Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Do Chinese characters hold more meaning than Western phonetic alphabets?

Do Chinese characters hold more meaning than Western phonetic alphabets?

I just had an interesting argument about this with my friend (and roommate) Chris. Chris argued that, whereas Chinese characters indicate meaning, English words merely indicate pronunciation. Based mostly on having read The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy, I said that this was a myth.

We ended up looking up two more-or-less random words to compare the two languages. For Chinese we used "福”, fú (pronounced "foo"), the second character of "幸福", happiness, which by itself means something like "fortunate". In English we used "assiduous", a word neither of us knew, taken from a list of SAT words.

A few Chinese characters

Here are my arguments for why the Chinese character is no more inherently meaningful than the English word:

*In both languages, the etymology of the word, and hence the meaning, is not obvious. "福" comes either from a pictographic compound of a jar 畐 of wine on the altar 礻, where each of the two pieces contributes to the meaning, or from a pictophonetic compound of 礻 (spirit) + 畐 fu, where one part contributes the meaning and the other part the sound. In either case, although one can see how the two parts 礻 and 畐 combine to make the full character, the meaning of the character is not something one could guess simply from looking at its parts - although there is some relation. Meanwhile, "assiduous", interestingly, comes ultimately from the Latin roots "ad" + "sedere". The former root means "to", while the latter means "sit" (as in "sedentary"); hence the word's root meaning is "to sit down", and thus to be continuously occupied at one's work. Just like in Chinese, the modern meaning is not something you would necessarily guess from the parts; but once you know the logic of its composition, the word's etymology makes a lot of sense!

*Chris, however, maintained that 福's meaning is more obvious, because it is based on a radical, 礻(shì, "sure"), which forms the left hand side of the character. However, I think the same can be said of "assiduous". It is a compound word composed of a prefix ad and a root sedere. It's true that this composition is not obvious to us in English, but neither is it so obvious in Chinese! It's only because Chris and I have been studying Chinese for so long1, and because we both have do so by learning the etymologies of characters, that it seems obvious to us. If I were to teach someone English from scratch, I might do so by starting with Latin and Greek roots, and hopefully get them to the point where the "ad" in "assiduous" would be equally obvious to them!

The lucky character is often seen on red squares like this one2
*Chis also argued that the basic components of a Chinese character, the 部首 or radicals (in this case, 礻, 一,口,and 田), have their own meaning, whereas in English the basic components are letters, which have no inherent meaning. But I think the better analogy is between letters and the strokes of a Chinese character. To look up or to write a character, you have to write each piece with a certain number of strokes, and then put the pieces together. Similarly, in English you have to write each part and then put the parts together. Just like one stroke of a Chinese character has no meaning, neither does one letter of an English word.

*But what about the switch from "ad" to "as"? Doesn't English obscure the nature of its roots? But in fact the same thing has happened with the Chinese character. The 礻radical is not written the same way as the full form, 示,and only after learning that the two are the same can one make the connection! Chinese, like English, requires study to understand word composition.

In sum, I think in both of these example cases the meaning of the word can be taken from the way it was written, but only with some research. I'm willing to grant Chris that deducing the meaning may be easier in Chinese, on the whole; but I would be interested to see how people who studied English with my etymologyical method would fare on English words. Regardless, my main point is that despite the strangeness of its appearance, the Chinese writing system may differ from that of other languages only in degree and not in kind. Which is not to say that those differences aren't mindblowingly fascinating or that they don't make Chinese the most intellectually exciting subject I've ever encountered!

1 Chris has actually only been studying for a year or so, which is really impressive.
2 Image credit: 阿德 on Flickr


  1. A very interesting discussion. Having spent more time studying Chinese character evolution than Latin words, I'm a bit biased. I still believe you'll find more meaning in the Chinese characters, although as Defrancis points out, it's not what most people think.

    The comparison gets muddier when you take into account the fact that 福 wasn't originally 畐 and 礻 (which you correctly identify as a form of 示), but instead was a picture of a wine bottle being held up by two hands. To me, this conveys the idea of an offering to the gods, and its extended meaning of good fortune, the blessing of the gods. Now as a semantic-phonetic component, the 礻/示 part still indicates something coming down from above. Where can you find any such semantic (meaning) component in even the Latin roots of the modern English word?

