Semantic vs. “Radical”

This post may get a bit technical for the less technically-inclined. But those people probably aren’t the ones frequenting this site anyway. After all, who but the technically-inclined aren’t going to run screaming from learning Chinese characters?

“The term radical has been strenuously objected to by some,” states the Wikipedia article on this subject, which I would highly recommend to anyone with at least a passing interest in the subject. Basically, the word “radical” in this context was borrowed from its use as a description of European-language words. A radical is a root which, once identified, gives a clue to the meaning of the word as a whole. For example, the fact that “chatter” contains “chat” as its root lets us know that chattering is related to chatting.

This concept breaks down, though, when applied to Chinese. We could posit the idea that every single Chinese character, which itself represents a morpheme, is a semantic root. There are some characters which are frequently used to form prefixes or suffixes, but they often can stand for a meaning in their own right. Therefore, it is not necessary to break down a character in order to find its root meaning component, insomuch as the character represents a unit of speech.

Thus today the study of Chinese etymology has been divided into two camps: (1) Those who seek understanding of written Chinese by seeking to understand the development of the characters. For this study, I am of the opinion that you could find no better place to start than this site right here. (2) Those who seek to trace the meanings of Chinese words by considering only the sounds of the words, and largely ignoring the shapes of the characters, which do not have a 1/1 correspondence with the sounds they represent. If this interests you, I recommend using the links to the Tower of Babel site that are found on the Reference pages for each character in our database. Although far from exhaustive, the Tower of Babel site contains information about the phonetic development of thousands of Chinese morphemes (represented by characters). This second method was pioneered by the Swedish linguist Bernhard Karlgren, who also contributed greatly to the modern understanding of the characters themselves. But back to the subject.

Although a scientific inquiry into the development of Chinese words may or may not involve studying the characters themselves, let me take this opportunity to state emphatically that there is value in breaking the characters down for learning purposes. Unlike most other modern languages, which are purely phonetic in representation, Chinese words contain elements that directly hint at the meaning. In my opinion, it would be a shame if we ignored these elements while trying to learn the characters. But what do we call them?

Since, as I mentioned above, the idea of radical as meaning semantic root doesn’t really apply to Chinese in the same way it does to purely phonetic written languages, we could extend it to refer to the semantic root of the character itself, that is, its fundamental meaning component. However, the same Wikipedia page I cited above notes an example where this breaks down, namely . In this character () is the traditional radical but in reality the meaning is contained in which is not only the modern simplified version but actually the original version of the character. In case this is confusing let me explain. At some point in time the Chinese scribes decided they needed to add more components to the characters in order to make them easier to classify. That’s why they added to , even though (click through to see the original pictographic form) already contained a hand at the top (which, by the time of the scribes, had apparently already become too obfuscated to perceive). For some reason, in addition to the new character , the old one continued in use as well, or was later resurrected into use, and now we have the two characters with a related meaning but different “radicals”. In short, trying to classify characters by their apparent semantic components is an exercise in futility.

If we reject the notion of calling semantic components “radicals,” what other options do we have? Wikipedia states, “any portion bearing meaning rather than purely sound” is now generally termed a semantic component or element, a determinative, or a signific. While “semantic” seems to be the most common alternative to “radical,” it also is related to “signific,” both terms implying the use of signs, that is, markers of meaning. If this seems abstract, consider a literal sign as used along the road in many countries with pictures or diagrams intended to make the sign understandable to as many passersby as possible, regardless of their language. Here and here are a couple of humorous examples. Chinese meaning components (in their original forms) were made to serve a similar function.

Wikipedia says the third, and de facto prevailing meaning of “Chinese radical” is section headers of a Chinese dictionary. Although the terms “section header” or “classifier” are other alternative translations of the Chinese word 部首 bùshou, neither of them are a particularly fitting translation, nor are they as catchy as the word “radical.” Hence, there seems only one logical choice for the name of a lookup index.

One last word about radicals (in the prevailing sense mentioned above): By whatever name we call them, English or Chinese, they are by nature arbitrary. As in the case of above, it is impossible to consistently identify the “root” or even the meaning components without an exhaustive investigation into the original forms of the characters and the reason for their inclusion (if that were possible, which it isn’t). So using a radical index to find characters will always involve frustration for the user. If there were only a better way to organize characters! There is, but I’ll leave that subject for a future post.

I hope, first, that you’ve followed this discussion so far, and second, that it was enlightening or even convincing. I’m hoping to contribute to the trend toward using the word “semantic” to describe meaning components. As far as using the word radical to describe character indexes, it seems there is little alternative. That is, unless you, dear reader, can coin a new English phrase that fits the bill better. Of course, it’s really just a question of semantics, isn’t it?

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4 Responses to “Semantic vs. “Radical””

  1. Joshua Says:

    Good points.

  2. Alan Says:

    Hey, loving the site. Just one comment:

    the search box for characters is really small and sandwiched between two largely unused widgets, which have a bad habit of popping up and obscuring the search box which I use a lot more than linking to reddit/digg or subscribing via whatever service.

    To help your users the search box should be made bigger and perhaps put somewhere else (maybe at the top center-right?).

    Just my 2 cents. Great site.


  3. Bright Outlook Says:

    Thank you for the suggestion Alan. I’ll make sure to move it the next time I have time to tweak the site.

    I’m glad the site is useful for you. I definitely want to make it easier to use.

  4. Daniel Says:

    hey, i just wanted to post the same thing as joshua.
    maybe also adding a search to input multiple characters at the same time.

    maybe i can be of assistance and tweak the site for you? because it would help me a lot too with learning chinese characters. thx 🙂

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