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Help for a beginner - radicals!


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j_spencer

Hi all,

I’ve only just started learning Mandarin and am currently reading through a beginners book (just to gain a grounding) before undertaking it in my Masters. I’ve only just started learning the language but have already run into my first minor problem. The book I’m reading is “Colloquial Chinese” by Kan Qian. On page 13 she introduces radicals.

My first question: can someone please give me a simple explanation of a radical? Most of what I’ve read on the internet and in the book over-complicates things, which makes it difficult seeing as I don’t have a tutor to explain things to me. Basically I’d just like the basics of a radical, and to leave the intricacies till later on.

My final couple of questions relate to the picture below:

This, according to Kan Qian, is a table of some of the most commonly used radicals. Does this mean that a symbol is completely different when used in isolation than if it was used as a radical? The “people” symbol for example.

Finally, and this is my sort of main question: how come some of the meanings do not have a symbol when used in isolation? For example the second one on the page, “water”; it tells me what the symbol is when it is used as a radical in soup, but it doesn’t tell me what it is in isolation. Is there any reason for this? Surely she should just put the symbol for “water” in the “When in isolation” column?

I hope you can make sense of all that! Any help would be hugely appreciated!

Thanks a lot.

Jamie.

chineseradicalsnq6.jpg

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againstwind
can someone please give me a simple explanation of a radical?

A radical is the semantic root in Chinese characters.

So, is it simple? Or make you more confused?:mrgreen:

Does this mean that a symbol is completely different when used in isolation than if it was used as a radical?

No.

For example:

人: 全quan2,entire 会hui4, meet

水: 汞gong3,hydrargyrum 浆jiang1,mucilaginous liquid

亻is just one of the variations of 人 as a radical. The same for 氵,which is one of variations of 水 as a radical.

how come some of the meanings do not have a symbol when used in isolation? Surely she should just put the symbol for “water” in the “When in isolation” column?

Yes, she should have. I think the reason why she didn't do so is that this kind of symbols when used in isolation is quite different from that when used in combination.

And it's hard and unnecessary to tell learners, especially beginners, about the long process of the change of Chinese characters.

And you need know this saying that 'symbol used in isolation' and 'symbol used in combination', in fact, is not accurate enough. Because, for example, though 灬 and 火(radical, I can't input the radical) both indicate their relation with the conception of 火(character, meaning fire), they actually originated from different ancient characters. And this is precisely what the author intended to slide over, because it's really unnecessary to make it more complicated for learners to understand.

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j_spencer

Thanks a lot. Vet much appreciated.

So a radical provides the meaning of a Chinese character? There are about 2000 characters used in day to day Chinese. So am I right in saying the vast majority of characters are not radicals? Does every one of these characters have to go hand-in-hand with a radical to give it meaning? For example, are you able to use a Chinese character on its own, or does it have to be used with a radical?

Thanks again.

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A radical is a part of a character, and it often gives you some indication about the meaning of the character. For example, the characters for 'soup' and 'river' all have the water radical, telling you that it is something that has some relation to water (wet, liquid). The characters for 'you' and 'he/she' have the person radical, telling you that they are about people. A radical does not give the entire meaning of a character, just an indication.

Every character has a radical, and the radical is an integral part of the character. If you write a character without its radical it becomes either a completely different character or gibberish. You're right that most characters are not radicals themselves, there are 200+ radicals and thousands and thousands of characters.

Not sure why Kan Qian doesn't give the full form of many radicals in her list, perhaps because those full forms are not themselves radicals. I'd suggest you just ignore this choice of hers, it only complicates matters.

I hope this helps, if you have any more questions, feel free to ask.

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So a radical provides the meaning of a Chinese character?

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Not at all, such as: 法,阅。法 means law, it's have nothing to do with water. But we should see it: 氵means water; 去 means go. So the 法 is just like the way as the watter flowing in the river. 阅 means read. 门means door, 兑 means exchangemarsh(here is "exchange"). So you can see that means someone exchange his knowledge or other thing without go out(stay in the door)----that's reading

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There are about 2000 characters used in day to day Chinese. So am I right in saying the vast majority of characters are not radicals? Does every one of these characters have to go hand-in-hand with a radical to give it meaning? For example, are you able to use a Chinese character on its own, or does it have to be used with a radical?

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next chance if I have spare time~~

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againstwind
So a radical provides the meaning of a Chinese character?

In fact, not always. A radical may not only give you some indication about the meaning of the character, but also give you the phonetic information of the character. This usually happens on the so-called 形声字, which consists of a semantic radical and a phonetic radical, predominating in characters. Someone give the former a name 形旁 and the latter 声旁. But some radicals just function as a part of a character, neither indicating meaning nor pronunciation. Anyway, you need just know it. That's enough.

Maybe it's better to say most characters have a radical or more. The former mean that the character itself is a productive radical, such as 人, 水, 心, 木 and so on, which can structure many other characters. The latter consist of 形声字 and others like 'suggestive characters' 休(xiu1, rest, a person leans on a tree) and 尖(jian1, spinous, top small and buttom big). Besides, some characters not too many probably don't have radicals, because they are merely symbols, like 凹(ao1, concave), 凸(tu1, protruding), 互(hu4, mutual), 丫(ya1, fork). They rarely (as far as I know) function as radicals.

