Archive for March, 2008

Semantic and phonetic

Tuesday, March 18th, 2008

If you’re new to learning Chinese characters, or even if you’re not, these words may sound like buzzwords. Here’s a brief breakdown of what these words mean.

“Semantic” has to do with meaning. If a component is semantic, it adds to the meaning of the character. Some components tell a story, such as plum: A kind of tree children like. Others just seem to contribute a suggestion to the meaning, as (good) contains woman and child , two things a man is fond of, suggesting something good.

Phonetic components have some relation to the sound of the character. Ma is a spoken particle (the semantic part is a mouth) that just happens to sound like the Chinese word for horse . Often the phonetic will help you learn the exact sound of the character, even the tone. However, most often it is only a hint, and sometimes it is even misleading. Chinese, being a very old language, is always changing and therefore words which at one time had a similar sound no longer sound alike. These clues can still be helpful. At the very least knowing about them makes it easier to understand and remember the characters.

Much of the semantic and phonetic information on this site comes from an ancient compilation of Chinese characters known as the
Shuowen Jiezi (), as well as other sources. As I go through the characters one by one I have been evaluating the phonetics based on the early pronunciations of the related characters and making adjustments. The more commonly known a character is, the more likely the components listed reflect original semantic or phonetic components.

At a later time I will post an article about why I avoid the use of the word “radical” except in dictionary lookup tables.

Latest update

Tuesday, March 11th, 2008

With regard to Chinese character information, this site aims to provide both breadth and depth. The depth comes from the unique etymological information that you won’t find anywhere else except on this site, because it is original research. As pointed out in the last post, this research is found so far on the pages devoted to the most common 1000 characters and their base components.

The breadth, on the other hand, comes from the number of characters this site provides information about. Today I have updated the site to give information not only for the most common 3-4000 characters, but for over 13,000. This means virtually every character you will encounter online is contained in this database, along with information about it. One of the most valuable features this site offers (in my opinion) is the “contained in” tab. This not only shows you common words containing the character but also shows which other characters contain this character as a component. The most common phonetic sound value is given when available. This is useful for committing the component to memory as it can help you to predict the sound of new characters you will encounter containing this component.

Here’s an example: The character is commonly used as a phonetic. By clicking the link you can see that is not always a phonetic component, and when it is, the resulting characters have a variety of pronunciations. However, two pronunciations, hong and gong, clearly stand out above the rest. This means when you see a character you don’t know that contains as a phonetic, there is a good chance it is pronounced hong or gong.

In the future, this site shall contain more information about simplified characters. For now, there is a new section devoted to simplified character phonetics. Although there is some overlap between the two sections, this new section helps you to find simplified characters that use a different phonetic than their traditional equivalent. Although looking up simplified characters on this site still isn’t as easy as I’d like it to be, this step should help.