Explaining how easy Chinese is to others pt.2

Spoken Chinese

Ok, so you’ve seen how a sound in Mandarin (and other Chinese languages) can mean many things. You have also seen how when written there is no confusion as to the meaning of each sound. However, how does this all work when you’re speaking? Surely native speakers don’t draw each syllable that is not understood and show it to the listener.

In Ancient Chinese and/or Classical Chinese monosyllabic words were no problem. There were enough sounds for the amount of words that they had in existence. However, with time and evolution the number of possible sounds (in Mandarin at least) came down to about 400. With tones this brings us to approximately 1600 distinct sounds, (English has many more than this, thus most words are easily distinguished from one another).

Let’s take a look at how Sinophones have overcome this hindrance.

The answer is simple: bisyllabism, i.e. using two syllables for one word.※ Two morphemes with either identical or similar meanings are used to create a word, whether it be a noun, verb, adverb, adjective, etc. With two syllables the chances misunderstanding a word are much lower.

例子 Examples


(thing, affair, matter)
事(thing, affair, matter)
情(emotion, situation)

There are literally hundreds of “shì”s in Mandarin (not to mention the hundreds of others that have different tones). Yet 事 is still used in its monosyllabic form. However, to distinguish it from the countless others this bisyllabic form is used and is the only word in Mandarin with the pronunciation “shì qíng”.


驚(to startle/frighten; to be startled/frightened)
訝(to be surprised)
Not only are synonyms used, but descriptive characters are also used.


視(to look at)

There are several words that are pronounced “chuāng”, however there is only one “shì chuāng”.

I just realized I had planned on writing this for people who are not (yet) learning Mandarin, but I ended up writing it toward those who are learning the language. I didn’t focus on “easy to understand” either… oops, my bad.

※There are other methods used to do this, but I am focusing on the most common. Another common method is adding a nominalizer, e.g. 子、頭、阿. While 孩 may be ambiguous if used alone, 孩子 is always understood. Same with 木/木頭 and 姨/阿姨.