But anyway, I also suggest you ignore these detailed problems if they have complicated matters.

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j_spencer

Againstwind, lu, fxmgx... thank you so much! I really appreciate it. This is really helping me get to grips with the language. Hopefully once I have the basics I'll be able to really push on and not have to bore you with so many questions!

These are my final questions on radicals, I promise!

"A radical is a part of a character, and it often gives you some indication about the meaning of the character. For example, the characters for 'soup' and 'river' all have the water radical, telling you that it is something that has some relation to water (wet, liquid). The characters for 'you' and 'he/she' have the person radical, telling you that they are about people. A radical does not give the entire meaning of a character, just an indication."

Thanks, can radicals be used on their own? For example, if you were saying “I lit a fire”, would you just use the "fire" radical, on its own, to denote that word?

---

"Maybe it's better to say most characters have a radical or more"

Thanks, out of interest though, in what cases do characters NOT have a radical in them?

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"A radical may not only gives you some indication about the meaning of the character, but also gives you the phonetic information of the character."

I’m sorry but I really don’t get this at all! Kan Qian dedicated a couple of sentences to explain this but it went right over my head. How does it give you the phonetic information? I know the radical gives you the classification of the character, but what gives you the phonetic information? An additional radical?

---

So am I right in saying that, when learning to read and write Chinese. Learning the radicals (or at least the most important ones) comes before learning the characters?

My final question on the matter! How do you know what radicals go with what characters? For example, when you see a character next to a radical, whilst you may know what the radical and character mean individually, how do you know what the meaning of the two together are?

Thanks again guys. It must be really frustrating having to help a beginner get to grips with the language! Your help is invaluable!

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studentyoung
Thanks, out of interest though, in what cases do characters NOT have a radical in them?

Yes. For example, 才(cai2)、丈(zhang4)、书(shu1)、丫(ya1)are characters NOT have a radical in them.

"A radical may not only gives you some indication about the meaning of the character, but also gives you the phonetic information of the character."

I’m sorry but I really don’t get this at all! Kan Qian dedicated a couple of sentences to explain this but it went right over my head. How does it give you the phonetic information? I know the radical gives you the classification of the character, but what gives you the phonetic information? An additional radical?

Here is an example. In the character 骂 (ma4), its radical is 马(ma3), not 口(kou3). (But I can’t think of other similar cases for the time being.)

My final question on the matter! How do you know what radicals go with what characters? For example, when you see a character next to a radical, whilst you may know what the radical and character mean individually, how do you know what the meaning of the two together are?

Take the phrase 目瞪口呆(mu4 deng4 kou3 dai1)as an example!

It means “be stunned and speechless” http://dict.cn/search/?q=%C4%BF%B5%C9%BF%DA%B4%F4 ).

目(mu4)is a single character means “eye”.

瞪(deng4) is a character has its radical 目, but the whole character means “stare”.

Thanks!

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againstwind
Thanks, can radicals be used on their own? For example, if you were saying “I lit a fire”, would you just use the "fire" radical, on its own, to denote that word?

Yes. Some radicals can be.

“I lit a fire”>>>>> 我点着了

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cdn_in_bj
"A radical is a part of a character, and it often gives you some indication about the meaning of the character. For example, the characters for 'soup' and 'river' all have the water radical, telling you that it is something that has some relation to water (wet, liquid). The characters for 'you' and 'he/she' have the person radical, telling you that they are about people. A radical does not give the entire meaning of a character, just an indication."

Thanks, can radicals be used on their own? For example, if you were saying “I lit a fire”, would you just use the "fire" radical, on its own, to denote that word?

You can think of radicals as being common components of characters, and these radicals happen to be derived from characters themselves, in form and in meaning. Maybe the phrase "characters made up of characters" will help to illustrate this.

So to answer your question, you can use the character from which a radical is derived. In your example of "fire" the radical and character happen to have pretty much the same form, but this is not always true for the other radicals. The water radical is a good example of this - you would not use the water radical by itself, you would use the character "水" instead. That is why I feel it is important to keep in your mind the distinction between radicals and characters.

So am I right in saying that, when learning to read and write Chinese. Learning the radicals (or at least the most important ones) comes before learning the characters?

It's a logical place to start. Radicals are a good memory aid for learning and classifying characters (see my response to your next question below). However, you cannot equate radicals as being some sort of alphabet system for writing Chinese characters; based on your questions, I get the impression that this is the line of thinking you've fallen into and I hope my reply clarifies things for you.

My final question on the matter! How do you know what radicals go with what characters? For example, when you see a character next to a radical, whilst you may know what the radical and character mean individually, how do you know what the meaning of the two together are?

Here is the bad news, you cannot always the determine meaning of new characters based on their composition with radicals and known characters. Yes, the components may give you hints as to the meaning or pronounciation of a new (to you) character, however you still have to learn and memorize each character individually and this is by far the hardest part about learning Chinese!

