Flexible length of Chinese words

« previous post | next post »

This instructional video is a bit long (11:05) and is delivered in a seemingly childlike manner, but it is full of useful information.  So, if you've ever wondered why so many Chinese words have both one syllable and two-syllable versions, this is worth a watch.

The presenter doesn't explain all the historical reasons why Mandarin developed such a dual length system of one syllable and two syllable versions of the same word, but it does give one a good sense of how things work out in practice.

Selected readings

[h.t. John Rohsenow]


  1. J.M.G.N. said,

    February 9, 2023 @ 10:38 am

    I wrote this proposal in 2019 but nobody has ever replied.
    What do you think=? Thank you in advance.


  2. Jerry Packard said,

    February 9, 2023 @ 12:27 pm

    Very well done presentation. San Duanmu of U Michigan has done a lot of work on these words, termed ‘elastic words.’

  3. Taylor, Philip said,

    February 9, 2023 @ 12:46 pm

    Just one comment, specifically addressed to J.M.G.N. When you write "They have been known since Karlgren (1918)", do you mean "known in the West" or "known at all" ? In other words, did they not exist before Karlgren defined them ?

  4. Doctor Science said,

    February 9, 2023 @ 1:49 pm

    Doctor Mair:

    I've searched back & forth through this site, but can't find a post where you talk about why spoken putonghua has a comparatively small syllable inventory (& large number of homophones & puns), though you've implied that the inventory has decreased since the Han, at least.

    What factors or process has driven this? I've seen suggestions that the restricted syllable-space makes the writing system "more useful", but that often slides into ideas about the writing system shaping the development of the spoken language–which is, as you've pointed out, preposterous given how limited & difficult Chinese literacy was before the mid-20th C. But I do wonder if part of the writing system's inertia is due to how helpful it is at separating homophones.

  5. JMGN said,

    February 9, 2023 @ 2:35 pm

    I never mentioned any Karlgren tho.

    BTW, while we'r at it, what do you make of this riddle?

  6. AntC said,

    February 9, 2023 @ 5:26 pm

    Other fāngyán than Pǔtōnghuà have preserved a more diverse phonolgoy. (More tones, for example.) Does that mean they have fewer homonyms so use fewer two-syllable words?

    Does Pǔtōnghuà have more homonyms — particularly amongst everyday words — than languages in general? (Is that even a meaningful question?)

  7. Taylor, Philip said,

    February 9, 2023 @ 5:47 pm

    JMGN — ah, so you are not a co-author of "the following brief article". Sorry, from your forum name it is not really possible to know who you are, and to which articles you might have contributed. Since you kindly offered "to try and answer [any questions on the article in question", I incorrectly assumed that you were one of the co-authors.

  8. Richard Warmington said,

    February 9, 2023 @ 6:41 pm

    @JMGN: Karlgren is mentioned in the first paragraph of the brief article that you, in your Wiktionary post, asked people to read as a pre-condition to responding to the post.

  9. Doctor Science said,

    February 9, 2023 @ 10:24 pm

    Does Pǔtōnghuà have more homonyms — particularly amongst everyday words — than languages in general?

    That is certainly my impression as a very novice student. See, for instance,

  10. AntC said,

    February 9, 2023 @ 11:33 pm

    Thanks @Dr Sci, I also (I think) noticed in the video Shí.

    Now when it comes to numerals, English has two/to and four/for — but at least those homonyms are different parts of speech. To have a numeral be homophonous with so many other things looks like carelessness [Lady Bracknell].

  11. Ben said,

    February 10, 2023 @ 9:44 am

    Duanmu (2000: 151-154) lists seven reasons he doesn't abide by the homophone argument for disyllabic words. One of the strongest to me is that the increase in disyllabic words does not correspond with the reduction in Chinese phonology. The increase in disyllabic words happened in last 100 years, after the phonology had already reduced. Further, many homophones already existed in antiquity. And most telling for his analysis, there are restrictions on disyllabic words that are related to metrical considerations.

  12. Doctor Science said,

    February 10, 2023 @ 3:42 pm


    Does Duanmu say *why* there's been a reduction in Chinese phonology over the centuries?

  13. Rodger C said,

    February 16, 2023 @ 10:53 am

    Phonetic reduction is a pretty general phenomenon, innit?

RSS feed for comments on this post