An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Script and Language

Mar 23, 2011 © Ulrich Theobald

Unlike alphabetic scripts, the logographic character of the Chinese script makes it nearly impossible to use it for other languages. Koreans and Japanese, whose languages are agglutinating (constructing words of many syllables as semantic carriers), used in former times Chinese characters to write in Chinese (the hanmun resp. kanbun 漢文 texts). Yet because the Chinese language is isolating, the logographic script is not able to reflect these grammatical suffixes at the end of words to express, for instance, tempus, modus, or singular/plural). If speakers of non-Chinese languages write in their native language instead of in Chinese, appropriate alphabets had to be developed (hangeul 한글, resp. kana かな/カナ/仮名) to express suffixes and grammatical particles. The same is true for the Khitans (using a para-Mongolian language), Jurchens (using a Tangutan language) and Tanguts (using a language related to Tibetan) that had adopted the Chinese script as a model for their own script, but developed scripts of their own to write in their native languages (see Khitan script, Jurchen script and Tangut script).

The only exception is the use of the Chinese script for Vietnamese, a likewise isolating and highly monosyllabic language. Yet as a language with a different grammar (for example, adjunct after the core noun instead of before it, like in Chinese) and a different lexicon, the use of genuine Chinese characters was limited. Vietnamese scholars therefore invented new characters (chữ nôm 𡨸喃) to write in Vietnamese language. Exactly this procedure shows that the largest part of the Chinese characters is perceived as representing a certain sound, and not only a semantic "idea". Even for Chinese topolects like Cantonese or Taiwanese, new characters were invented to represent a lot of particles phonetically different from standard Chinese, like 佮 hap8, kap7 "and" in Taiwanese (Southern Min), or the possessive particle ge3 嘅 in Cantonese.

Table 1a. Examples of Vietnamese Chữ nôm characters
character reading meaning signific part phonetic part
𠀧 ba "three" 三 "three" ba
𡨸 chữ "character" 字 "character" trữ
𡘯 lớn "great" 大 "great" lận
Three examples of Vietnamese chữ nôm characters, consisting of "radicals" (signific parts) and phonetic parts
Table 1b. Examples of Korean characters
character reading meaning signific part phonetic part
bu "to labour; statute labour" 功 "to achieve; merit" bu 夫 "man"
jang "clothing basket or rack" 木 "wood" jang
han "carpenter's file" 金 "metal" han
Table 1b. Examples of Japanese characters (kokuji 国字)
character reading meaning signific part second part
tako "kite" 風 "wind" 巾 "cloth"
hata "dry field" 白 "white" 田 "field"
suberu "to glide" 辶 "to walk" 一 "level"
iwashi "sardine" 魚 "fish" 弱 "weak"

It is not correct to say that one character has only one pronunciation or exactly one sound. There are lots of characters with different pronuncations that also indicate different meanings. The largest part of polyphonic characters (duoyinzi 多音字) only change the tone pitch, but there are also a lot of characters having several very different pronunciations, like

Table 2. Examples of polyphonic characters
xíng xíngzǒu 行走 "to walk", lǚxíng 旅行 "to travel"
háng yínháng 銀行 "bank", hángyè 行業 "trade, industry"
shuō shuōhuà 説話 "to speak, to gossip", shuōfa 説法 "wording, formulation", tīngshuō 聽説 "to be told, to hear of"
yuè yuè 說 "happy" (same as 悅)
shuì yóushuì 遊説 "to go around drumming up support, to lobby" (shuì meaning "to pursuade")
shānggǔ 商賈 "merchant", gǔhuò 賈禍 "to invite (literally: to buy) misfortune"
Jiǎ Jiǎ 賈 (a family name)
sǎn sǎnluàn 散亂 "in chaos, disorganised", sǎngōng 散工 "part-time job, seasonal labourer" (sàn having an active meaning, sǎn describing a status)
sàn sànbù 步 "to take a walk", sànkāi 散開 "to disperse"
yuè yīnyuè 音樂 "music", yuèqì 樂器 "musical instrument"
kuàilè 快樂 "happy", lèqù 樂趣 "delight, pleasure"
zhòng zhòngyào 重要 "important", qīngzhòng 輕重 "weight"
chóng chóngxīn 重新 "again, start afresh", Chóngqìng 重慶 (the city of Chongqing, Chungking)
Figure 1. Example of a polyphonic character in a dictionary
Example for a character with four different pronunciations: 說 1) shuō, 2) shuì, 3) yuè, and 4) (very rare) tuō. The word 說2士 is annotated with the cipher 2, indicating that it is pronounced shuìshì, not shuōshì, as regularly expected (note also the word 說4tuōtáo). From Hanyu da cidian 漢語大辭典.

