the incredible power of chinese characters

Chinese characters have three characteristics – the reading, the writing and the meaning.  There is more information embedded within them than Roman characters – the letter a for example has no inherent meaning, and there are a whole host of ways of saying it!  By contrast, Chinese characters often (but by no means always) only have the one pronunciation, and they also have a [generally] consistent meaning that contributes to compound words.

What does that mean for learners?  女 (leoi) means “female”, and 人 (jan) means “person”.  If the two are put together we get 女人 (leoi jan), “woman”.  仔 (zai) means “child” in Cantonese; 女仔 (leoi zai) means “girl”.  Knowing 皇 (wong), emperor, the meaning of 女皇 should be no surprise!

Okay, maybe that’s not really news to most people, but I was a little surprised when I first found out there are some exceptions.  Example: 酒店 (zau dim) means hotel, but is strangely made up of the characters for “wine” and “shop”.  It even has another misleading synonym, 飯店 (faan dim), which is literally “food shop” (if anyone knows the etymology of these words, I’d be really interested!)

Something I’ve found is that the meaning of Chinese characters generally makes learning new, composite words much easier.  The most common 3,000 characters make up 99% of words; I’ve found that after the initial work done in learning new characters and their pronunciations, learning words made up of already-mastered characters is almost no work at all.

I think this is because once you have a flavour for the meaning of a character, composite words effectively have memory-aids built-in – as above, I remember hotel as “wine shop”; other examples include 冇嘈 (mou cou), “shut up” (literally “don’t-have noise”) and 面具 min geoi “mask” (remembered as “face tool”).

I’m always surprised when people say they want to learn to just speak Mandarin or Cantonese – although there is a barrier to learning them (perceived or otherwise), once you’ve got them under your belt, Chinese languages are really quite easy – much easier than if you didn’t know the meaning of each syllable.  Also, contrary to common belief, the pronuciations aren’t random either – usually part of the character gives a clue as to how to say it.

P.S. If you’re finding the Romanization difficult to read, don’t worry too much!  It’s a little… offbeat 😉


7 thoughts on “the incredible power of chinese characters

  1. I think a good post, but one point is misleading. A lot of characters have multiple sounds.

    行 can be hang4, haang4, hang6, and hong4. All of these are common pronunciations of the character, but the character is just being used for a different meaning each time.

    Mostly this boils down to differences between written and spoken, the same way 生 is saang1 when spoken but sang1 when read.

    Even worse, 樂 can be either lok (as in “san nin faai lok”) or ngok (as in music: “yam ngok”).

    On the subject of 酒店, my own uneducated guess is that it evolved the same way “tavern” or “inn” used to be a combination of restuarant/bar/hotel back in the middle ages.

    • Cheers for that – changed the wording slightly to reflect that. There’s way too much disinformation on Chinese characters out there, and it’s probably best if I don’t add to it!

      You’re right, of course regarding the different pronunciations; so far though, I don’t think I’ve encountered that many characters with lots of different sounds. Where there have been different sounds, one seems to have been a lot more common than the other.

      Also, didn’t know about characters like 生 – that’s a really useful heads-up. Good to know before starting to learn lots of things wrong 🙂

      Interesting thought on 酒店 too – that would also go some way to explaining 飯店.

  2. I am learning Cantonese and do not plan to learn Mandarin. Why would you need to know Mandarin in HK – many HKer’s do not understand Mandarin. But I do not know, perhaps I will start to learn Mandarin too because I plan to trip to Mainland too.

    P.S. You have interesting blog^^

    • Not saying you do need to learn Mandarin – just surprised when people choose not to learn characters when they want to learn any Chinese language. My Mandarin is currently limited to about three words (“ni”, “wo” and “ai”, not necessarily in that order – courtesy of housemates playing Jay Chou ad nauseum). I’ll probably start learning it once I’ve “finished” Cantonese, I think it’s a pleasant language to listen to.

      P.S. Cheers for the kind words 🙂

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