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j_spencer just asked me some more things by pm, seeing the development of the discussion in this thread I think I'd better post my answer here as well, to try and keep things clear...

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Firstly, don't get too hung up on the radicals in the beginning. They are helpful when looking up words in the dictionary (which I think you're not doing yet on a regular basis) and they can give an indication of the meaning, but not to an extent that you would know the meaning of the whole word right away. So, don't worry about them too much for now.

All Chinese characters have a radical.

Many Chinese characters consist of 1) a radical and 2) a part that indicates the sound.

The word for 'mother' is a very good example: the woman-radical shows that it means some kind of woman or something womanly; the 'ma' part (which is not a radical in this character!) shows that the character is pronounced something like /ma/; together, they are the character ma1 = mother. Not all characters are that clear-cut though.

Usually, the radical does not indicate the sound, only the meaning; the other part of the character gives phonetic information.

Generally (AFAIK), all radicals are also characters in their own right. (In which case they are their own radical, ie, the radical of ma3 (horse) is the horse-radical.) If they stand on their own, they are used as characters; if they are part of a character, they are radicals. In their character form, they can be used just like other characters: whenever you need them.

You will know when a character is used as a character on its own and when as a radical, it shows clearly in the typography, not much confusion possible I think. Some characters look different when they function as radicals, and yes you will have to learn this. This is less troublesome with simplified characters than with traditional though.

Why some characters look different when they function as radicals I'm not sure, I guess this is partly to save space or to have less strokes to write.

But, don't go learn all the 218 or so radicals by heart at this point, just learn them as you go along, for example by checking which radicals the new characters you learn have. Sometimes it's hard to determine what is the radical of a character and what another part, but you'll get the hang of it after a while.

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j_spencer

Thanks for everybody's :help !!! Here's some of the information that users very kindly provided for me. :D

Radicals are used to classify Chinese characters by their structure.

According to the function in construction of a character, the radical (部件) consists of the dependent and the independent. 1) The former can't be a character alone and it may be a stroke (like 小 consists of three dependent radicals: 丿, 丨and丶) or a dependent semantic radical, for example:

疤 consists a dependent semantic radical 疒 and an independent radical 巴.

2) The latter can be a character alone or a part of another character, like 巴 we just mentioned above.

Scholars basically recognize that Chinese characters consist of 部件, for example:

妈 consists two 部件:女 and 马

爸 consists of two 部件: 父 and 巴

想 consists of three 部件: 木, 目 and 心 (木 and 目 also make up a character 相)

The signification of learning radicals is, I think, to help you remember the construction of a character, instead of a symbol without any thread.

PHONETIC

It just so happens that the radical of a character can often give clues as to the meaning of the character. Sometimes it also affects how a character sounds. But there are also cases where it does not seem to have anything to do with the meaning or sound of the character. That is why I like to think of radicals from a structural point of view rather than from a semantic or pronounciation point of view.

In Chinese characters, the so-called 形声字 predominates in quantity. It consists of 形旁 (xing2pang2, a semantic radical that I mentioned above) and 声旁 (sheng1pang2, a phonetic radical).

形旁, a semantic radical, can indicate some kind of semantic relation with the meaning of the character. Usually it gives a hint about the sort of the character; rarely it gives the meaning of the character directly.

声旁, a phonetic radical, can indicate the phonetic information of the character. But, similar to 形旁, usually it will not give an accurate pronunciation of the character directly. In general, it just give us a hint that characters with the same phonetic radical probably have the same, or at least, the similar pronouciation. Let's have a look at some example:

These characters below are 形声字

爸 ba4, father >>>> 形旁: 父, fu4, father

疤 ba1, scar >>>> 形旁: 疒, a dependent semantic radical, illness

把 ba3, hold >>>>形旁: 扌, a dependent semantic radical, hand

In this group, three character have the same phonetic radical, '巴', ba1. But the they don't have totally the same pronunciation, merely similar.

And except 爸, whose semantic radical directly gives the meaning of the character, the rest two's semantic radicals just give a hint with a relation to the meaning of the characters.

Another group:

妈 ma1, mother >>>> 形旁, 女, nv3, female, women

码 ma3, code, yard >>>> 形旁, 石,shi2, stone (but in the ancient time, 石 also means the measure of weight, then it become the semantic radical of measure)

骂, ma4, scold, abuse, curse>>>>形旁, 口, mouth

You see, in this group, they have the same phonetic radical '马', ma4. BUT it doesn't give any idea about horse. So you may ask when it gives. As you are learning more characters, you will realise it.

If 马 indicates horse, it should be at the left or buttom of the character, like

驾, jia4, drive>>>>声旁, 加, jia1

驰, chi2, gallop>>>>声旁, 也, ye3 (you see this phonetic doesn't give accurate pronunciation)

驴, lv2, donkey>>>>声旁, 户, hu4, the same to above this phonetic doesn't give accurate pronunciation

驼, tuo2, camel>>>> 声旁, 它, ta1, this phonetic radical just gives part information of the final pronunciation

In a word, radicals give phonetic information as well as hints as to the meaning of a character. It only happans in 形声字.

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