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Phonetics and Semantics: Where Pictographs Fall Short

Over-reliance on pictographs can harm Chinese learning


Phonetics and Semantics: Where Pictographs Fall Short

Over-reliance on pictographs can harm Chinese learning


The earliest written Chinese symbols were based on pictographs, and today you can still find incidences of these pictographic elements. Pictograph-based characters in turn led to the development of other characters. Some are derivative, making use of visual association or combinations of basic characters. Take the character 日 as an example, adding a line beneath 日 turns the character into 旦 (dawn, daybreak), which signifies the sun rising above the horizon. The 歪 character for  “oblique, askew, distort”, is composed of the two characters 不 and 正, which literally means “not straight”.  Knowing how compounds work is essential in Chinese learning. Hacking Chinese cites that 80% of Chinese characters are phonetic-semantic.

In Chinese language learning, however, a large emphasis is put on pictographs, perhaps to make the  wriggly Chinese writing easier for beginners to ease into. Olle Linge explains how teachers’ overemphasis on teaching the pictograph elements in Chinese characters can deter intermediate and advanced learning:

“Regardless of what the teacher does next, this is what sticks in students minds. There might be other explanations of the other ways of character formation, but since they are less direct and requires you to already understand a bit about characters before you fully understand what it’s all about, they are either glossed over or not remembered by the students.”

Linge continues to provide an excellent explanation of what a phonetic-semantic character (形声字 xíngshēng zì) is, and how they usually work.

“A typical phonetic-semantic compound… consists of one semantic part that relates to the meaning of the character and one phonetic part that indicates the pronunciation of the characters…

洋 (ocean) – this character consists of water 氵 and sheep 羊. Now, it should be obvious that this is not simply a combination of two related characters to form a third related character (such as 木, 林 and 森). Instead, the semantic component 氵 tells us that the character is related to water and 羊 tells us that the character is pronounced the same way as sheep is, i.e. yáng.”

The significance of understanding phonetic-semantic compounds is that with this knowledge in mind, you can pronounce the majority of characters that are made up of a radical and a basic character. This is why many Chinese characters not only look similar, but also share the same pronunciation (usually different tones). While this poses a great challenge for Chinese language learners, it may be used to a learner’s benefit, whether in character/pronunciation recognition or character memorization.

More examples (based on Linge’s original list):

Phonetic component: 羊, yáng (sheep)

  • 洋, yáng (ocean)
  • 样, yàng (manner, appearance)
  • 痒, yǎng (ticklish)
  • 氧, yǎng (oxygen)
  • 佯, yáng (pretend)

Phonetic component: 青, qīng (green/blue)

  • 请, qǐng (please, to ask)
  • 清, qīng (clear)
  • 情, qíng (emotion)
  • 晴, qíng (clear, fine)
  • 蜻, qīng (dragonfly)

Phonetic component: 原, yuán (original/primary)

  • 源, yuán (source, origin)
  • 愿, yuàn (wish, hope)
  • 塬, yuán (plateau, highland)


Image courtesy of watchinese.com.