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Learn Chinese Language: Polyphone & Sound-Change Character

written by: Ncwujingjing • edited by: Tricia Goss • updated: 9/11/2012

When learning the Chinese language, you will probably find polyphones and sound change characters alike and confusing. Polyphone doesn't equal sound change character, but both of them have multiple pronunciations.

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    Polyphone and Sound Change Character

    The polyphone and sound change characters are similar, which is why it is confusing, sometimes even for native speakers. The following will help you learn the differenc between a polyphone and a sound change character.

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    Polyphone is called "duō yīn zì"(多音字) in Chinese. To be a polyphone, the character should meet two requirements. First, it is a character with two or more than two pronunciations. Second, it has multiple meanings and usually each pronunciation matches one meaning accordingly.

    Look at the character "还"(huán, hái).

    When it is pronounced as “huán", it means “give back" and it is a verb.

    For example: 三天后,你必须还(huán)我钱。You have to give my money back to me in three days.

    When it pronounces as “hái", it is an adverb which means “still".

    For example: 现在已经9点钟了,他还(hái)在睡觉。It is already 9 o’clock now, but he is still sleeping.

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    Sound Change Character

    You are probably familiar with the word "一" which means "one" or "a". This word in the dictionary only has the pronunciation "yī", but you will find that Chinese people sometimes pronounce it as "yí" and "yì".

    Sound changing is for speaking fluency. Though the same character is pronounced differently sometimes, its meaning doesn't change and the changes only show in its tones. What's more, the tone of the word depends on the tone of the directly following word. For example:

    • "一本书" should be pronounced in "yì běn shū". (a book)
    • "一盆花" is pronounced in "yì pén huā". (a potted flower)
    • "一个人" is pronounced in "yí gè rén". (a person)
    • "一杯水" is pronounced in "yì bēi shuǐ". (a cup of water)
    • "一二三" is pronounced in “yī èr sān". (one, two, three)

    Generally speaking, the sound change character would have no other pronunciations except the pronunciation of itself, the one in the dictionary. It is for oral practice that the sound changes. When singly pronounced or at the end of a phrase, the character is read with the tone of itself, such as the character "一" in "一二三" (yī èr sān). "One, two, three" is for counting, not a phrase or a clause. In phrases or clauses, when the second character is the first, second or third tone, then "一" is pronounced with the fourth tone. If the second character is the fourth tone, "一" is pronounced with second tone.

    To understand better, here is another example: character "不" for you. "不" means "no" and the pronunciation is "bù". When the second character is the first tone, "不" is pronounced with the fourth tone. If the second character is the first tone, second tone or third tone,"不" is with the fourth tone. If the second character is the fourth tone, “不" is pronounced with the second tone, namely bú. Look at the following cases:

    [bù kāi xīn] [bù xíng] [bù xiǎo xīn] [bú zài]

    “绝不" is pronounced as [jué bù], because “不" is at the end of the phrase.