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Chinese characters - Sound versus meaning

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 meaning.

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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