Let’s face it. Some aspects of speaking an entirely new language can often be confusing. But Chinese language takes the meaning of “confusing” to a whole new level of challenge, especially as far as it’s homophones are concerned. Pinyin is used to distinguish among the various tones in the Chinese language, and that is very helpful for beginner learners. But when similarly sounding words are used, even the most native speakers of Chinese can get stuck in a rut with the pronunciation.
Now, let’s make light of this situation, and go into details of these homophones that seem to be causing all the controversy. Don’t get discouraged, because these mispronunciations happen even to the best of us! There are a handful of homophones that Chinese learners mispronounce because of their similar sound, and here we will help you distinguish between them.
The four most popular homophones that Chinese learners mispronounce are:
眼睛 (Yǎnjīng) Eyes
眼镜 (Yǎnjìng) Glasses
In the English context, it’s understandable how the words “eyes” and “glasses” are loose, due to common connotations. However, the words “eyes” and “glasses” in the Chinese language, are common sources of confusion for learners.
Someone who is inexperienced with Pinyin might pronounce “(yǎnjīng)” and “(yǎnjìng)” similarly, without any regard for the tone marks above the letters. “眼睛 (Yǎnjīng)” which means “eyes” is not the same as “眼镜 (yǎnjìng)” which means “glasses”, solely because of the tonal difference between the words. As you can see, this small but important difference can change the entire meaning of a phrase.
Tā yǒu yìshuāng hěn hǎokàn de yǎnjīng.
She has a pair of beautiful eyes.
Tā de yǎnjìng zhēn hǎokàn.
Her glasses look great.
Wǒ yào qù mǎi yífù yǎnjìng.
I’m going to buy a pair of glasses.
Never use the measure word “副 (fù) a pair of” to modify “眼睛 (yǎnjīng) eyes.”
眼镜 (yǎnjìng) Spectacles/Glasses (Beginner)
大妈 (Dàmā) Dama
大码 (Dà mǎ) Large Size
The phrases “大妈 (dàmā)” and “大码 (dà mǎ)”, are commonly mispronounced in conversations, and the fact that the “妈 (mā)”, which uses the first tone of Pinyin and means “mother”, and “码 (mǎ)”, which uses the the third tone of Pinyin and means “size”. It’s worth mentioning that “大妈 (dàmā)” or “dama” is a noun in Chinese, while “大码 (dà mǎ)”, “large size”, is often used as an adjective that describes a noun or object.
“Chinese dama” which in Mandarin is ”中国大妈 (zhōngguó dàmā)”, literally means “Chinese aunties”, and refers to a group of middle-aged Chinese women.
Guǎngchǎng shàng yǒu hěn duō tiàowǔ de dàmā.
There are many dancing grannies in the square.
You’re Never Too Old to “广场舞 (Guǎngchǎngwǔ) Square Dancing!”
Zhè jiàn qúnzi yǒu dà mǎ de ma?
Does this dress have a large one?
好苦 (Hǎo kǔ) Bitter
好酷 (Hǎo kù) Cool
While “好苦 (hǎo kǔ)”, which means “bitter” in Mandarin, and “好酷 (hǎo kù)”, which means “cool” in Mandarin sound similar, in reality they couldn’t be any more different in actual meaning! Both phrases use the same, exact spoken pronunciation and written character for “好 (hǎo)”. But their differences appear when we look at the second word in each phrase. “苦 (Kǔ)”, with the third tone means “bitter”, and is often used to express negative concepts; while “酷 (kù)”, on the other hand, with the fourth tone means “cool”, and is used to express positive and complementary concepts.
Wǒ bù xǐhuān chī kǔguā, tā tài kǔ le .
I don’t like having bitter melon. It’s too bitter.
“太苦了 (Tài kǔ le)” is equal to “好苦 (hǎo kǔ).”
Nàgè nánhái hǎo kù ā!
That boy is so cool!
网吧 (Wǎngbā) Internet cafe
王八 (Wángba) Tortoise
Mispronounce “网吧 (wǎngbā)” and “王八 (wángba)”, and you can literally find yourself in trouble. “网吧 (Wǎngbā)” means “internet cafe”; while “王八 (wángba)” means “tortoise”, but it could be a slang in Chinese, often used to express bastard (a dirty word). Hence, the reason why mispronouncing these two words may lead to unnecessary trouble if used incorrectly.
Hěn duō niánqīngrén xǐhuān qù wǎngbā dǎ yóuxì.
Many young people like to go to Internet cafes to play games.
Wǒ de yéye yǒu yì zhī wángba.
My grandpa has a big turtle at home.
Dà jiā dōu zhī dào tā shì gè wángba.
He is a well-known cuckold.
This example is from a TV series. “王八 (wángba)” under this condition is a dirty word, being careful to use it.
Speaking in Chinese becomes a lot more interesting when we look further into the use of homophones, and how they can be confusing in daily conversation. If you are a beginner learner, and you’re having a hard time differentiating between the aforementioned popular homophones, you can make light of them by using satire, to poke fun at your mispronunciations, because after all, it even happens to the best Chinese language speakers among us!
1. Please choose the best option to complete the sentence.
Tā nà shuāng zōngsè de ▁▁ hěn mírén.
她那双棕色的 ▁▁ 很迷人。
A. 眼睛 (Yǎnjīng)
B. 眼镜 (Yǎnjìng)
C. 眼神 (Yǎnshén)