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Re: VMs: Chinese thoughts [ was: languages etc]

> > Dennis Dotted;
> > Here's something I still wonder about.  One always
> >hears that each Chinese syllable constitutes many
> >homophones, and apparently the Chinese themselves think
> >of it this way.  However, Jacques once told me here
> >that Chinese syllables in fact combine into groups that
> >we Indo-Europeans would consider "words" - despite the
> >fact that in Chinese all morphemes are free.  So
> >meaning in fact must be determined by context.  You
> >might as well say that 'un' , 'like' , and 'ly' are
> >separate words, and that in 'unlikely' their individual
> >meanings are only determined by context.

> Bruce Babbled;
> I think you can say that a character maps to a syllable (actually, many
> characters map to the same syllable), but that some words are written
> with a single character and some with two (or maybe more). Also, not
> every character can be a free-standing word. (I remember reading that
> there are at least a few characters which appear only as part of a
> two-character word, never alone.)

Barbara Blithers;
Chinese monosyllabic words are written with two characters per syllable. The
first character is the phonetic component (the syllable itself) and the
second is the semantic component. So although the Syllable "ma" is always
written with a character for "horse" (which is "ma") the second character
indicates "that ma which is to do with ceramics" (chamberpot) or "That ma
which is to do with women" (female servant), etc
Rather like reading cryptic crossword clues, the reader is guided to the
"correct" version of ma, and of course the correct tone value to use.

In multi syllabic words, say a three syllable word,  the syntax can be
[sound] [sound] [sound] [sense/meaning]  or it can be a group of 3
sound/sense compounds - these are written with spaces between and give the
false impression that Chinese is monosyllabic.

As for characters that never appear alone, these are called "radicals" and
are used as parts of composing a larger character. There are different
versions for stand-alone full-size use. EG "Man" (ren) on it's own in like a
capitol Lambda, but the radical is like a drunken T with a slanted
cross-bar. Some Chinese dictionaries order words according to which radicals
they use. (Others by the number of strokes in the first character).

There are half a dozen different types of Chinese characters, all of which
work in different ways, but the sound/sense group cover about 90% of written

For more information see Robinson's "The Story of Writing" which gives a
good layman's introduction to the Chinese writing system.


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