|It is usually said that Chinese symbols
stand for meaning and not for sound. In reality, this is not
completely true. Chinese symbols stand for both meaning and sound.
There is a small number of characters which were constructed as
pictographs or ideographs without incorporating any phonetic
information. These are the ones depicting actual objects, such as
sun, moon, dog, elephant etc. The majority of characters, about
90-95% of all symbols, is constructed as a combination of sound and
The basic principle behind combining sound and meaning is that a new
character is constructed by taking an already existing one for its
sound value, then a new element is attached to it to make it
distinct from the original one. For example, the character "xiang"
meaning elephant was taken to represent the word "to resemble" which
was also pronounced "xiang". But to distinguish it from the original
symbol meaning elephant, a new element meaning person was added to
it. This is how most of the modern characters were constructed over
2,000 years ago.
The original symbol meaning "elephant"
The new symbol meaning "to resemble"
Traditionally, there is a category of
symbols called "compound ideographs" (huiyi) which are also
understood to be part of the non-phonetic group of characters. This
category includes words like brightness (sun and moon next to each
other), peace (a woman under the roof), home (a pig under the roof)
etc. However, recent studies have shown that historically all of
these characters have been created as phonetic compounds but their
original sound value has changed too much to recognize the phonetic
element in them.
Written by Imre Galambos
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