Writing System (2)
DO CHARACTERS REPRESENT
Characters are psychologically the most significant unit of the written
language for Chinese speakers. Ordinary Chinese discuss or analyse their
language in terms of characters (字 zì).
Sentences effectively consist of unbroken strings of single-syllable
characters, each having their own particular meanings. For this reason,
Chinese is popularly regarded as a 'monosyllabic language' -- a language
composed exclusively of single-syllable words. There are major problems and inconsistencies involved in this way of perceiving Chinese.
From the point of view of lexicon, while this perception was arguably true for the lexicon of Classical language, in
the modern language the situation is not so simple.
Of course, there are many monosyllabic words in Chinese, just as there
are in English. Some examples are:
|| 'quick, fast'
|| 'to eat'
But not every character can be
regarded as a single word. There are a huge number of words that consist
of multiple syllables (polysyllabic words), mostly two
Polysyllabic words may be inherently polysyllabic, or they may be the
result of combining two or more monosyllables.
1) Forms that are inherently polysyllabic
Inherently polysyllabic words cannot be split into smaller units.
||'muddled, confused, bewildered'
||尷尬 / 尴尬
The individual syllables in these cases are meaningless on their
own and always occur in tandem; there is no such thing as a 蛛 zhū or
a 萄 táo,
and no-one has ever been observed being 尷 / 尴 gān.
Breaking these words up into multiple characters, as the writing system
does, is akin to breaking the English word 'rabbit' into two words
as 'rabb' and 'it'.
This creates a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy
-- being written separately, each syllable has come to be regarded
as an independent unit, regardles of its original status. (See Note:
'Self-fulfilling prophecy': How Chinese characters confer independent
status on elements that were not originally independent).
2) Characters combining to make words:
Much more common is the case where two or more characters combine
to make words. Sometimes this is simply a case of adding a suffix or
prefix to a character. In others, meaningful characters go together
to form 'compounds'.
Suffixes/Prefixes: Many words (mainly nouns) that stood alone
in Classical Chinese now add a suffix, especially in the spoken language.
Suffixes include 子 -zi ('child'), 頭 / 头 -tou ('head')
and 兒 / 儿 -r ('son, child'), the latter common
in Beijing speech. For instance:
|鼻 bí + 子 zǐ
|桌 zhuō + 子 zǐ
|木 mu4 + 頭 / 头 tóu
||木頭 / 木头 mùtou
Often the suffix is obligatory. 鼻 bí,
for instance, cannot be used on its own as a word. However, there is a tendency to avoid purely spoken forms as much as possible in formal written texts. For instance, 木頭 / 木头 mùtou 'wood' is likely to be replaced by more precise terms, such as 木材 mùcái 'timber, lumber', in a written context.
In modern times Chinese has adopted prefixes and suffixes modelled
on European languages, such as 化 huà '-ise,
-isation', as in 現代化 / 现代化 xiàndài-huà 'to
Compound words: In 'compound words', meaningful characters
join together to form larger words.
words are extensively used in Chinese. In everyday speech, a number of words
that were originally monosyllabic have become disyllabic through this
process, e.g., 月亮 yuèliang ('moon'
+ 'bright' = 'moon') and 雲彩 / 云彩 yúncai ('cloud'
+ 'colour' = 'cloud' - informal language).
Historically, compound words were used to translate Indian Buddhist
terminology (e.g., 世界 shìjiè 'world')
and to translate Western learning introduced by the Jesuits around the 17th
century (e.g. 幾何學 / 几何学 jǐhé-xué 'how
many-what-study' = 'geometry'). They were given a huge boost when the Chinese
started importing concepts of science and civilisation from the West in the
19th and 20th centuries. Many essential compounds like 社會 / 社会 shèhuì 'society'
and 科學 / 科学 kēxué 'science'
were created in this period. Below are some examples of compound words.
|| 'ground +
|窗戶 / 窗户 chuānghu
||window + opening/door'
||'leather + shoes'
|| 'leather shoes'
|| 'road + mouth'
|天氣 / 天气 tiānqì
||'sky, day, weather + air, spirit, energy'
|興趣 / 兴趣 xìngqu
||'mood, interest + interest, delight'
||'bright + white'
||'god, divine, mysterious + secret'
||'news, information + news'
||'government, politics + govt. offices'
|主義 / 主义 zhǔyì
||'master, principal + justice, significance'
|| 'principle, -ism'
|非政府主義 / 非政府主义 fēi-zhèngfǔ-zhǔyì
|'non + government + ism'
Since many compounds are fairly transparent combinations of independent
words, they give the impression that they are
thrown together quite freely. This is how Chinese tend to perceive them. But compounds
are, in fact, integral units with their own independent existence,
not simply convenient combinations created on the
fly. Take the following examples, in which the meaning of the whole is
somewhat more than the meaning of the parts.