This is not a phenomenon of modern Chinese, but can be observed, for instance, in ancient commentaries on Han-period 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) texts, for instance, Ao, yin wu lao fan 媼,音烏老反 "媼 is pronounced ʔ-ɑu" (commentary of Wen Ying 文穎 in Hanshu 漢書 1, for this traditional method of indicating sound, see the fanqie system 反切).

In lexica, the more-often used pronunciation is listed first. The character 說, for instance, is virtually always read shuō in modern Chinese (with the meaning of "to speak; to explain"), while the pronunciations yuè (as a loan character for 悅 "happy") and shuì (with the meaning of "to persuade", e.g. in Taiwan shuìfú 説服, in mainland China shuōfú) are used very rarely, shuì the least often, and therefore standing in the third position in lexica, and not alphabetically in the first position. If separated phonetically, the respective words appear in two places in a dictionary, if not separated phonetically (like in a dictionary whose entries are arranged graphically), the respective words have to be marked as to which pronunciation is correct.

While most characters or written words are quite unambigous even if standing alone and not bound into a context, this is not the case for spoken words. The phonetic treasure of Mandarin Chinese is relatively small compared to other languages, and many words therefore can have severeal meanings if not written or if the context is missing. These words are called homophones (tongyinci 同音詞), like:

chéngshì 程式 "pattern, formula"
城市 "town, city"
xíngshì 刑事 "criminal, penal"
形勢 "terrain; circumstances"
huìhuà 繪畫 "painting"
會話 "conversation"
núlì 努力 "to make efforts" (tone sandhi from nǔlì)
奴隸 "slave"
zhùmíng 著名 "famous"
注明 "to label, to give indication"
zhèngwù 證物 "to exhibit a legal evidence"
正誤 "to correct mistakes"

Even terms of the same word group can easily be confounded, like:

sànbù 散步 "to take a walk"
散佈 "to spread, to disseminate"
huìyì 會議 "conference"
會意 "understanding, knowing"
shíyóu 石油 "petrol"
食油 "cooking oil"
shāngrén 商人 "merchant"
傷人 "to injure sb."

Yet the semantic context is so helpful that each word is certainly understood in spoken language. The argument that abolishing the Chinese script would lead to chaos in conversation is simply nonsense—otherwise Chinese people would not be able to converse with each other. Yet a higher level of language use makes it necessary to use more complicated words which require certain character (semantic) combinations and certain specialized characters that do not belong to the everyday lexicon. Chinese academicians often write down the terms they are using or describe the characters of the word they make use of. Even the characters of personal names are often described or written with the finger on the palm of a hand to make clear which character is meant (e.g. the family name Zhāng 章, and not Zhāng 張).

