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Similar Pronunciation, Different Meaning: Chinese Homophones
One of the reasons there are so many homophones in Chinese is because of the different tones. In this article we’ll examine ten pairs of such homophones, aiming not only to highlight their subtle pronunciation differences but also to demonstrate how they’re used in everyday contexts.
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Plum 李子 vs Chestnut 栗子
Imagine you’re in China, standing at a street vendor’s stall. You ask for plums, but you get chestnuts instead. Oops! This mix-up might happen if you don’t say 李子 (lǐ zi; plum) correctly.
However, “chestnut” in Chinese is 栗子 (lì zi). These two words both end with 子 (zi), but the first character 栗 (lì) has a completely different tone – the fourth tone. So, to say to the vendor you’d like some plums, you would say:
我要一些李子 (wǒ yào yīxiē lǐzi) – I want some plums.
And if you want to buy some chestnuts instead, the sentence is:
我要一些栗子 (wǒ yào yīxiē lìzi) – I want some chestnuts.
Quilt 被子 vs Cup 杯子
Now, you’re at home, ready for a cozy nap. You ask your Chinese roommate for a “quilt” (被子; bèi zi) because it’s chilly, but instead, you get handed a “cup” (杯子; bēi zi). Quite the mix-up, right?
So, if you want to ask for a quilt, you’d say:
可以给我一条被子吗? (kěyǐ gěi wǒ yī tiáo bèizi ma) – Can you give me a quilt?
And if you’re asking for a cup, it’s:
可以给我一个杯子吗? (kěyǐ gěi wǒ yī ge bēizi ma) – Can you give me a cup?
Dumpling 水饺 vs To Sleep 睡觉
In this scenario with your Chinese roommate, dinner plans get a bit tangled due to a pronunciation mix-up. You’re craving his delicious dumplings (水饺; shuǐ jiǎo), but what you end up saying sounds more like sleep (睡觉; shuì jiào)!
So, when you say:
我要水饺 (wǒ yào shuǐ jiǎo) – I want dumplings.
Make sure not to mix it up with:
我要睡觉 (wǒ yào shuì jiào) – I want to sleep.
Boss 老板 vs Partner 老伴
In a typical office scene in China, it’s customary to refer to your boss as “boss” rather than by their first name. The term for “boss” in Chinese is 老板 (lǎo bǎn). However, a slight mispronunciation can lead to a potentially awkward situation. Imagine greeting your boss in the hallway but accidentally saying 老伴 (lǎo bàn), which translates to “partner,” typically used to refer to a spouse!
So, when you greet your boss in the morning, make sure to say:
早!老板。 (zǎo lǎobǎn) – Morning! boss.
And avoid confusing it with:
早!老伴。 (zǎo lǎobàn) – Morning! My dear.