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Identifying characters without context in speech. Not possible at all?


hei ren

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Is it? I mean, is there no way to know that someone is saying 示 rather than 神, purely without giving context? If so, then what would do you make sure that someone knows exactly what word(s) you mean to say? Would you just give description(s) that would clearly show which word your talking about?

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there are almost no single-syllable words in Mandarin that can stand alone without context

context and word order are everything - which makes early listening quite hard, you can only pick out the 2-syllable words with accuracy, those are usually pretty clear, often without tones as well

I've always wondered if it was possible to speak in "crazy talk" - or would the listener automatically try to sort out contextual meaning?

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For this (and many other fascinating methods to waste ones time :mrgreen: ) I would suggest playing around with your IME for a while. Type in shi4, and see how many possibilities it gives you. For the light-hearted, start with neng.

The only time you actually have to recognize a character without character is with names, I believe. In these cases, Chinese people use a common two-syllable word that contains this character. E.g. my name is Bond, James Bond - James Brown的James, savings bond的bond. :wink:

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It is better to think of characters just as syllables and not as "words" (that is, units that can be freely combined in sentences). Even if a Mandarin syllable very often corresponds to a morpheme which can be traced back to some word in classical Chinese, isolated syllables are not comprehensible in Chinese, just as they are not in English. An English word like "inconsistent" has four syllables that can individually be traced back to meaningful elements in Latin. The meaning of the four elements might be clearer if we used a character-based script in English, but you still need the four syllables in succession for the unit to be meaningful.

Similarly, only a few Chinese words are truly monosyllabic. Most consist of two or more syllables, and they are readily understandable if you say them in isolation. There may be cases of ambiguity with one-syllable words and a few two-syllable words, but not much more than in English. What happens if you say "see" in isolation without any context? Are you thinking about the verb "see", or the noun "sea", or maybe the name of the letter "c"? How about "oral" and "aural", two words with different meanings but the same pronunciation in most varieties of English? The meaning of isolated words without any context can be ambiguous in any language.

What makes Chinese unique is that its character-based script makes it very easy to coin new words and expressions by using only a few meaningful syllables in longer expressions. This is no doubt influenced by the script, which allows the characters to hint to the user what they stand for. So, for example, 中國共產黨 is abbreviated as 中共, and 北京大學 becomes 北大. This is not very different from the way acronyms work in English. If China had decided to adopt pinyin as the standard script in the 50s, they would probably refer to the Communist Party and to Peking University as ZGD and BD instead. But the character system makes it possible to make much more abbreviations than is the case with Roman letters because characters give better hints to what is meant. In this way, many abbreviations and new words have their origin in the written language but are also understood orally once they've become comon. Say Zhong1gong4 or Bei3da4 and people will understand what you mean because these names are well known.

The only case where I think (but I'm not a native speaker, so I'm not sure about this) reading a text aloud can lead to difficulties in comprehension is if you're reading classical or very formal Chinese. Old Chinese had more sounds than modern Mandarin and so it had much more monosyllabic words. So, while a plain 時 for saying "when" may be fine in written Chinese, in spoken Chinese you're more likely to use the longer form "de shíhou" so that no ambiguity exists. This classical or abbreviated style is common in newspaper headlines, and I wonder if Chinese people reading such texts aloud ever feel the need to fill in the gaps, so to speak.

As for how to mention a specific character, you would use a word that contains it. So, to refer to the character 時 you would say 時間的時. This is not very different from saying "v for Victor" to refer to letters in English.

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inconsistent comes from 'in' + and the Latin-based "consistent'. "consistent" does not have 3 morphemes inside of it. It is only Chinese that makes each syllable have meaning. I guarantee you, if English developed in China, "con" and "sis" and "tent" would each be mapped to severeal meanings/characters :) Other Chinese dialects used to have multi-syllable morphemes too.

I know English has 1 syllable words with more than 1 meaning, but you can't really compare that to the the amount in Chinese...

But the character system makes it possible to make much more abbreviations than is the case with Roman letters because characters give better hints to what is meant.

Yet you typed up all your examples in unambigious Chinese characters. :-? If you wrote a few more with pinyin, it would be obvious that these abbreviations give you no information because almost every unique Mandarin syllable has several meanings.

The only case where I think (but I'm not a native speaker, so I'm not sure about this) reading a text aloud can lead to difficulties in comprehension is if you're reading classical or very formal Chinese. Old Chinese had more sounds than modern Mandarin and so it had much more monosyllabic words.

I was always under the impression that Classical Chinese was never a spoken language... ?? It's only in this century that the written characters have come into line with vernacular speech.

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"consistent" does not have 3 morphemes inside of it.

If you go to the Latin word "consistens", you can see a "con" prefix, a verbal root and a suffix indicating a present participle.

Yet you typed up all your examples in unambigious Chinese characters

That's exactly what I meant, that it is the characters that give rise to these abbreviations. If Chinese had originally been written with the Latin alphabet, I don't think anyone would have shortened "Zhongguo Gongchan Dang" to "Zhonggong".

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