    Of course, it helps to remember that even the Latin words had an earlier history. For example, the letters used in "ad" in phonecian times were pictographs of an eagle and a hand. (http://chinese-characters.org/discussion/?p=68528) Can we put the concepts of eagle and hand together and make a case for the meaning of the preposition "to"? I suppose someone could somehow create a story to do this, just as many people have created fanciful stories to describe the relationships between Chinese character components (see Wieger's book for some classic examples), but I don't think those would fly.

    I'll stop here but I do think this is a fascinating discussion.

  2. Hi Dan,

    I met you last year when you left a comment on my site (http://chinese-characters.org/discussion/?p=10025#comment-668). You've got a great blog here.

    I'm a bit disappointed you had no response to my comment above. I felt this was a continuation of the points you made in your post. Did my comments make sense?

    The points I made weren't meant to take a position either way but to add more depth to the observations you already brought out.

    Many people say that all written language is simply a way to represent sounds. I believe this is Defrancis' position as well. All written English words are simply a representation of a sound or series of sounds. However, what if we consider the pictures on street signs* to be language? These pictures don't represent sounds, but they convey meaning, which is the primary function of language. This exercise is purely academic until we start talking about Chinese. As you pointed out, some components of Chinese characters have the same role as the street signs, that is, they are semantic, not phonetic, in nature.

    Here's the point of departure: While you can use than one spoken word to describe a picture on a street sign, if you change the picture the meaning changes. Whereas with Chinese characters, you can substitute a new character for the old one, even a completely different one (for example, 義 ⇒ 义), and both the sound and meaning stay the same. Which suggests that regardless of how the character originated, at present it is merely the representation of a spoken word, no more, no less. What do you think?

    However, I also agree with your point that learning the origins of the word helps us to better understand the word. This is true of English words and their root languages, as well as Chinese words. I also believe that understanding the origins of Chinese characters can give us insight as to the original meaning (or at least early meaning) of the words they represent. This is why I spend so much time researching these. In addition, studying these also helps cement the word, its meaning, and related nuances, into one's mind. It becomes both a powerful mnemonic and a way to truly understand, not just know, the language.

    I agree that these concepts are "mindblowingly fascinating," and I hope you'll give me some feedback....

    * Here are a couple examples:

    1. Hi Ed,

      I have to confess that I don't think I read through your original comment when you first left it. I noticed just now when reading through my original post that although my conversation with Chris was fascinating in person, on paper it's somewhat hard to understand. I think I was too lazy to read your comment for the same reason.

      But I did take the time to understand your comment just now, and that is indeed an interesting point about Latin characters coming from earlier pictographic roots! I could imagine someone coming up with a theory about the origins of our prepositions and such which is just as fanciful as this guy's is for Chinese: http://www.chinese-etymology.com/

      Anyway, thanks for your comment and thanks again for such a great site. Do you live in China/Taiwan? I'm located n Beijing myself.

  3. Hi Dan,

    I finally stopped back by to check your blog and noticed your reply to my comment. You are right, this is heavy stuff, and it's hard to write about it in a way that's easy to read. I started my site as a way to make character etymology more "accessible" to the average learner, but he holy grail is to find a way to explain it simply enough for the reader to understand without straining their brain....

    I think I've visited the site you refer to above. I don't think his site proves anything except that a motivated person with a talent for breaking down items into components and skilfully using mnemonic techniques can memorize a lot of information. There are no shortcuts to familiarizing oneself with the cultural and linguistic ramifications of Chinese characters though. On top of that, there's so much about the formation of these characters that scholars are still trying to piece together.

    My comments above were intended to kindle philosophical thought on the topic, but, as an attempt to answer your question in the title of this post I'd say, Chinese characters may or may not hold more meaning than Western phonetic alphabets, but they certainly hold more history and cultural significance.

    For anyone with an interest in the latter I'd highly recommend the book China - Empire of Living Symbols by Cecelia Lindquist. Wonderfully written.

  4. I forgot to answer your question. I live in the US - Portland, Oregon, to be specific. I really enjoyed your last post ("On going home").