì shí shì shí shī.Shí shí, shǐ shí shì shí shī shī, shí shí shí shī shī.Shì shì shì shì.
In characters, it looks like this:
Translated, it means: "Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den"In a stone den was a poet called Shi, who was a lion addict, and had resolved to eat ten lions.He often went to the market to look for lions.At ten o'clock, ten lions had just arrived at the market.At that time, Shi had just arrived at the market.He saw those ten lions, and using his trusty arrows, caused the ten lions to die.He brought the corpses of the ten lions to the stone den.The stone den was damp. He asked his servants to wipe it.After the stone den was wiped, he tried to eat those ten lions.When he ate, he realized that these ten lions were in fact ten stone lion corpses.Try to explain this matter.
Even compound words made up of two or more characters can sometimes be difficult to guess without context. When the audio for shí jiè appeared in my context, I had to think carefully. After all, there were four different words I'd learned with similar pronunciation. With this exact pronunciation, it can mean "season" (时节) or "the 10 commandments" (十诫). With different intonation, " shì jiè" can mean "the world" (世界 shì jiè) or "field of vision (视界). And shījié (失节) means disloyal, whereas shǐjié ( 失节) is a diplomatic envoy. My dictionary lists at least 13 different meanings for "shi jie."
Often this is one of my biggest difficulties when conversing with a Chinese friends. I might think I understood what somebody was talking about, but then find myself suddenly confused. I'd look up a word that I thought I understood and discover that it has a homonym that has a completely different meaning, which I was unsure of. It's one of the reasons one of our teachers, when we came to China assured us that "the first ten years (of studying Chinese) are the hardest."
Chinese people often ask me why I don't listen to more Chinese radio or watch more Chinese television (I really should, but my listening level is closer to Juliana's than that of an adult, so her cartoons are somewhat suitable for me). The puns are one reason. It's just harder to catch those things when someone's speaking fast and I can't interrupt them to ask a question to clarify meaning. Hoping that we'd have enough Chinese to understand a Chinese cross-talk program (a popular category of skit) after two years of study is clearly a stretch. Chinese humor is all about puns and wordplay. And more and more, the internet is filled with it.
Last semester, my tutor pointed me to an assortment of relatively obsolete characters, which are gaining new life on the internet. One example is the character 囧, pronounced jiong. On the internet, it's basically transformed into an emoticon to express embarrassment. Look at it -- it's a bit . But even more, people have been using words that sound the same as a word that has been put on a blacklist by the government, trying to convey an entirely different meaning.
This article gives some perspective:
According to Moser, the Internet has become a place for people to play with the Chinese language. Puns and wordplay have a long history in Chinese culture. Chinese is the perfect language for punning because nearly every Chinese word has multiple homophones. Homophones are two words that sound similar but have different meanings like hare that rabbit-like creature and the hair on your head. In Chinese there are endless homophones.
“Because there are so many homophones there’s sort of a fetish about them,” says Moser. “As far as the culture goes back you have cases of homophone usage and homophone humor.” Many times forbidden or taboo words in Chinese are taboo precisely because they sound like another word.
A good example of this is the number four, which in Chinese sounds like the word for death and the number eight, which sounds like the word for prosperity. Moser has a Chinese aunt who used to work for the phone company and she could make money selling phone numbers. People would beg her for a phone number with a lot of eights. “People would actually give her gifts or bribes for an auspicious phone number,” says Moser.
Today, wordplay online has less to do with getting auspicious numbers and more to do with getting around censorship. Moser cites an example of a recent phrase he saw online mentioning the Tiananmen Square incident – only the netizen didn’t use the words “Tiananmen Square” or even 6/4, which refers to the date the incident took place. Tiananmen Square and 6/4 are both censored online. Instead the netizen referred to the “eight times eight incident.” Moser was confused when he first saw the reference. “And then I figured out, eight times eight is 64,” says Moser.
The Internet is ripe with clever examples of how people evade the censors. However, censorship is just one reason netizens play with words online. Another is the very technology that enables people today to input Chinese characters onto their cell phones and computers.
Jack Wang explains how he types Chinese characters with his phone. He uses an English keyboard and uses the pinyin system. Pinyin is the method for converting Chinese characters into our alphabet. For example, the Chinese word for “today” is 今天, which is rendered into pinyin as “jintian.”
Wang types the English letters “jintian” on his phone. As he types the first three letters, “jin” a list of Chinese characters pops up on the screen. Each different character sounds just like the word for today, “jin” but means something completely different. Wang points to each possible character and explains its different meaning: gold, clothes, only, and finally 今, the character for “today.”
Everyday, people are typing in a word like “today” and seeing all of the potential homophones for that word. This says David Moser has fueled wordplay like never before.
“I think that’s given rise to a lot more puns then would normally have been uttered in the earlier days when you had to just pull everything out of your head,” says Moser.
People have gotten even more creative playing with this input system to intentionally create new Chinese slang, translating English phrases into pinyin and then into Chinese characters. The meaning of these new words can seem random but they’re not. For example the Chinese character for glass, 玻璃, pronounced “boli” has come to mean “gay man.” Turns out, the slang term actually comes from an English phrase, “boy love.” But netizens have abbreviated the phrase into the English letters “B L” and then they looked for a similar abbreviation in Chinese, typing “B-L” into their computers and out popped the character for glass. “Suddenly the word glass was being used for male homosexuals,” says Moser.