For Chinese learners, one major difficulty you may face during your Chinese studies is the pronunciation of the four tones. These include the 1st tone which is level, the 2nd tone which rises, the 3rd tone which falls then rises, and the 4th tone which falls sharply. Getting the right tone is quite important since Chinese phrases may take on embarrassing meanings if their tones are mispronounced! Let’s have a closer look at what can happen when the wrong tone is used!
“问(wèn) ask” vs. “吻(wěn) kiss”
“问(wèn)” and “吻(wěn)” are both verbs that are followed by objects in sentences. However, if their tones are mispronounced, they may produce greatly different meanings. Accidentally saying the word “吻(wěn) kiss” when you meant to say something completely different, will probably lead to a humiliating situation , for example:
Wǒ kěyǐ wèn nǐ ma?
我 可以 问 你 吗？
Can I ask you?
Wǒ kěyǐ wěn nǐ ma?
我 可以 吻 你 吗？
Can I kiss you?
Just imagine if someone suddenly asks you whether he or she can give you a kiss. Awkward!
“水饺(shuǐjiǎo) dumplings” vs. “睡觉(shuìjiào) sleeping”
The 3rd tone in Chinese, which is the falling-rising tone, may be the most difficult one for beginners. Here, the two characters in “水饺(shuǐjiǎo)” are both falling-rising tones, a combination that is tricky and one that many beginners might easily mispronounce as “shuìjiào” (睡觉), which consists of two falling tones. One is a noun and the other a verb, with their meanings being totally different . Take the following as an example:
Shuǐjiǎo duōshǎo qián yìwǎn?
水饺 多少 钱 一碗？
How much is one bowl of dumplings?
Shuìjiào duōshǎo qián yìwǎn?
睡觉 多少 钱 一晚？
How much is one night’s stay?
In the sentences above, “碗” and “晚” have the same pronunciation. Maybe you just want to know the price of dumplings, but the waiter at a restaurant will probably feel a bit confused if you ask with the wrong tone.
“收拾 (shōushi): pick up/clear away” vs. “收尸(shōushī): bury the dead”
These two phrases have quite similar pronunciations, which would easily confuse beginners. The subtle distinction of these two only lies in the tones of “拾(shi)” with a light, neutral tone and “尸(shī)” with a level tone. Please be careful and clear when speaking these two words, otherwise, you may find yourself in an embarrassing situation similar to the following example:
Wǒ lái shōushi.
我 来 收拾。
I will do the cleaning.
Wǒ lái shōushī.
我 来 收尸。
Let me bury the dead.
Offering to clean up is one thing, but the person you are speaking to might get a little shock if you accidentally say “我来收尸(wǒ lái shōushī)”!
“西服(xīfú) suit” vs. “媳妇(xífu) wife”
These two common words are also easily mispronounced. Though making mistakes and getting a little embarrassed is all part of the learning process, it is always best to try and avoid making mistakes that will have negative consequences, like in the following example:
Nǐde xīfú bǐ wǒde hǎokàn.
你的 西服比 我的 好看。
Your suit looks nicer than mine.
Nǐde xífu bǐ wǒde hǎokàn.
你的 媳妇比 我的 好看。
Your wife looks nicer than mine.
The first sentence can be used to simply show that you like the other person’s attire, but the second sentence is a different story. It’s not only a little awkward to say that someone else’s wife is more beautiful than yours, but you’ll also be in big trouble if your wife is listening!
Do you know any other Chinese words with similar tones but completely different meanings? Or have you ever mispronounced the tones, resulting in embarrassment? If so, we would love to hear about it!
1. What are the correct pronunciations of “水饺” and “收拾”?
A. shuǐjiǎo / shōushi
B. shuǐjiǎo / shōushī
C. shuìjiào / shōushi
2. What does it mean if someone asks “Wǒ kěyǐ wèn nǐ ma?”
A. Can I help you?
B. Can I kiss you?
C. Can I ask you?
3. If you want to tell someone that his suit is really nice, you should say ____.
A. 你的西服真好看(Nǐde xīfú zhēn hǎokàn).
B. 你的媳妇真好看(Nǐde xífu zhēn hǎokàn).
C. 你的戏服真好看(Nǐde xìfú zhēn hǎokàn).