Phonetic Components in Characters

2611月07

English Translation of 字之声旁.

More than 80% of the characters in Chinese have a phonetic component. For people who already know how to speak Chinese, this is extremely convenient because it’s very easy for them to guess the meanings of characters they don’t know. When the Chinese government was reforming the characters in the 1950’s, the reformers missed that one opportunity to correct the phonetic components in Chinese characters. Although they changed some characters to have better phonetic components, Chinese still has lots of characters which have inaccurate phonetic components; amongst these characters, most of them used to have accurate phonetic components in the past, but because Chinese is an extremely old language, characters and their phonetic components have long since diverged. Today, there are seven kinds of characters:

  1. Accurate Pronunciation: These characters are of the best kind, but very few in number. For example, 码、清、啦、歌. These characters and their phonetic components have precisely the same pronunciation.
  2. Dissimilar Tone: These characters are not that few. For example, 妈、把、但、想. Except for the difference in tone, the characters and their phonetic components have the same sound.
  3. Same Category: There are quite a lot of this kind of character as well. For example, 起、婆、基. Most of these characters are in the same category of sound as their phonetic components. For instance, 起 and its component 己 are both in the j q x group of sounds.
  4. Initial Consonant in Same Category: For example, 破、魔.
  5. Almost the same Initial Sound: For example, 怎、净.
  6. Same Vowel Sound: For example, 娘、懂、踢.
  7. Used to have the same sound: 路、填、治、你、地.

Note:

  1. A few characters can have many or somewhat unclear pronunciations; for example, 元 can serve as a phonetic for both yuan and wan and 果 is usually phonetic in characters pronounced ke.
  2. The seventh category is a bit interesting in that those characters used to have accurate phonetic components in ancient times, but since they weren’t gradually modified to carry accurate sounds, today they don’t serve as useful phonetic components.
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