Decoding Chinese Characters

By Gregory


At some point in our lives, we’ve all looked at Chinese characters emblazoned on a store front sign or dinner menu and wondered what manner of people devised such an intricate collection of intersecting lines, dashes, hooks and dots to record their thoughts.  The answer would be a people that developed a pictorial based written language.  Not unheard of in early man—think Egyptians.  The difference with the Chinese images appears to be a more skeletal likeness, an outline if you will.  

The majority of Chinese characters are made up of two parts, the radical (root) and the phonetic (sound).  The radical usually has relation to the meaning of the character while the phonetic can often give a phonetic-clue to the pronunciation.  Often, the radical can be found either to the left of the main character, above the main character, to the right of the main character, or beneath the main character.  Below are four sets of characters, with the exception of one, the remaining three characters all have their radicals to the left of the main-phonetic component.  Study them and you will be able to discern the radical from the phonetic.  I have also included the definition of the character.

婁lóu is the phonetic; 樓lóu is “a storied building” (木mù-wood, is the radical); 摟lǒu “to embrace” (手shǒu-hand, is the radical); 髏lóu “a skull” (骨gǔ-bone, is the radical).  So, as in “樓lóu” one sees the radical “木mù” to the left of “婁lóu the phonetic” and the definition of the radical  “木mù” is wood or lumber.  Therefore, wood is an important constituent that normally goes into a building.  Another illustration is楊yáng “a poplar”, again we find the radical “木mù” to the left of the phonetic昜.  The connection between  a “poplar” a type of tree and wood are apparent.

Why else are radicals so important?  Radicals are used to enter many Chinese dictionaries.  When one sees a Chinese character for the first time, it is now known that there is a sequence of procedures which allow the deciphering of that character.

It would be great if all the characters could be analyzed like the above, but due to various changes that have occurred in Chinese over the centuries, phonetic-clues for pronunciation are only about 65% reliable—but that’s still a big help.  

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