Someone was asking about which Chinese characters have more than one pronunciation the other day. The sad fact is that many, if not most, have multiple pronunciations. The happy side of the same coin is that most of the multiple pronunciations are rare dictionary or textual finds that your average 조조
doesn't have to worry about.
There are basically three classifications of multiple sound infused Chinese graphs, the Good (Enough), the Bad and the Sure They're Ugly But Who Cares:
- The Good (Enough)
The situation with these words is not ideal, but there aren't that many of the common ones that one is likely to encounter, so you can just memorize the exceptions, just like students do with "i before e except after c and except when said 'ay' as in 'neighbor' and 'weigh.'"
For instance, there is the graph 말씀 설 說 "to explain." It has a secondary and much less common pronunciation 세. But in your standard Korean dictionary, it's only pronounced 세 in the following words: 강유호세, 세객, 세복, 유세 (1), 유세 (2), 치세, 유세객, 유세대, 유세문, and 유세장, more than half of which are variations on the theme of 유세, going around convincing people (i.e. electoral stumping).
There's also the graph 北, pronounced "북" when it means "north," and "배" in the more uncommon instances where it means "defeat." Memorize the word 패배 and you're pretty well covered.
To kill 죽일 살 殺 is also pronounced "쇄" when it is used to mean "decrease," "greatly" or "quickly," as in the words 쇄도, 상쇄, 살점제. 省 is "성" when it's a province in China, but it's "생" when it means to reduce or omit. 率 is usually seen as "rate, ratio" and is read "률," but it's also pronounced "솔" in words like 솔래,솔거 (1), 설거(2), 솔무, 식솔, 가솔, and a host of others.
So one memorizes a handful of words in each case and that's the end of the story. You couldn't ask for something more upfront.
- The Bad
나무 목 木 is one of the first characters anybody learns, and one of those that is always trotted out to show how pictographic Chinese writing is. 'Cause it looks just like a tree! Plus, you put two of them together and suddenly you have a grove. Three makes a real forest! And, heck, the pronunciation of this graph is so simple that Naver's 옥편, or any other you'd care to use up to and including the monstrous 漢語大字典, only gives one pronunciation: "목." Ya got yer 목요일, yer 목성 and yer 목재. All pronounced "목." As Naver kindly indicates, we should never ever, even in the ugliest cases outlined below, expect anything but "목." So now the humble Sanchon Hunjang asks you, dear reader, how would you pronounce the name of this fruit: 木瓜?
"목과"? *Zonk* Thank you for playing, you will receive one of those neither-붓-nor-pen 붓펜 as your consolation prize.
Or let's assume you're reading a newspaper from the '70's, when they still used 한자 in the news text, how would you go about reading the following:
智異山을 오르려면 六月은 너무 이르고 十月은 너무 늦다. 七·八月이 適合하다.
You could search your character dictionary of choice all day and you might find 다를 이 異 is read as "리" in the specific case of 지리산, but you won't find 여섯 륙 六 is read as "유" in front of "월" nor that 열 십 十 is read "십," except when it's read "시" in 十月, 十方淨土(시방정토) or 十王(시왕). And now that it's clear that 6월 is not 육월 but 유월, how ya gonna proceed with reading this common saying:
女子가 恨을 품으면 五·六月에도 서리가 내린다
So, lessee, now we've got 륙 => 육 by the standard sound change rules governing those snakey ㄹs and sometimes it sounds like 뉵 by the same standard rules (eg. 十六, which is no different than 합리 => /함니/) but when it means June, suddenly it's 유. Except when preceeded by "오" in the meaning of May. Then it suddenly becomes "뉴." ㅡ.ㅡ;;;;;;;;
Sneaky, sneaky... Some other tricky beasts that you weren't warned about include 困難(곤란) ☞ 論難(논란), 討論(토론) ☞ 議論(의논), 八日(팔일) ☞ 初八日(초파일), ...
- The Sure They're Ugly, But Who Cares
"Who Cares" because these critters don't matter to the learner as long as we posit a learner of 한자 who is focused on modern Korean. The Who Cares includes two subclasses: (i) I don't care because it only applies to the Chinese language, and (ii) I don't care because it only applies to people digging through musty old tomes.
