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Confucius Institute

The key to 80% of all Chinese characters

26 May 2016

Semantic-phonetic compounds are by far the most numerous characters.

In order to understand Chinese characters, it helps being aware of how they were created. Back in our April newsletter, we introduced Pictograms as a way to form Chinese characters. Semantic-phonetic compounds however, are by far the most numerous characters.

In order to understand these characters, it helps being aware of how they were created. Spoken language of course predates written language, so when people in ancient China started to write, they already had a developed spoken language they wanted to express using characters. The most obvious pictographs probably weren’t that hard since they are just slightly stylised versions of real-world objects, but it should be obvious for everyone that you can’t have a picture of every single word you want to say. How do you draw an ocean? What about love? Yesterday? An hour?

Of course, these concepts already existed in the spoken language, so what people started doing was combining one character that represented meaning (the semantic component) and one that represented the sound in the spoken language (the phonetic component). Thus, such a character consists of two completely different parts that have no relationship to each other, but which still make up a new character. In most cases the semantic indicator is also the radical under which the character is listed in dictionaries. So often, if you know the meaning of one part, you can guess the character’s meaning even you never saw it before. Let’s look at some characters to help you understand the Chinese character system:

洋 (ocean) – this character consists of water氵and sheep 羊. Now, it should be obvious that this is not simply a combination of two related characters to form a third related character. Instead, the semantic component氵tells us that the character is related to water and 羊 tells us that the character is pronounced the same way as sheep is, i.e. yáng.

伴 (partner) – this character consists of person 人 and half 半. Again, it is not a combination of the two characters that gives you a clue of the meaning. You merely know that the semantic component 人 relates to people and the 半 tells us that the pronunciation is bàn.

铜 (copper) – this character consists of metal 钅and see 同. Again, the semantic component tells you that the character 钅is related to metal and you pronounce the characters as tóng.

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