Another question that I am commonly asked by newcomers, especially after they have been around for awhile and have started to pick up some new words and phrases is “what does XX mean?”
If you are at all familiar with Chinese, you will understand the un-helpfulness of a question like this. The Chinese language has 50,000+ written characters, but only slightly more than 400 ways to pronounce those 50,000+ characters. So the first thing that pops into my head – that MUST pop into my head – when I hear this question is “well, which XX are you referring to?” I rarely ask that directly because I’m 99% sure the person making the inquiry doesn’t know. They are most likely just asking me about a sound or word they heard and for some reason they are curious as to the meaning.
In order to ascertain the meaning of the word in question, though, we have to know which character it is, since meaning in Chinese is carried by the way a word is written, not the way it sounds. And since there are only 400+ sounds (which can be represented using the phonetic Pinyin writing system), the word they are inquiring about could be any of a handful, dozen, or even a hundred different characters.
Take the word (sound) that is written in Pinyin as ju for example. My Wenlin Chinese software program includes 172 different characters that are pronounced ju. And to make it even more fun, many of those characters have multiple meanings.
Here is just a sampling:
And it gets better!
There are 158 characters pronounced shi.
There are 249 characters pronounced yu.
There are 107 characters pronounced xie.
There are 54 characters pronounced ni.
There is only 1 character pronounced gei. (go figure)
Pinyin is a wonderful tool for those of us whose brains are wired for alphabets to learn how to say the language. But this is a good reminder that it only goes so far (and not very far at that) in helping us understand meanings.
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