- Only applies to Chinese Chinese
Languages evolve. They grow, transform and transmogrify. It's a fact of human life. So it's not too surprising that the word "record" could come to have a noun meaning and a verb meaning. And those two are pronounced differently for distinction. But the simple fact is that Korean learners are spared a lot of this soundchangeality because Korean borrowed the sounds of Tang Chinese without the tones (with the exception of the "entering tone" which is differentiated by consonants anyway). 'Cause those old Koreans didn't get the tone thing any more than your average Westerner does. It's just fun to say "Mandarin has 4 or 5 tones and Cantonese has 6 or 7, so Mandarin is just perversely difficult while Cantonese is an abomination to acquire second-language credits in. Best stick with ASL." So you got this word meaning "good" that looks like 好. It's pronounced 호 or [we'll just go modern Mandarin here] hǎo (3rd tone). Well that's pretty 好, no? People start using it and before you know it, someone's felt a need for a word that means "to regard as good," which is to say "like." Kinda like the 예뻐해주다 effect. Or 좋다 vs. 좋아하다. 그래 好야, 이뻐해줄께. And to tell these apart, the latter one gets pronounced hào (4th tone). The thing is, in Korean, they're both 호. Same goes for 中, 上 and oodles of others that have Chinese pronunciation differentiated in tone alone and thus not reflected in Korean. Are they different? Sure. But it doesn't matter to the hypothetical "me" that we have defined as our reference human.
- Only applies to moldy thousand year old texts
The opening line of Confucius' Analects reads:
"子 The Master 曰 said: '學 to study 而 and 時 from time to time 習 put into practice 之 it [i.e. the thing studied], 不 is [this] not 亦 also 說 [?????] 乎 hmm?'"
As for the italicized 說, in modern texts would be "to explain 설 shuō." But the fact is that characters were written long before significs were added, and the 兌 was there first. Then people started adding significs to differentiate which of the possible reading were meant. So we get 說, 悅, 脫, 挩, etc. In this case, the actual word one of his disciples is quoting Confucius as having said is now written 悅, but somebody somewhere started writing 說 to mean 兌(悅) and nobody corrected it out of reverence for the text. It's really not so different from the wild spellings that makes Chaucer so much fun to read. But, even though in this case the word is written 說, you'd be corrected pretty quickly if you tried to show off your 한자 knowledge and made the mistake of pronouncing it as "설." Because here it's pronounced 열 (as in 悅) and you'd suddenly have revealed you didn't know as much as you were pretending to. So we now have a new 옥편 pronunciation for 說: "열." But if you're not studying the Analects, it makes no difference to you because usage has been standardized in modern times, just like spelling, so now if you want "explanation" you write 說 and if you want "joy" you write 悅. And what could be more 悅 than a systematic approach to the use of Chinese graphs?
Here's a bit of trivia for you: "When is our aquatic friend the 용 龍 not a 龍?" Answer: when it's used with the pronunciation "방 (尨)" to mean "vari-colored."
Hey, look, there's one of those 방룡 now~ ^^
There are grundles of other similar substitutions to be found in the oceans of text written in Classical Chinese that have resulted in numerous alternative pronunciations captured in 옥편. In addition to the graphs actually used in extant texts, there's also a long list of characters that are glossed as having an obscure pronunciation in dictionaries, but not actually used as far as anyone today can tell.
Like that famous character-with-the-most-strokes-in-the-15-volume-Morohashi-옥편 graph that, ironically enough, means "wordy," 말많을 절:
The Sanchon Hunjang says it's all so much worthless esoterica...as long as you're not doing Mandarin or pursuing Ph.D. studies in Classical Chinese lit. So while this last category could get really ugly, our assumed learner can just shrug them off with a light "who cares?"
When 안 중근
wrote his famous, "If in a day one does not read a book, thorns and briars appear in the mouth," he conveniently forgot to mention what a thorny brier patch it is in there as well
if the book you're reading happens to be of Chinese graphs like his phrase is.