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Using phonetic components to memorise characters


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Many chinese characters have a radical component showing its meaning and another component showing its pronunciation. Radicals are often emphasised,but phonetic components considerably less so. For example, we have 妈 mā mother, 马 mǎ horse, 号码 hàomǎ number, 猛犸 měngmǎ mammoth, 蚂蚁 mǎyǐ ant.

Do you use this phonetic information in order to memorise characters?

Does anybody know any list of the most common phonetic components?

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All the time. I don't think I could memorize the pronunciation without it. I find it useful only for the pronunciation, not the meaning.

You might want to take a look at this thread and that thread. And of course, my favorite website for finding all the characters with the same phonetic part.

I doubt there is a list, just because they are so varied.

As an aside, the phonetic part is, to me, one of the best examples of why, as adult learners of CFL, learning "how the native learners do" is not always the best advice.

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If I didn't miss your point (by too much) and if I recall correctly(which is even a bigger challenge), there is/was a poster on Chinesepod (Henning?) who found that organizing/studying by phonetic, rather than by semantic, component was particularly beneficial. He posted many lists of phonetic-similar/identical characters with definitions. You could try looking there (edit: don't bother - looks like the old forum posts are gone). If you can find some of his posts, I believe he also provided a discussion/rationale for his method. Another approach would be to just take a list of the most common x'1000 characters, sort by sound and group them according to common phonetic component. This, by implication, would provide a list of high frequency phonetic components.

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I find this method of learning characters really useful too. There's a dictionary called the 中文字譜, which is essentially organised by components (occurring anywhere in the character) instead of the traditional radical system. It's not arranged specifically with the phonetic components in mind, but in practice you'll often come across a bunch of characters that share a phonetic. For example:

青 qīng

清 qīng

晴 qíng

蜻 qīng

情 qíng

請 qǐng

精 jīng

睛 jīng

靖 jìng

猜 cài


I've got the book, which I highly recommend, but you can actually use it all for free on the guy's website: www.zhongwen.com

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I'm curious (maybe I'll look it up later), though: are 月 and 円 in free variation, or did they come from different places? At least if they came from different places the pronunciation is consistent throughout (with the exception of 猜).

zhongwen.com was also a topic of conversation in How do I memorise Chinese Characters?, by the way.

To answer the question in the OP, I always used the phonetic more to guess the readings than to learn the characters. Well, that was when I was going through the gauntlet. Nowadays I use the phonetics more to help learn them, because now I'm more able to remember readings that I've got experience and a fairly extensive phonetic (符號) vocabulary.

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All the time. I don't think I could memorize the pronunciation without it. I find it useful only for the pronunciation, not the meaning.

Same for me, except that I find that there usually is a useful meaning association as well.

The actual history of how characters were probably created seems to be a little complex, but a reasonable guideline might be to assume that phonetics were usually not "chosen" at random. In fact, the phonetics probably preceded that radicals. For instance, almost all the 青 words arguably share some connotation of the clear blue of the sky, the green of plants, or the gray/black of sea/pond water:

青 qīng:(glossy (?) natural colors, other than red and brown) blue, green, grey, black

清 qīng: clear like blue water

晴 qíng: clear like blue sky

蜻 qīng: the blue-green bug

情 qíng: emotions that are clearly expressed in the heart

請 qǐng: speak to invite others to share you emotions

精 jīng: glossy polished rice

睛 jīng: glossy "black" eyes

靖 jìng: peaceful as clear water

猜 cài: ?? I can only guess ;) what blue or green beast the inventors had in mind when they borrowed this character to mean "guess."

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Good suggestions all around

@jbradfor: your favorite website is great

@SiMaKe: you probably refer to Goulnik's phonetic maps. For instance, here. They are really useful

@jianping: the 中文字譜 dictionary is also fantastic.

I've also heard about A Dictionary of Chinese Characters Accessed by Phonetics. Has anybody used it?

Keep good suggestions coming

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In fact, it was Henning (miracle of miracles that I remembered correctly!). It appears that what Henning started [the "Character Points" group that you linked to for Goulnik's entries], Goulnik then extended into what are called his maps and further expanded to his website [http://goulnik.com/c...se/phonetics/]. These maps present an interesting perspective that I find appealing.

Moreover, I was able to correspond with Henning about his views. I was particularly interested since he had obviously invested a lot of time and effort and, given the value of hindsight, did he think it was worth it. I quote his reply because I believe it adds to this discussion.

"Yes, I do think it helps. I think that phonetic groups are particularly useful after passing a milestone of 2500-3000 characters (passive vocab). After that point it becomes harder and harder to build up your character base. An analytic approach really does help there - not so much for rote memorization but for getting a better feeling for the system. So, in my opinion, building them on your own helps more than memorizing them..."

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I use this method all the time when I come across a word I don't know, but only if I'm reading it in my head. If I have to read it aloud, I always try and check it beforehand. Although the pronunciation of the word may be the same or very similar, the tones are often different.

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@SiMaKe: You're right in pointing out that Henning started that chinesepod group.

Interestingly, phonetic classification of characters seems to have an old history. According to DeFrancis (1984) The Chinese Language, already in 1841, J.M Callery published his Systema phoneticum scripturae sinicae. Further work was carried out by W.E. Soothill in the 1880s and by Wieger in 1899. Goulnik's maps are based on Wieger's work

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this method is called 有边读边 in Chinese and it seems to be a popular way for Chinese students to go because majority of Chinese characters belong to radical-phonetic (形声) group.

However 有边读边 is usually seen as a bad way of learning in Chinese classes because many phonetic elements have been changed from the time the character was made.

Here is a joke about 有边读边 (http://www.tipspad.com/content/%E6%9C%89%E9%82%8A%E8%AE%80%E9%82%8A%E7%9A%84%E7%AC%91%E8%A9%B1)





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this method is called 有边读边 in Chinese and it seems to be a popular way for Chinese students to go because majority of Chinese characters belong to radical-phonetic (形声) group.

Only in Taiwan though. I'm not sure about HK but we don't use this word in mainland.

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i have a glimpse on the list and it seems to be reliable. Although teachers usually mention this method in a negative tone, I think this method isn't that bad because a radical-phonetic character is supposed to be used in this way. Throughout the history, we may just have lost some of the original phonetics and replace it with some other... hmm, please correct me if i'm wrong.

Xiaocai, do you know any proper term to call this "method" in putonghua?

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