When I was living in China, newcomers, especially those who had been around for a few weeks or months and had started to pick up some new words and phrases, would often ask me, “what does ju (or some other word) mean?”
The fact that Chinese is a character-based language means that this question is unhelpful, to the point of being almost meaningless. If you are at all familiar with Chinese, you will understand the un-helpfulness of a question like this.
In my post about pinyin I mentioned that there are only 404 pinyin words (spoken), meaning that learning to speak Chinese isn’t all that difficult. I also highlighted the bad news that pinyin attaches English letters to sounds that we don’t attach them to in English, which can be quite confusing. But, I’m sorry to say, there is even worse news. There are 50,000+ written characters, and only 404 different ways to actually say them (not factoring in the tones, of course).
As a result, the first thing that would always pop into my head when I heard this question was “well, which ju are you referring to?”
I rarely asked that directly because I was 99% sure the person making the inquiry didn’t know. They were most likely just asking me about a sound or word they had heard and for some reason they were curious as to the meaning.
To ascertain the meaning of the word in question, though, we must 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 404 sounds, 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.
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.
Note: This is an edited version of a post that originally appeared on my blog Outside-In.