Breakup of Homophones

Homophones are a problem of language, not “script.” The root of this problem lies in the pronunciation of the language (yǔyīn), not in the different ways of spelling the words (cíxíng). If we consider only the “different ways of spelling,” while neglecting the pronunciation of the language (the properly organized words), we will never be able to solve the Chinese homophone problem in Pinyin writing.

The modern technology of voice transmission (chuánshēng jìshù) requires that the Chinese language reduce homophones. Modern Chinese needs not only to be clearly understandable in reading but also in hearing. If modern Chinese does not accommodate to this requirement, it will become a language that is unsuitable for modern times.

How can homophones be transferred into words of different pronunciations? The methods are:

(1) Changing the Pronunciations of Synonyms

(Switching to usage of words with the same meaning but with different pronunciations.) For example, “cancer” (癌症) and “inflammation” (炎症) were both pronounced as yánzhèng in the past. Now in hospitals, “cancer” is pronounced as áizhèng and has the same meaning as when it was pronounced yánzhèng in the past, but it has acquired a different pronunciation and is, thus, differentiated from “inflammation” (yánzhèng). Another example is qīzhōng (期中), the middle of a semester, and qīzhōng (期终), the end of a semester, were very confusing. Now “the end of a semester” has been changed to “qīmò (期末).”

(2) Selecting a Different Synonym

(Switching to use words that have the same meaning but different ways to write.) For example: chūbǎn (出版), to publish, and chūbǎn (初版), the first issue (of a book/magazine/etc), were very confusing. Now “the first issue (of a book/magazine/etc.)” is written as dì-yī bǎn (第一版). These are the rules set up by the publication department in Beijing.

The late Chinese educator Lin Handa (1900-1972) once mentioned that three people, whose surnames were all Wang, came to live in the same courtyard where he lived. In the beginning, they were all called Lǎo Wáng (Old Wang) by neighbors and it was very confusing. Later, people started calling one of them Dà Wáng (Big Wang), one Wáng Lǎo (the venerable Wang) while the third one remained Lǎo Wáng. The three Wangs were differentiated very naturally. This was not something that was planned ahead of the time. It is obvious that language has the ability to differentiate homophones.

There are quite a large number of technological terms that should be differentiated. For example, “烯, 硒, and 稀” are all pronounced and from them derived 烯酸 xīsuān (olefinic acid), 硒酸 xīsuān (selenic acid), and 稀酸 xīsuān (diluted acid) as well as 烯醇 xīchún (enol), 硒醇 xīchún (selenic alcohol), and 稀醇 xīchún (diluted mellow wine). Both “uranium” and “oil” are pronounced yóu and from them derive 铀矿 yóukuàng (uranium mine), 油矿 yóukuàng (oil deposit); 铀酸 yóusuān (uranic acid) and 油酸 yóusuān (oleic acid); 铀酸盐 yóusuānyán (uranate) and 油酸盐 yóusuānyán (oleate). For the purpose of differentiating technological homophones, Chinese scientists have set up rules for reading them with different tones. For example, “ammonia 氨” is read as ān, “ammonium 铵” is read as ǎn, while “amine 胺” is read as àn; “hydrogen 氢” is read as qīng, and “cyanogen 氰” is read as qíng. This method, however, cannot solve the problem because these terms still cannot be comprehended when heard. Other examples: “national time broadcast service” uses three related but independent special terms: shòushí (授时, time service), shǒushí (守时, keep to schedule), and shōushí (收时, reception time). Although the three terms are in different tones, they still sound confusing.

Japanese has fewer syllables than Chinese, with only 349 syllables, while Chinese has 410 (if tones are not counted), so Japanese has more homophones than Chinese. The Japanese linguist Mochizuki Yasokichi (Wàngyuè Bāshíjí 望月八十吉) published “Homophones in Japanese and Chinese (Rìběnyǔ hé Zhōnguóyǔ d Tóngyīncí),” in the second volume of A Contrastive Study of the Japanese and Chinese Languages (Rìběnyǔ hé Zhōngguóyǔ d Duìzhào Yánjiū, University of Foreign Languages, Osaka, Japan [Rìběn Dàbǎn Wàiguóyǔ Dàxué], 1977). He discovered that Japanese homophones are three times more numerous than those found in Chinese. Based on the data provided by the Japanese New Dictionary of Clearly Annotated National Language (Xīn Míngjiě Guóyǔ Cídiǎn) and Chinese Pinyin Vocabulary (Hànyǔ Pīnyīn Cíhuì), if tones are not considered, the number of homophones in Japanese and in Chinese is similar. 21 Japanese Romanization does not bother with the method of using different spellings to differentiate Japanese homophones, but lets the living spoken Japanese language adjust and cope with the situation. This policy is worth considering by Chinese.

There are no data on Chinese homophones in Chinese dictionaries. People merely talk about homophones without really observing them. Like the Modern Chinese Dictionary (Xiàndài Hànyǔ Cídiǎn), many Chinese dictionaries arrange all the entries according to the traditional “phonetic order based on the head characters.” Homophones are separately listed under different “head characters,” and the result is that homophones are scattered. Chinese Pinyin Vocabulary (Hànyǔ Pīnyīn Cíhuì) adopts the “single-sort alphabetical order” and lists all homophones together. Thus, it provides raw data for comparing and studying homophones. Once the dictionaries’ users gain knowledge about the homophones by seeing and sensing their existence, they can start to figure out ways to reduce the number of homophones.22