Homophones are words that sounds exactly alike but mean two different things. English has homophones – like the classic their-there-they’re – but it’s rare to have more than three words in English with the same pronunciation. In Mandarin there are a LOT more. Mandarin is a tonal language, so the inflection (pitch) of each syllable is part of the sound – and changing the inflection/pitch means saying a totally different word. (English uses inflection, too – such as to change a statement to a question with a rising tone at the end of the sentence; I’ve talked a little about other similar uses of tone in English before.) So a homophone in Mandarin has to have the same tone as well. This means extra confusion, especially for foreigners!
Today I’m going to introduce you to words pronounced “shi” – a great example of the wonderful confusion that is homophones in Mandarin. The language pack on my computer has TWO HUNDRED character options for the sound “shi” (including all the tones). Now, some of those are unusual alternate pronunciations and a lot of them are very, very uncommon. Still, there are at least 30 I use – many of them on a daily basis when I lived in China. They are split up between different tones, but still that’s a whole lot of shi.
1. 匙 is a word meaning “spoon” and part of the compound word for “key”. I’m introducing it first because I don’t know what tone it is – I only know to pronounce it qing sheng (a de-emphasised or neutral “non-tone”). The rest of the shi are grouped by tone – true homophones. Feel free to skip the details of all this shi if it doesn’t interest you, but don’t miss one of my favourite phrases right at the bottom!
First up, first tone! There are six shī I used regularly:
2. 诗 (shī) – poetry
3. 湿 (shī) – wet, and related compounds including 湿度 (humidity).
4. 施 (shī) – this one has a LOT of compound word uses, but the one I used most was 施工 (construction).
5. 失 (shī) – lots of compounds meaning lose, miss, or fail – but also 失业 (unemployment), 失望 (disappointed) and 消失 (disappear).
6. 师 (shī) – meaning teacher or master, it is used to construct titles for lots of professions, including 工程师 (engineer), 律师 (lawyer), and 牧师 (priest/pastor).
7. 狮 (shī) – similar in appearance but very different in meaning, this shī means “lion”.
All of these six words have identical pronunciation. The only way to know which shī a person means is by context. If, like me, you are not a native speaker, and they happen to be using one of the dozen other (unusual) words with the same pronunciation that you don’t happen to know – good luck!
There are also six second tone shí I used regularly, as individual words but also as part of many compound words:
8. 十 (shí) – the number 10
9. 食 (shí) – food, and a LOT of related compounds
10. 识 (shí) – knowledge, lots of related compounds, plus a very common word: 认识 (recognise/know)
11. 实 (shí) – real, and compounds like 实在 (really), 实习 (practise), and 诚实 (honest).
12. 石 (shí) – stone, lots of compounds (like the names of gems/stones), plus 石油 (petroleum), and 石榴 (pomegranate).
13. 时 (shí) – time, and lots of frequently used compounds including 时尚 (fashion), 临时 (temporary), 时差 (time difference), 时代 (era), 准时 (punctual) and many more.
See how everyday and useful these words are? And they all sound the same!!
There are only three third tone shǐ I used regularly, but there are others a native speaker would be familiar with.
14. 史 (shǐ) – history (历史)
15. 始 (shǐ) – beginning, used in compounds like 开始 (begin) and 原始 (original).
16. 使 (shǐ) – make, but also in compounds like 使用 (use), 天使 (angel), 即使 (even if), 大使 and 大使馆 (ambassador/embassy).
Finally, we come to fourth tone, which I left for last not just because it comes last numerically, but because there are just so, so many! There are FOURTEEN words with the identical pronunciation of shì that I use. (I stopped counting at more than 20 additional characters with identical pronunciation which I wasn’t familiar with.) Most of these words are very common and used in a lot of other very common compound words. And they ALL SOUND THE SAME!!! Okay, here we go – fourteen shì:
17. 室 (shì) – room, which like English makes lots of compounds (bedroom, bathroom etc.) but also 办公室 (office)
18. 世 (shì) – world, with lots of similar compounds and more, such as 世纪 (century) and 去世 (pass away/die).
19. 逝 (shì) – a less common (at least to me) word meaning “die”
20. 示 (shì) – show (显示), plus 表示 (represent), 展示 (gallery), 指示 (instruction), 演示 (demonstrate) and MANY more.
21. 视 (shì) – I used this in 电视 (television), but it’s apparently part of many other interesting compounds as well.
22. 适 (shì) – suitable, and part of lots of common compounds. 适合 and 合适 are two compounds made by the same two characters reversed. Both mean “suitable”, but are used differently; 适合 is more like “that colour suits you”.
Here are three that not only sound identical, they also look similar:
23. 市 (shì) – city. Simple! Only it also means market (市场). And both are part of LOTS of related compounds.
24. 柿 (shì) – persimmon. Simple! Except it’s also in the word for tomato (西红柿) – literally “foreign red persimmon”.
25. 饰 (shì) – decoration, but also used in 饰品 (accessories), 服饰 (apparel), 首饰 (jewellery) and 饰演 (a play).
Here are another two that look similar:
26. 试 (shì) – I use this shì in compounds about trying and tests. Common compounds include: 考试 (exam), 试验 (test), 面试 (interview), 试用 (try out/use), 试一试 (try, including trying on clothes), 尝试 (taste/try).
27. 式 (shì) – apparently meaning “formula”, I know it from compounds like 方式 (style/manner), 样式 (style/pattern), 正式 (official), 过去式 (past tense), 格式 (format), and 模式 (method).
Think the compounds are getting out of hand? Try these two everyday words:
28. 士 (shì) – technically “scholar”, I used it as part of a dozen compounds such as 巴士 (bus), 女士 (Mrs/Ms), 护士 (nurse), 士兵/战士 (soldier), 瑞士 (Switzerland), 学士, 硕士 and 博士 (bachelor’s/master’s/PhD degrees).
29. 是 (shì) – this is the verb “to be” (translated is/am/are depending on context) and is also used in roughly a billion combinations, like 但是 (but), 还是 (still/also/yet), 只是 (only), 总是 (always), 就是 (that is/exactly), 要是 (if), 是否 (if/whether), 于是 (then), 而不是 (instead)… lots and lots of everyday uses.
Finally we have have arrived at the 30th shi – and 14th shì – left for last as it is part of one of my all time favourite phrases in Mandarin:
30. 事 (shì) – matter/business. Common compounds include 同事 (workmate), 故事 (story), 事件 (event/incident), 事实 (actual) and 董事 (director). But that’s not why it’s awesome. 事 is awesome because of the phrase “我有事”. Literally “I have stuff,” 我有事 is an all-purpose explanation of busyness that is utterly vague and yet completely acceptable at the same time.
Don’t have time to stop and chat? 我有事
Have to explain why you’ve arrived late? 我有事
Have to explain why you’re leaving early? 我有事
Can’t be bothered to explain the errands you’re busy with? 我有事
Someone asks if you can meet up and you don’t want to? 我有事
I’d love to tell you more, but 我有事. Bye!