Sunday, June 21, 2015

When a character says: To be or To do

If you're anything beyond a beginner in studying Mandarin, you would have come across situations when the same word can be used both as a noun and a verb.

There are untold examples of this, the one that comes to mind right now being 选择 (xuǎnzé) which can either mean 'to choose' or 'a choice'. This diversity makes Chinese both easier and more difficult.

In this short post, I wanted to point out another interesting aspect of Chinese - that is when the same character can either be a noun or a verb, but there is a tone change that goes along with the change in meaning.

This might be something you already are very clear on, but for those who find this new (or a timely reminder) or for those who kinda half noticed half didn't notice, then enjoy!
  • 数 (to count = shǔ) (a number = shù)
This is the first character where I realised that the matching name & verb had to involve a tone change to reflect the swap between meanings.
  • 扫 (to sweep = sǎo) (a broom = sào)
This is another example where the verb is third tone, and the noun is fourth tone. Of course Chinese doesn't alway operate in single-hanzi words - so you're probably more likely to see a double word like 扫帚 (sàozhou) to mean broom, but the fourth tone still remains.
  • 钉 (to nail = dìng) (a nail = dīng) 
OK, so it's not always that the third tone is the verb, but again note it's the same character, but with different tones giving different meanings. And even messier, the verb meaning can also be a first tone when paired with another character - for example 钉牢(dīngláo) means 'to nail' yet uses the first tone.

Nothing earth-shattering, but it is probably useful enough for beginners that it's worth pointing out.

Can you think of other examples without using a dictionary? Please leave comments below to let others know ...