The connections between a Chinese character’s components, its pronunciation, and its meanings

If you think, or are made to believe, that there is a foolproof connection between a Chinese character and its pronunciation, you need to think again.

The connection between a Chinese character’s component and its pronunciation

There are many articles out there on the internet to demonstrate how easy it is to guess a Chinese character’s pronunciation by looking at its components. For example, if you know how to pronounce 马, you’ll be able to guess the pronunciations of these characters, 妈, 蚂, 吗, 骂. They all have the same component 马, and consequently they all have a similar sound.

It seems right, doesn’t it? The problem is that, if we keep adding characters which contain the same component 马, we’ll find that many of them don’t follow the same pronunciation pattern. Such as these ones:

You can not find any connections between the pronunciations of these Chinese characters 冯, 闯, 笃, 骉 and their common component 马.

86% of Chinese characters are picto-phonetic characters (形声字), with one meaning-radical and one phonetic-radical. But not all phonetic-radicals indicate the pronunciation of the characters. I included this as the sixth point in Chinese radicals - a fact sheet.

Let’s take a look at some other Chinese characters which share the same component but have different pronunciations.

(1) Component 兑 duì

  • 说 shuō
  • 蜕 tuì
  • 悦 yuè

(2) Component 斤 jīn

  • 沂 yí
  • 欣 xīn
  • 近 jìn
  • 斥 chì
  • 斫 zhuó
  • 斩 zhǎn
  • 斯 sī
  • 断 duàn

IMHO, it is a bad teaching method to encourage students to guess the pronunciation of an unknown Chinese character based on its components. It shows that Chinese teachers did not do their homework. 

What about guessing the meanings of a Chinese character based on its components?

The connection between a character’s component and its meanings

It is also quite common to see Chinese teachers encouraging students to guess the meanings of a Chinese character based on its components, or to associate the meanings of a character with its components. For example, after character 青 (qīng), the following characters are taught:

  • 晴 (qíng): fine; clear; because it has a component 日 which means “the sun”.
  • 情 (qíng): feeling; affection; sentiment; because it has a component 忄which means “heart”.
  • 睛 (jīng): eyeball; because it has a component 目 which means “eye”.

It seems quite explainable, only if we stop here. But we can’t. We are learning the Chinese language, not a handful of Chinese characters. Let’s take a look at a few more Chinese characters containing the same component 青:

  • 倩 (qiàn): pretty; handsome; we might be able to explain the meanings with the component 亻which means “people”, or not, since there are average looking people and ugly ones too. 
  • 靓 (liàng): pretty; handsome; can the meanings be explained by its component 见 which means “view, see”? Don’t we see ugliness too?
  • 静 (jìng): quiet; calm; this one is really hard to be explained by its component 争which means “argue, dispute”. 

Conclusion

The conclusion is that learning components is not a short cut to learning Chinese Characters. 

While we all agree that good learning method is of great importance to the success of learning Chinese, we need to weed out the bad ones. And spending too much time on learning components, because you believe components will give clues to an unknown Chinese character’s pronunciation and meanings, is a bad one.


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