How similar-sounding words in ambiguous languages may lead to taboos.
English speakers can relish a good pun, and messing around with homophones (words that sound the same but have different meanings) is a staple of many a clever ad. But Chinese practices take punning to a whole new level—one that reaches deep into a culture where good fortune is persistently courted through positive words and deeds, and misfortune repelled by banishing the negative. The number four is tainted because of its homophony with the word for “death”—many Chinese people would never consider buying a house whose address contained that number. In visual designs, fish and bats figure prominently because they are sound twins of the words for “surplus” and “fortune.” Gift-giving is fraught with homophonic taboos; it is all right to give apples, because their name sounds like “peace” but not pears, whose name overlaps with “separation.” Questions about why certain objects or numbers are considered lucky or unlucky are often met with matter-of-fact statements about their sound-alikes.
But why is homophony deeply woven into Chinese traditions and symbols but not Western ones? Ambiguity and homophony are facts of life for all languages, on a scale that rarely enters the consciousness of their native speakers. In 1978 psycholinguist Bruce Britton sifted through a million-word body of English text and estimated—very conservatively—that at least 32 percent of English words have more than one meaning. Among the 100 most frequent words, he found that 93 percent have more than one meaning, some as many as 30. Linguist blogger Geoff Pullum captures this ambiguity with his question: “What do support poles, staff positions, battery terminals, army encampments, blog articles, earring stems, trading stations, and snail mail have in common with billboard advertising, accounts recording, making bail, and assigning diplomats?” It may take a few moments of pondering to realize that the word that makes strange bedfellows of all these notions is post.
English speakers are sanguine about homophony—often blithely, so that they make little attempt to clarify meanings even when the context leaves open the possibility of more than one. In one study led by Victor Ferreira, people were asked to describe objects in visual scenes that showed both a baseball bat and a flying bat—but they ambiguously referred to either of these as simply “the bat,” under some conditions as often as 63 percent of the time.
“Languages love multiple meanings. They lust after them.”
But Chinese speakers seem to have a more sensitive radar for ambiguity. Psycholinguists Michael Yip and Eiling Yee have shared with me their impressions that Chinese speakers are more likely to take pains to clarify the intended meaning of an ambiguous word, even when its meaning should be obvious from the context. For example, Yee reported that they might say the equivalent of “I have to renew my mortgage, so I have an appointment with my bank—you know, the financial institution, not a river bank.” This type of attunement to ambiguity, if it turns out to be a general characteristic of Chinese speakers, certainly meshes with the elevated role of homophony in Chinese culture.
The connections between language, mind, and culture represent an open vista, a terrain that, for the most part, still awaits exploration by scientists. But, even today, the dance between ambiguity and luck in Chinese cultural practices hints at tantalizing questions: Do different languages heighten different subjective experiences for their speakers? And does the importance of certain concepts—like luck and misfortune—to a culture leave an imprint on its associated language?
Pullum contends that languages make no attempt whatsoever to skirt ambiguity—on the contrary, he writes, “Languages love multiple meanings. They lust after them. They roll around in them like a dog in fresh grass.” Steve Piantadosi, a psycholinguist at the University of Rochester, agrees. He and his colleagues have argued that far from being a bug, ambiguity is a useful feature for languages. It allows them to create ample vocabularies by recycling some of their most common and easy-to-pronounce clumps of sound. Without ambiguity, we would have to create longer words to distinguish meanings, or become more inventive at coming up with massive collections of speech sounds—and more adept at pronouncing and distinguishing these sounds…