|| 'gas + oil'
|| 'petrol (gasoline)'
|小說 / 小说xiǎoshuō
|| 'small + speak'
|經濟 / 经济 jīngjì
|| 'govern + assist'
|熊貓 / 熊猫 xióngmāo
||bear + cat'
|動物 / 动物 dòngwù
||'to move + thing'
|| 'animal' ('moving thing')
In fact, many characters can never
occur alone, always forming compounds with other characters, e.g., 喜 xǐ ('joy')
and 歡 / 欢 huān ('pleasure,
welcome') are found together in the word 喜歡 / 喜欢
like'). Both characters only ever occur in combination with
other characters, in words such as 喜悅 xǐyuè 'joy,
pleasure'; 歡迎 / 欢迎
etc. They never occur by themselves as 喜 xǐ or 歡 / 欢 huān.
Neither has the full independence and freedom of
The old tendency to deal with the language as made up of characters is still quite apparent in dictionaries, which deal principally with the Chinese lexicon. In pre-modern
Chinese dictionaries, each character (字 zì)
had its own entry. The entry would have an indication of pronunciation
along with an explanation of the meaning/meanings. Each character
was considered to have its own inherent meaning.
Modern Chinese dictionaries are still arranged
in terms of characters. The major difference is that, in addition to
information for the character as a whole, there is a list of 词 / 詞 cí (words) and longer combinations in which the character occurs. For example,
the entry for the character 龙 / 龍 lóng 'dragon'
might look like this, in drastically simplified form (note, for tidiness, only traditional characters are shown in the body of the entry):
龍 (龙) lóng:
(1) Legendary creature with scales, beard, horns, and legs;
can fly and swim; (2) In palaeology, a dinosaur; (3) In ancient
times, a symbol of the Emperor, used on objects associated
with the Emperor; (4) A metaphor for great ability; (5) A long,
thin object resembling a dragon (e.g., a queue).
(1) A dragon boat; (2) a boat used by the Emperor.
long lantern used in folk performances.
palace of the dragon king.
Name of a plant; (2) keel of a boat or plane; (3) breastbone
of a bird.
The general meanings given for the character 龍 / 龙=
to cover all its different meanings. This includes 龍 / 龙 lóng as
an independent word and 龍 / 龙
the mere component of a word, without any clear distinction drawn. Notice that one of the general meanings of 龍 / 龙
given as 'dinosaur'. This is slightly misleading: 龍 / 龙
indeed found in words like 恐龍 / 恐龙 kǒnglóng ('terrible
dragon' = 'dinosaur') and 翼手龍
/ 翼手龙 yìshǒulóng ('wing
hand dragon' = 'pterodactyl'). But dinosaurs by themselves are not
referred to simply as 龍 / 龙
The listing of compound words starting with 龍 / 龙
a major advance over traditional dictionaries. In fact, it is absolutely
essential because, as we have seen, the meaning of a compound is
often not predictable from the constituent characters. For instance,
it is not possible to tell that a 龍骨 / 龙骨 lónggǔ or
'dragon bone' refers to the keel of a boat!
More importantly, perhaps, grammatical analysis is almost impossible
if each character is treated as a single word. For instance, the
sentence below is difficult to analyse for either grammar
or meaning if each character is treated as a separate word. It has
three verbs and the meaning looks like 'I plural polish and pursue this
piece asking topic'.
|們 / 们
|這 / 这
|個 / 个
|問 / 问
|题 / 题
In fact, the sentence is easily understood as a simple
Subject-Verb-Object structure with 'we', 'study', and 'problem' handled
as single words:
|我們 / 我们
|這個 / 这个
|問題 / 问题
||(Demonstrative + Classifier)
This is how modern Chinese grammarians analyse Chinese grammar,
using the concept of the 'word' or 詞 / 词 cí. Despite this, there is still a strong residual tendency to think of Chinese sentence as consisting of characters
The following example, photographed at a metro station in Shanghai,
illustrates how both lexicon (the way characters are combined) and grammar (the way sentences are built) can can combine to produce
radically different meanings.
Dānchéng piào dàngrì běnzhàn yǒu xiào
Single tickets valid for the date (of issue) in this station
(Note: 单 = traditional 單, 当 =
The four characters in the middle form the two words 当日 本站 dàngrì běnzhàn ('that-day
this-station'). A different breakup would yield the (nonsensical but grammaical possible) 当 日本 站 dāng Rìběn zhàn 'as
a Japanese station'. Words in Chinese are a very real phenomenon, not merely the result of temporary associations of free characters into sentences.
For more information on the Chinese writing system, see Links.
See also the Japanese Writing
System and the Vietnamese