Shi

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Original Entry: Shi is the Chinese word meaning "poem"

Additions: The Chinese language does contain a word with a pronunciation represented by the romanization "shī". However, the same romanization can represent a large number of words. What follows is a basic (and brutally oversimplified) explanation of Chinese language, but it should serve to give readers a basic understanding of how to properly identify Chinese words and communicate them to others in an unambiguous way.

Mandarin Chinese, also known as standard Chinese or Pǔtōnghuà (普通话), has five distinct tones, four which are tonal and one which is neutral and pronounced without emphasis. [1]

There are a multitude of ways to represent Chinese pronunciation, but you will most likely encounter PinYin or Wade-Giles in English works. Wade-Giles is the older of the two systems and is slowly being phased out in favor of PinYin. Check out the United States Library of Congress website for up to date information on conversion standards: [2]. I will stick strictly to the PinYin romanization as it is the simplest and most common.

In PinYin the first four tones are represented using accent marks. The neutral fifth tone is represented by the absence of an accent mark. It is also acceptable to follow the romanized syllable with a number to represent the tone (first through fourth), no number is needed for the fifth tone. For example:

First tone: shī or shi1 Second tone: shí or shi2 Third tone: shǐ or shi3 Fourth tone: shì or shi4 Fifth tone: shi

The characters (and meanings) for each of these pronunciations is different. Therefore, writing the appropriate accent mark or number dramatically reduces ambiguity, though writing the actual character is still far superior. Here is an example of different characters which correspond to the same syllable but with different tones:

shī: 诗 poetry, verse, poem shí: 十 ten, 10 shǐ: 史 history shì: 室 room, as in a room in a house shi: as far as I know, there is no word which is pronounced this way

This means that you must be very careful about pronouncing words correctly if you wish to be understood in Chinese. For example, if you say 我想问你 (wǒ xiǎng wèn nǐ), it means that you want to ask someone a question. If you instead say 我想吻你 (wǒ xiǎng wěn nǐ, note that in this example the tone of "wen" has changed from fourth to third) it means that you want to kiss someone. Moderately embarrassing if you make a mistake.

Additionally, the same syllable with the same tone can represent multiple characters with multiple meanings! For example: "shī" can represent the character 诗 (poetry, verse or poem), 湿 (wet, damp or humid), 师 (teacher or master) and many others.

As should be abundantly clear by now, the romanization of Chinese is quite complex. Simply equating "shi" with "poem" is woefully ambiguous at best and absolutely incorrect at worst!

It should also be noted that there also exist two different character systems: Traditional and Simplified. This article uses only the simplified set. For more information about the different character sets, check out [3].

References

  1. http://www.wku.edu/~shizhen.gao/Chinese101/pinyin/tones.htm
  2. http://www.loc.gov/catdir/pinyin/
  3. http://zhongwen.com/
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