But they look the same…

In this entry, I just want to give some examples of words that were once different, but after simplification, now look the same. This makes certain words a little trickier, but for people more familiar with the language, the context really eliminates most of the confusion. I will give two examples.

First: 发
Before the simplification, there was 髮 and 發. They both became 发. The pronuciation for 髮 is fà, which means hair and 發 is pronounced fā, which has many meanings, one of which means to sent outward. In simplified, you can’t tell right away which way to pronounce it. Only given word combinations like 头发 (tóufà, hair) or 发射 (fāshè, to radiate) can you know which meaning 发 takes on.

Second: 只
This one’s a little different. The previous, both words were changed. In context to 只, it already exists as a word, but another word was simplified to it. The two words are 只 (zhǐ, only) and 隻 (zhī, a counting unit for animals). 隻 was simplified to 只. Context is the only way now to tell which 只 the writer means:只有 (zhǐyǒu, there is only…), 一只狗 (yìzhīgǒu, a dog). The pronunciation is different so there is no problem differentiating between these words when speaking. Only when it’s written without context that it creates some confusion.

Now I will explain the etymology for one of these words: 隻. (I use the tradition to be more specific.) 隻 is a measure word. This grammatical element is essential to Chinese. It exists in English, but not to the extent that is needed in Chinese. Here are examples to explain: A measure word describes the noun. It puts in into a certain category. Examples in English: school of fish, flock of geese, piece of bread. A chunk of break is different from a slice of bread is different form a loaf of bread. We’re still talking about bread, but you get a very different image don’t you? In Chinese, every noun has a measure word. Ex. wǒ yǒu yí gè dìdi. This sentence translated literally: I have one person-measure-word younger brother. Ge is the measure word for people and the generic one for objects that you don’t know the measure word for. Say you don’t know the measure word for lamps, then you can substitute it with ge. Though it’s wrong, the sentence still makes grammatical sense.

隻 is the measure word for animals. So “a dog” would be “yi zhi gou”, “a cat” would be “yi zhi mao”, and so on. Yi means one, zhi is the measure word (also referred to as the counter), and the animal name is last. So where does this word derive its meaning? Let’s first look at its seal form.


The one on the left is the standard form, the right is another version of it. What do we see on the bottom? The right hand that I started off this blog with. It’s going to keep showing up. It’s one of the most important radicals in Chinese. So we have a hand on the bottom. What’s that on top? The Chinese for it is 隹. It means a little bird. Does this look more like a bird?


What this picture means is someone grabbing hold of a bird. It means he has “a” bird. From having one, it became used as a unit for counting animals.

One thought on “But they look the same…”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *