Radical dictionaries

Keth
August 10, 2012, 01:50 PM posted in I Have a Question

Suppose you have a word like 生日。Would it be classified under the Radical 109 生  or under under Radical 75 日?

Are there rules about how a word is classified .For instance 生命  would you classify this word under 12 人 or 109 生?

Profile picture
bodawei
August 10, 2012, 03:54 PM

Hi Keth - 

Individual characters rather than whole words are classified under their radicals. Answering your question, 日 is classified as a radical in its own right. 命 is classified under the 人 radical. 生 is classified under 丿, the 撇 piě stroke on its upper left. Or, as a radical in its own right it seems in the 现代汉语词典. The analysis is made easy if you consult a character dictionary. 

Profile picture
Keth

Thanks bodawei .What I wanted to do was look at how a radical can appear in different words. I understand that individual characters are classified by radicals, but I was not sure what the situation was with whole words. So a word like 安生 could equally be thought of as deriving from the radical 宀 or 女 or 丿or 生 because there is no formal procedure of analysing these compound words. Each of these radicals is simply thought of as being of equal importance.

Profile picture
bodawei

I'm not quite with you Keth - why do you want to analyse words in this way? The radical analysis has two main rationales for me - first, it helps me find a character in the dictionary (admittedly I am showing my age there - these days I can just draw it on the phone etc), and secondly the radical gives some clue to reading comprehension, in context. These reasons don't provide any support for looking at whole words. But you might have other reasons ... ?

Profile picture
Keth

You are correct !I am looking at new ways of teaching beginners how to read and write Chinese. It is not meant to be a comprehensive guide , just a quick way to gain the basic building blocks –the foundations. However you can see that in my example 扒 the beginner might well be confused as to why I give 扌as the radical and 八as the phonic guide , as both could be considered radicals. Hence my question.

English speakers used to writing and reading using an alphabetical system, link each letter of the alphabet to a sound.

Chinese characters are composed of smaller primitive units called Radicals, and other non-radical elements, which are used as building blocks.

214 radicals are used for indexing Chinese characters. Some radicals can stand alone as single, meaningful Chinese characters, but others cannot. What beginners of Chinese need to understand is that some Radicals do have a phonic attached to them, but many others do not.

Knowing how each radical can be stretched or squeezed to fit into the general shape of a square is important.

Knowing how the radicals can be positioned with Chinese characters, specifically on the left, right, top or bottom is important.

Radicals are composed of smaller units called stokes. A radical can consist of one or more strokes. Sometimes a single stroke is considered a radical.

It is recommended that the students should first learn the eight main stokes used to draw a Chinese character, because these will help them later to recognise radicals and slight differences between characters.

(Here follows intro to strokes ).

Another difficulty for an English learner is that often we learn to input the characters on computer, rather than write them by hand. To input some Radicals you use their Pinyin sound, but other Radicals you use their Chinese Name. The Chinese name that some Radicals are known by is not the phonic of the Radical. Indeed some Radicals are never used in isolation and now seem to have no phonic attached to them at all.

So the Radical 马 is called “ma” and uses the phonic sound of “ma” with various tones when it appears either on its own or combined with other characters.

However the Radical 阝does not have a phonic, but it does have a name .If 阝appears on the left of the character for instance; it is called “zuǒguàěr”. This is an important distinction that the beginner must remember when inputting Chinese on computer, because when you convert this character back to Pinyin it will give you “zuǒ”. It would be easy to think this is the way to pronounce this character ( ie its phonic sound), when in fact what you are being told is an abbreviation of its Chinese name “zuǒguàěr”.

Once you have learnt the Radical, you must then be able to recognise it when you see it. Chinese is written as though it is contained within an invisible square. The book spends a lot of time explaining where the Radical can be found within this square. Some Radicals are distorted, to allow them to better fit within this square or for aesthetic effect. The Radical shǒu normally looks like this 手 ,and when it does is pronounced shǒu. So a word like 手机 which means mobile phone is pronounced shǒujī.However sometimes this shǒu Radical is distorted and can look like this 扌。In these situations the Radical loses its phonic attachment, but is given a Chinese Name, but its meaning stays the same .Both 手 and 扌mean “hand”.

So when it looks like this 扌it still means hand ,but doesnt have the phonic shǒu attached to it. So a word like 扒 means to climb, but is pronounced bā . The phonic coming from the character 八。

So sometimes the Phonic guide is a true phonic guide and sometime( especially when the Radical is distorted) what you are getting is its Chinese name, ( often in an abbreviation)because when these distorted Radicals are combined with other characters they have no phonic attached to them.

When native Chinese speakers read Chinese they do not de- construct the characters as explained above. They think this is a strange eccentric English way of thinking about their language. It would be like somebody asking us the de-construct the Capital letter A into its three separate component lines / - = A. However understanding the Radicals, their meaning; their distorted forms, and learning which characters carry the phonic is the fastest way to achieve a basic literacy in Chinese.

Profile picture
bodawei

‘understanding the Radicals, their meaning; their distorted forms, and learning which characters carry the phonic is the fastest way to achieve a basic literacy in Chinese’

I didn't realise that you are so 'into' characters, radicals and learning processes.

But it worries me that your ambitions are to produce a 'basic' guide - something for beginners. A quick read of the above suggests to me that this is not for beginners. Looking at radicals and phonics is going to disappoint and discourage beginners - the 'rules' are so often broken that they will wonder about the claim that there are rules. The hard fact of life is that characters, much less radicals, do not carry a practical pronunciation guide - you can't learn to SPEAK Chinese this way. Pursuing this approach you will stumble across all kinds of delightful instances where the character predicts its pronunciation, but you will be let down if you try to apply a set of rules.

Your example 扒 pronounced as both ba1 and pa2 (with multiple meanings) is a case in point. You point to a meaning of 'climb' - but this won't help the average beginner. A common use of 扒 pa2 in China is a reference to a kind of cooking (braising) as in 牛扒 (braised steak). The usual way of expressing climbing (as in walking up a hill) is 爬山 pa2shan1 - confusing to a beginner, don't you agree, given that you have pointed to a homonym to refer to 'climb' - quite a different character?

Personally I am interested in this kind of analysis; I find it intriguing. But I would not recommend it for beginners.

I emphasise that this is just my own experience and opinion.

Profile picture
Keth

Hi bodawei ,I take your point that 扒 may not be a good example to give.( I would be interested to hear an example that might work better.) And I understand your point of view very well. I just think that Chinese is in fact capable of being learnt through recognition of characters that carry the phonic. Most teachers of Mandarin are native Chinese speakers and to them the phonetic implications of characters and their importance to foreign learners is not given any weight.

A famous example illustrating this phonetic aspect of characters is this. 我又一个个个两个地地 。Only by distorting the phonetics can you understand it. It illustrates my point that in fact the phonic aspect is at least as important are the radical.

I also agree that taking this route will present beginners with characters that will not obey the “rules”. But surely in this respect Chinese is no different than English? In English we spell the same sound o at least 10 different ways :- so, sow, sew, oh, owe, dough, doe, beau, soak, soul.

English uses the same letter o to represent at least 8 different sounds:_ so, to, on, honey, horse, woman, borough.

The beginner learning English starts off with a limited understanding of how the sound o can be used and progresses to learn more unusual usage.

However, to return to my main point, now you have a better understanding of how I want to use this system, have you any suggestions as to how a character like 生命 can be deconstructed other than by saying you take the first character in the order it appears.

Profile picture
bodawei

'Most teachers of Mandarin are native Chinese speakers and to them the phonetic implications of characters and their importance to foreign learners is not given any weight.'

My experience (admittedly a sample of one, and therefore suspect) is pretty much the opposite. Native Chinese speakers generally over-sell the phonic value in characters, especially when they go in 'teach a foreigner' mode. Honestly, I have never found it helpful, and there are several reasons for this. One reason is that this does not help in many aspects of communicating in Chinese.

Where does it help? Well, you might be out in the wild and see a sign - you need the information but you are looking at a strange character. You want to ask a nearby native speaker. It can help in some situations to say 'Hey ... character X ... what does it mean?' Alternatively you could point at the character and ask 'what does it mean?' in which case you don't need to know how to pronounce it. Your native speaker will say the word and its meaning.

I like to hear a Chinese word first, and get a reasonable grip of pronunciation, perhaps a sense of meaning in context (or have it explained to me), and then 'discover' the character. If there is anything in the character that lends weight to the meaning (or the sound) I take note, but it is definitely a second priority for me.

You give some comparisons in English but in my view it is a poor comparison. Some characters have 80 different meanings; I hope I am not exaggerating ... :) The number of homonyms in Chinese far exceeds those in English - it's not a fair race. Ever wondered why there are no crosswords in Chinese? Because it is not feasible. I started a Facebook group once on the subject and attracted about 17 members - and never got one contribution.

I give you the 'radical hints at meaning' bit, and that can be helpful when you are 猜猜 reading. But it never helps in refining meaning.

Actually you are probably talking to the wrong person here; I have a bee in my bonnet on this subject. :)

Having said all of that ... I do come across new characters living in China and I often have a go at pronouncing it, and sometimes I am right. I get a smug look on my face if I am right. Only for a brief moment though, because nothing, nothing in this system is going to hint at the tone. But I believe I can do that, with a little success, only because I read a couple of thousand characters 'reasonably well'*. I have in my data base many of the 'rules' and the many occasions those rules are broken to guide my guess.

* This is a vague term - some I can pronounce, understand, use in a sentence, and write from memory by hand. Some I can understand and not pronounce correctly. Some I can pronounce correctly but not have a good grasp of meaning. Some I can say but have no idea at all of meaning. Some I can guess their meaning from context (that is where the radical can help), even if I have never seen them before - this is pretty rare. Quite a few characters I recall clearly but their meaning escapes me, even when faced wth their radical.

Your final question ... 'have you any suggestions as to how a character (word you mean) 生命 can be deconstructed' ... maybe I will make that a separate post as the site is up to its old tricks of losing my posts when I take too long to type!

Profile picture
RJ

just a minor observation -

When 手 is used it stands alone, and therefore I guess it is both the radical and the phonetic part. It is only used in the form 扌when used with another phonetic component, so 扌is only used to make room for the phonetic in the single character square you speak of. So I would think it is not that the form used determines whether or not it is pronounced shou, but rather whether the hand radical is used alone (as both components of a character) or not.

You have to be careful because a character can be a word but words are often two or more characters. 扒 is a single character even if it is a word. In this context 八 is not a character but a component of the character 扒. To make room for the phonetic 八, the shou is compressed. I have to agree with Bodawei that although interesting to us, this kind of analysis would likely confuse beginners and reducing Chinese to an exact set of formulas, impossible. Languages are not built on rules, but rather the language is built first and someone tries to create rules to explain it after the fact. Most Chinese words are multiple characters to remove ambiguity in a world of many homonyms, and radicals are parts of individual characters, not words. Remember we all learn to speak first, then read. It is frustrating because unlike English where I can sound out any new word by reading it one syllable at a time, Chinese is much less efficient. Much more time must be invested even by elementary Chinese school children to learn Chinese vs English because of this.

Although your ideas are interesting, I dont think you can reduce Chinese to an "alphabet". Its art as well as science and one must bite the bullet and learn some characters. I look at the rules as memory aids, but there is no basic alphabet from which I can read characters or words I have never seen before. There are only hints.

Profile picture
anonymous546627

"I am looking at new ways of teaching beginners how to read and write Chinese."

Maybe you are looking at something like this: http://tinyurl.com/q2krvm

It deconstructs 2000 Chinese characters. (Sorry, in German)

Profile picture
bodawei

usr5623

I think that your message should have gone to Keth.

Profile picture
bodawei
August 12, 2012, 01:53 PM

'have you any suggestions as to how a character (word you mean) 生命 can be deconstructed'

This takes me back to reading classes - a very cool analytical course I did a fair time ago. Most of what I learnt has slipped my mind.

But my approach may be (assuming I know nothing much and I'm unsure of meaning, but I've learnt the 生 character) - about 80% of Chinese words are two characters, so this is probably one word, not two unrelated characters.  Most of those 80% combine characters of similar meaning to reinforce the meaning of the word, and avoid ambiguity. 

I know 生 has four or five meanings but a common meaning is 'life'. It is likely that 命 also means life, in which case the whole word means life, or something very close to that. I can see a 人 radical in the second character and that lends support to the view that the word is related to the 'living'. 

I'd admit that I could be wrong and there are a host of other possibilities, but I'd rate it an 80% probability that the whole word means life. 

This is an artifical exercise because I already know what the word means, but that is the approach I would take. Hope that helps. Note that the radical is not going to give me any clues about pronunciation, at all. 

Profile picture
Keth

Thanks bodawei for taking the time to give such a considered and full reply, I really do appreciate it. It is always good to hear another opinion and you have given me much to think about. Thanks again.

Profile picture
bodawei

没关系 ... hope it helps. Thanks for raising an interesting topic.

Profile picture
wande
August 12, 2012, 08:29 PM

hi bodawei,Keth,RJ   大家好

it's slightly off topic,but do you know a character dictionary indicating the non-radical elements of a character?

For example the character  博 contains the 甫。Where can I look up the other characters containing 甫?

比如:  傅,缚,辅,赙,脯,铺,...等等

祝好!

Profile picture
mikeinewshot

My Pleco on my mobile has that facilty

www.pleco.com

Profile picture
RJ

Wande,

Go to this site and choose "find a character" from the menu on the left. A list of the 858 "phonetic elements" will be shown, from which you can choose one and see all characters that contain it. You can find your phonetic listed by number of strokes. Your "fu" has 7 strokes so you will find it there (phonetic element #271)

http://www.smarthanzi.net/

Profile picture
bodawei

wande, mike and RJ have given you the good oil, and I have learned something myself. We have been talking about 献血 (donating blood) recently such as in BST and 献 is one of those characters where the radical doesn't jump out at me. 南 nan is more recognisable to me than 犬 quan, but 犬 is the radical. 南 of course is not a radical, it is the 'other part'.

Profile picture
Keth

Hi wande .You could try this web site http://www.chineseetymology.org/

There is an interesting “A Genealogy and Dictionary” ISBN:978-0-966-07500-7

that gives you lots of links to other characters.

Profile picture
wande

hi, all of you,thanks a lot for the valuable informations!! I still have to find out the manifold possibilities of pleco, smarthanzi is very clear and rapid, and the chineseetymology is very interesting.感谢你们!

Profile picture
root

Another vote for Rick Harbaugh's book -- I just love it!! A slight aside -- do you have any info on this book in an interactive / app form? Like an Anki deck, for example. I would love to just inhale this whole book in some sort of convenient form ...