For this reason, a specialized vocabulary was developed for the description of characters. Radicals (bushou 部首) and graphic elements are given terms to make description easier, like:

Table 3. Descriptive modules of characters (most of which are radicals)
Top position
草字頭 caozi tou "grass on the top"
寳蓋頭 bao gaitou "[like the] head of the character 寳"
禿寳蓋 tubao gai "[like the] cover of the character 寳, [but] bold" (without "dot" on the top 宀)
Others: 人字頭(𠆢), 卧人頭(𠂉), 包字頭(勹), 厂字頭(厰字頭,厂), 士字頭(士), 大字頭(大), 尸字頭(尸), 广字頭(廣字頭,广), 户字頭(户), 父字頭(父), 病字頭(疒), 登字頭(癶), 春字頭(), 四字頭(罒), 竹字頭(𥫗), 羊字頭(𦍌), 虎字頭(虍), 卷字頭(龹), 雨字頭
同字匡 tongzi kuang "frame as in the character 同"
Others: 包字框(勹), 区字框(匚), 三匡(匚), 方框(口), 門字框(門)
Bottom position
弄字底 nongzi di "base as in the character 弄"
Others: 凵字底(凵), 折文底(夊), 建字底(廴), 心字底(心), 四點底(灬), 皿字底(皿), 走之底(走)
提手旁 tishou pang "lift-hand part" (in contrast to bottom-position 手)
立刀旁 lidao pang "standing knife part" (in contrast to bottom-position 刀)
單人旁 (單立人旁) danren pang (dan liren pang) "single-man part (standing)"
雙人旁 (雙立人) shuangren pang (shuangli ren) "double-man part (standing)" (actually "to progress")
單耳旁 dan'er pang "single-ear part" (actually "seal")
阝 and ⻏ 雙耳旁 (雙耳刀) shuang'er pang (shuang'er dao) "double-ear part (knife)" (actually 阜 "hill" or 邑 "settlement", left and right), therefore distinction between zuo'er pang 左耳旁 ("left ear"), and you'er pang 右耳旁 ("right ear")
竪心旁 shuxin pang "standing-heart part" (in contrast to bottom-position 心)
Others (selective): 厂字旁(厰字頭,厂), 私字旁(厶), 提土旁(土), 反文旁(攵), 子字旁(孑), 尤字旁(尢), 广字旁(廣字旁,广), 建之旁(廴), 木字旁(木), 火字旁(火), 將字旁(爿丬), 牛字旁(牜), 反犬旁 (犭), 王字旁 (𤣩), 病字旁(疒), 示字旁(礻), 禾木旁(禾), 米字旁(米), 絞絲旁 (糹纟), 衣字旁(衤), 言字旁(訁讠), 足字旁(⻊), 走之旁(辶), 金字旁(釒钅), 食字旁 (飠饣)
Special designations and shapes
兩點水 liangdian shui "two-dot water" (actually "ice")
偏厂 pian chang "character 厂 on the side"
折文旁 zhewen pang "like a folded character 文"
三拐 san guai "three flexed [strokes]"
三撇 san pie "three slanted [strokes]"
三點水 sandian shui "three-dot water"
General modules
刀 or 刂 刀字部 daozi bi "knife module" (right or bottom position)
手 or 扌 手字部 shouzi bu "hand module" (left or bottom position)

One function of dictionaries is to inform the reader which character is the correct one (for example, all following words containing the syllable shì are written with a different character:

chéngshì, zhànshì, biāoshì, fāngshì, kǎoshì, jiàoshì, xíngshì, xíngshì, jiěshì, zhuāngshì, shì.

Although the phonetic range of Chinese is not very broad (everythings sounds like "ching, chang, chong") the possible combinations of two characters to a new word are countless, like:

shìchǎng 場 "market",
shìjǐng 井 "town",
shìjià 價 "market price",
shì 虎 "tigers on the market – rumours and slanders",
shìmín 民 "townspeople",
shìhuì 惠 "dispense favours in order to win popularity",
shìnèi 內 "inside the town – local",
shì 區 "district, downtown",
shìzhèng 政 "municipal administration",
chéngshì "city",
nàoshì "busy streets",
shì "metropolis",
ménshì "retail sales",
shì "night market",
shì "country fair", or
hēishì "black market",

all including the word shi 市 "market, to marketize".

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