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 李 plum: A kind of tree 木 children 子 like. Others just seem to contribute a suggestion to the meaning, as 好 (good) contains woman 女 and child 子, two things a man is fond of, suggesting something good.
Phonetic components have some relation to the sound of the character. Ma 嗎 is a spoken particle 口 (the semantic part is a mouth) that just happens to sound like the Chinese word for horse 馬. 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 (說文解字), 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.