The perils of punning

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A readworthy article by Julie Sedivy: "Is the Chinese Language a Superstition Machine?  How similar-sounding words in ambiguous languages may lead to taboos", Nautilus (1/5/17).


  1. Bruce said,

    January 5, 2017 @ 9:29 pm

    I was half-expecting a reference to William Empson's classic Seven Types of Ambiguity, which, btw, drew in part on the author's experiences in China.

  2. B.Ma said,

    January 6, 2017 @ 6:11 am

    A good article. My only gripe is that the headline gives the impression that the author thinks there is only one Chinese language, but the article itself clearly indicates otherwise. Perhaps the original title was edited by an editor.

  3. Rose Eneri said,

    January 6, 2017 @ 10:08 am

    My interpretation of the Chinese people's attention to morpheme ambiguity is that it is fueled by superstition. I would attribute the idea that a mere utterance can cause events/conditions (death/happiness) to magical thinking, which in Western societies is replaced by religion and prayer.

  4. mollymooly said,

    January 6, 2017 @ 10:43 am

    To what extent are words with the same phonemes but different tones considered homophonous in Chinese?

  5. Anne Henochowicz said,

    January 6, 2017 @ 3:52 pm

    Excellent read, but I'm a bit confused by Sedivy's assertion that "each syllable [of any Chinese language] has to be assigned its correct meaning in order for a Chinese listener to grasp the intended meaning of the compound." Aren't there disyllabic morphemes at least in Mandarin, like húdié 蝴蝶 and pútao 葡萄?

    Also, are tones not considered an integral part of the syllable? Aren't sì and sǐ not-quite-homophones?

  6. Dave Cragin said,

    January 9, 2017 @ 10:02 pm

    In my Western mind, words with the same pinyin are homophones, despite differences in tone. However, for my Chinese friends, like you note, the tone is almost inseparable from the phonetics. For me, learning a new word involves both learning the phonetics and tone. And when I’m learning a new word, most of my errors involve tones – sometimes with fun results.

    In 2015 at a dinner with friends in Beijing, I wanted to tell them that “In college, my son wants to study chemistry as his major.” After I said this, they started speaking rapidly across the table and I couldn’t understand what they were saying.

    Finally, one said to me very diplomatically in English: “We didn’t know that skiing could be a major.” I don’t say chemistry much and I had my tones wrong (chemistry = 化学 hua4xue2, skiing = 滑雪 hua2xue3).

    Despite that all my friends have technical training (including a PhD Chem E from Columbia), none imagined that I got my tones wrong. They were just debating “how could skiing be a major in college?” (one of my favorite mistakes!)

    When I got back to the US, I mentioned this mistake to a Taiwanese friend and he said “I’ve never thought of that” (i.e., the phonetic similarity between these 2 words).

    A native Chinese speaker may be able to offer more insight/perspective on this.

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