Communication in Chinese

A couple weeks ago, while talking about “条条大路通罗马. (Tiáo tiáo dàlù tōng Luómǎ.)”, I left out the definition of (tōng) on purpose.

Deer Crossing

Deer Crossing

For one, I expected the serious students to look this word up themselves. Secondly, I wanted to devote an entire lesson to this versatile word later; and this seems a good time, while the saying is still fresh in your mind.

(tōng), featuring the “walk” radical, means unobstructed and permitting free flow of substances, vehicles, ideas and messages through a passageway or a channel. As many different things could move from one place to another, this character appears in a large number of words and expressions related to transportation, connections, communication, understanding, knowledge, logic or sharing and commonality.

交通 (jiāotōng) means traffic or communications. 通车 (tōngchē) means to be open to traffic. When traffic is unobstructed and flows smoothly, you might describe it as 通畅 (tōngchàng).

通道 (tōngdào) is a passageway. 穿越道 (chuānyuè dào) is a crossing.

通过 (tōngguò) can mean passing through, passing an inspection or test, or “by means of”.

通行 (tōngxíng) is a transit. 通行证 (tōngxíngzhèng) is a pass or a transit permit. As we shall see below, (tōng) also means generally applicable. Therefore, 通行 (tōngxíng) is also used to describe something that is current or prevalent.

通气 (tōngqì) means permitting air to pass through, or to ventilate. A ventilator is called 通风机 (tōngfēngjī). Here the (jī) is a machine, not a chicken.

When thoughts and ideas are transmitted from one person to another, we call it communication, or 沟通 (gōutōng communication, to communicate with). 通电话 (tōngdiànhuà) is to talk on the phone. 通信 (tōngxìn correspondence) is to communicate by letter. 通讯 (tōngxùn) means communication, correspondence or newsletters.

她只会泰语. 我们无法沟通.
Tā zhǐ huì tàiyǔ. Wǒmén wúfǎ gōutōng.
She only speaks Thai. We are unable to communicate with each other.

开通 (kāitong) means liberal or open-minded. Such people are less likely to be opposed to marriage between people of different ethnicities, religions, etc.. 通婚 (tōnghūn) is to intermarry.

通天 (tōngtiān) means reaching the sky, and therefore exceedingly high or great.

(tōng) also means common or generally applicable. 通用 (tōngyòng) means to be in common use, prevalent, general or interchangeable.

通告 (tōnggào) is a public notice or announcement. This word can also be used as a verb referring to the action of giving a public notice or distributing a circular.

Kāihuì de tōnggào yǐjīng fāchū le.
The notice for the meeting has already been issued.

通称 (tōngchēng) is a general term, or the name by which something is generally known.

通才 (tōngcái) refers to a versatile or multi-talented person. A Jack of all trades might be called 万事通 (wànshìtōng a know-all).

通通 (tōngtōng) means all, totally or completely. It is used in the same way as 统统 (tǒngtǒng).

Wǒ yǐqián xué de zhōngwén yǐjīng tǒngtǒng wàngdiào le.
I’ve already forgotten all the Chinese I have learned before. (Alas!)

通常 (tōngcháng) means generally, normally or usually.

Tā tōngcháng qī diǎn qǐchuáng.
He usually gets up at seven o’clock.

普通 (pǔtōng) means common, ordinary or average. When someone asks you how you’ve been doing lately, and you have nothing exciting to share, you might respond with 还好 (háihǎo not bad), 普通 (pǔtōng so-so) or 马马虎虎 (mǎmǎhūhū so-so).

In China, Mandarin is referred to as 普通话 (pǔtōnghuà), or common speech of the Chinese language. In Taiwan, Mandarin is referred to as 国语 (guóyǔ), or national language.

You could have guessed that 不通 (bùtōng) means to be obstructed or impassable. Such blockage could also occur in one’s reasoning. Therefore, this word also means illogical or grammatically incorrect.

行不通. (xíngbùtōng) translates to “This won’t do.”

Now you’ll know that you have reached a dead end when you see the sign: 此路不通 (cǐlùbùtōng This road is blocked. No through traffic.)

3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. keithy
    Nov 14, 2013 @ 12:05:40

    Would it be correct to use this phrase to say that I don’t understand: 我理解不通?


    • likeabridge
      Nov 14, 2013 @ 17:12:40

      Hi Keithy,

      All you need to say is 我不理解. 理解 means to understand.
      不通 refers to the general lack of knowledge about a subject, such as in 我不通外语.
      外语 (wàiyǔ) means foreign language.

      不通 also means unable to communicate properly. For example:
      I can’t get the idea across to him.
      (Or, I can’t talk sense into him.)


  2. keithy
    Nov 15, 2013 @ 15:14:59

    Yes, that makes sense. 我聽得懂.


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