Friday, February 29, 2008


I don't often talk about Chinese directly, but I had a funny breakthrough recently that I want to lead up to. I've made all the characters pictures, so it messes up the look of the line, but even if you don't have character-viewing enabled, you should still be okay.

I am about to start unraveling the mystery of Chinese characters for you. Chinese characters are organized by their components. For example, (mom) (older sister), and (younger sister) all have the same first half. It looks like two Pac-men eating each other. That part is called a radical, and it tells you which category the character belongs to. This radical means "woman", which is why all three of these relationship words have that radical.

Different radicals signal what kind of topic the character deals with. With the two characters for "mom", for example, replacing the woman radical with a small square (a mouth radical) changes the meaning of the word to a particle that makes a statement a question. Most particles have a mouth radical, so seeing that radical can help you figure out what the character means. If instead of a small square you draw a diagonal line downward from the right and then a vertical line downward from the middle of that (like this: ), then you've made a different radical and the word means "to scold." If you take away that radical and don't replace it with anything, the word now means "horse"!

This whole thing with radicals has upsides and downsides. On one hand, by learning one character and knowing a few radicals, you can really know several characters (horse, mother, to scold). The downside is that you have to be sure to get the right radical, because Chinese people laugh at you if you write the wrong word.

There's another interesting part about radicals, and that's how they relate to pronunciation. The word for mother is pronounced mama, the word for horse is ma, the word for scolding is ma, and the word to make a sentence a question is ma. They're all the same! (Now, keep in mind that Chinese is a tonal language and all four of those are different tones.) The pronunciation of some characters doesn't change very much no matter what radical you use. The word (pronounced qing) is a fairly simple character to memorize. And then you can add on various radicals: , , , , . They are all pronounced qing (again, not all the same tone, but the same sound). Sometimes when you have never seen a character, you can still guess what the pronunciation might be because you've seen characters like it.
Other characters are notoriously slippery, though. This basic character is ye: . Add a person radical to it, though, and it's now ta: . If you have a different radical, then it's di: (or de; did I mention that some characters have multiple pronunciations--the Chinese version of "read" and "read").

When you don't know how to pronounce a word, you have to figure out what radical it has and look it up in the dictionary that way. Sometimes that can be frustrating. Look at ju: . Is the radical the top right half? Or maybe it's the top left half. I haven't seen the bottom very often, so it's probably not a radical. There are about 200 radicals, though, so maybe I should try that. Or maybe it's the whole top part. And in this way you've tried to look up the word four times before you learn how to pronounce it.

So that's a primer on radicals. I have tons of characters that I have to learn here in China, so the more I work with characters, the more I develop a feel for what radical should go with what word. Sometimes it's a stretch: "jian ("gradual") has water, obviously, and then a car, and then what... oh! Then 'then', or at least half of it." I have to go through such tricks to remember characters this complicated: . Other times, though, it just clicks, and that brings me to my funny moment.

I had been memorizing characters in my room for half an hour or so, when I came to a phrase that literally translated means "plum, orchid, bamboo, chrysanthemum." Apparently it has something to do with a person's integrity, but our book doesn't give the best definitions sometimes and I don't really understand it. Anyway, I'm slogging my way through these characters and get to "chrysanthemum." It's ju: . I looked at it, and totally in Chinese mode thought to myself: "Well, it has the flower bit at the top, and then that nice curvy part, and then inside it has a full cross just like the word for beauty, which makes sense. If I were Chinese, I would definitely write the word for chrysanthemum this way." I copied it one or two more times, and that was it. I had it memorized. How? Well, that's just how a chrysanthemum should look.

I'm at the point, I guess, where Chinese characters are looking less like gobbledy-gook and more like logical representations of words. Isn't that crazy? All those lines and I think it's a good way to write chrysanthemum.

So basically I'm becoming Chinese.

1 comment:

mom said...

This is very nice Will. I like the descriptions of how the radicals work- wish someone had told us that years ago. I'll make sure Melanie reads this too. Aaaah, and the key sentence, "this is how a chrysanthemum should be written", very sweet- you're getting the Chinese groove on.