Spring into the spring in spring
It is unpredictable what will cause a communication glitch. For instance, in a recent Firecracker video chat (to become a FLC Firecracker member, read here), we were working out the translation for spring. The fact that this is an English homonym came into play.
I thought my tutor was referring to the spring season
春天 ㄔㄩㄣ ㄊㄧㄢ chūn tiān,
which is a common reference in our discussions. However, she was talking about a spring of water, as in
泉 ㄑㄩㄢˊ quán
because we were talking about the legendary fountain of youth!
You might think that because we were talking about a fountain, that when she said spring, I would have put two-and-two together. Instead, my brain went directly to the word for spring that I knew in Chinese, so, ironically, I translated her correct usage of spring to mean the spring season and humorous miscommunication ensued!
Particles help in writing, but context rules in speaking
Notice the water particle in the bottom of the character 泉. Of course, I can’t see that when she’s talking!
A key point here is that the issue was not that either of us was communicating poorly, or that I was not understanding the Chinese she was saying. We just had to talk a bit to come to an understanding. This is normal for people, even if both are fluent in a language. It is the essence of communication.
There are two other basic uses of the word spring in English. One is a verb, and one way to say it in Chinese is
彈跳 ㄊㄢˊ ㄊㄧㄠˋ (tán tiào) to spring, to leap, to jump
The other is a noun, referring to a mechanical part. In Chinese, the spring in a watch would be
發條 ㄈㄚ ㄊㄧㄠˊ (fā tiáo) a coil spring used to direct power, as in a watch
but the spring in a mattress is
彈簧 ㄊㄢˊ ㄏㄨㄤˊ (tán huáng) a spring, as in a mattress
What do pianos and impeachment have in common?
The character that we have seen twice now in words about springs and springing is also used when speaking of playing the piano. One of its meanings is to pluck, so the Chinese is
彈鋼琴 ㄊㄢˊ ㄍㄤ ㄑㄧㄣˊ (tán gāng qín) to pluck or play the piano
If you think about it, you notice that mechanical springs function by a rebounding or recoiling action. Even a person jumping has to coil themselves, them release the tension to make the motion.
Maybe that is why 彈 is also used in this Chinese word for impeach! When someone is impeached, the goal is to rebound them right back OUT of office!
彈劾 ㄊㄢˊ ㄏㄜˊ (tán hé) to impeach, to accuse of misconduct
Language is what it is
This is all something to keep in mind when I discover that Chinese characters often have more than one meaning, only understood in context. If it is so with both English and Chinese, I am guessing it is so with all languages. To learn how to use the Chinese language, we need to accept this and just practice using the words in different contexts.