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Written Mandarin system

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Hello dear Chines-forums.com users

I wanted to ask anyone that might know what the alleged written system for mandarin is.

I am a total beginner, with only about a month's worth of Mandarin studies under my belt. But I cannot recognise a pattern for writing Chinese characters. Okay, sometimes it makes sense to see the 亻radical in characters, but I only vaguely see a pattern in its use, so much so that I would not be able to formulate the pattern I think I see.

So, what is the system/pattern used in writing Mandarin characters?

Thanks :)

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As you have noticed, characters are made up of sub-parts. And, when it comes to pronunciation, there is a bit of a "system" for many characters in which part gives the meaning and part often gives a hint at the sound. But that's about it for a "system".

If it were easy to learn, what's the challenge?

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As said earlier there is no pattern, system, or logic to chinese character. But having said that there some rules and patterns, but they do not apply to all. As you learn more this will become clearer. English is also famous for not following all it rules all of the time. But if you are a native english speaker you will have absorbed these rules without learning them. Same with chinese don't try to learn them just absorb them as you go along. This is one reason why with chinese you have to practice, practice and practice some more.

If you have only been learning for about a month, you have many years ahead of you of great pleasure as you learn enough chinese to see any patterns. This is the key, you need lots of data before the rules become apparant. Enjoy Shelley

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Roughly, it goes like this.

Originally, characters were stylised pictures, representing the objects visually. There is a proportionally small number of such characters still in use, but it includes many important characters, like 人 (person), 子 (child), 女 (woman), and 马 (horse).

A small number of characters uses several of these to form a new character, with the meaning coming from all the parts. Like 好 (good): woman 女 + child 子 = good.

The vast majority of the remaining characters are composed of two parts. One of them (called radical) tells you something about the meaning of the character, the other one (called phonetic) tells you something about the pronunciation. For example 妈 (mother) has the meaning similar to 女 (radical) and a pronunciation similar to 马 (phonetic).

This will help you memorise characters once you get better, but you still have to learn them, there is no trick that will magically explain all characters through a few funky rules.

BTW, it's not Mandarin writing, it's Chinese writing, and it is the same for any Chinese dialect.

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I think when you're just getting going, it is a good idea to read a book or two about Chinese in English. Here are a couple suggestions. They do a good job laying out the different concepts and components of Chinese. It took me months to wrap my head around the idea of Chinese before I really started to learn any.

The Chinese Language: Its History and Current Usage

Speaking of Chinese: A Cultural History of the Chinese Language

Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy

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The original question was a bit vague, but here's my own attempt at some sort of answer:

It isn't really necessary to read an entire book to get an idea of what the Chinese writing system is generally like, compared to other writing systems - just a survey-like chapter, or even a paragraph or two, ought to be enough (see for example pp43-44 of Peter Daniels' chapter on writing systems in The Blackwell Handbook of Linguistics, previewable on Google Books, though I've captured and pasted in the relevant bit below from pp43-44 *); that is, provided that one knows what the terms 'morpheme'** and 'syllable' mean (the latter whilst also bearing in mind the notion of 'syllabic consonant'), one will understand what Daniels and other writers mean when they describe Chinese writing as 'morphosyllabic' (from which we get the term 'morphosyllabogram' to describe what Chinese characters are in essence).*** I would certainly question the ultimate value of say Daniel Kane's book (too much of a "sprawling" hit-and-miss miscellany IMHO, and quite badly written and/or proof-read and edited in places...though see the next paragraph), and would only recommend DeFrancis with caution (that is, the DeFrancis, whilst a very interesting book, may not be for the absolute beginner to Chinese, or the very general, easy-come easy-go reader). I haven't read the second book (by the Changs) that Gleaves recommends, so can't comment on it, but it's garnered positive reviews on Amazon (then again, so has Kane!).



The main point to take away from such bits of reading though is that Chinese writing is not exclusively logographic/ideographic/pictographic/composed of ideograms or pictograms (at least not beyond its very earliest forms, after which the pictographs began to be used as rebuses, and then further distinguished by the addition of semantic indicators [more or less radicals] etc); that being said, there is unfortunately still not that much material (I mean study materials), especially modern stuff, that spells out the phonetic components and nature of characters clearly and consistently enough (but see the resources mentioned at the end of the next paragraph). One of the more useful bits in Kane's book ( http://books.google....tsec=frontcover ) is where, on pp 32-34, he introduces the modern 'three categories' (apparently proposed by a Chen Mengjia in 1956) as the best way of explaining the origins and processes of character creation. These three categories/processes, from earliest to later, are: pictograph (e.g. 日 月 水 山 鸟[鳥] 羊 舟 磊 森 休 旦 明 鸣), loan graph/rebus (for examples, see pg 34), and lastly 'phonographs' (essentially the radical + phonetic structuring that any even halfway-serious student of Chinese soon becomes aware of: this category now makes up the vast majority of characters. You can see how the percentage increased over time by looking at the figures given for 'semantic-phonetics' in the table at the top of pg 84 of http://books.google....tsec=frontcover or on pg 99 of http://books.google....tsec=frontcover ). Obviously these three categories are less fuzzy/overlapping, more easily grasped, than the traditional six categories (liùshū 六書) proposed way back in the year dot by whoever (see paragraph 3 of the following wiki page section: http://en.wikipedia....al_organization ).

If English were anything like Chinese, there would be even more variation ("inconsistency") in English spelling, that is, many more ways of expressing the same particular sound, and we'd also have added and be identifying "semantic" components within words, and then counting the residual strokes in the letters outside/besides/other than in the semantic component, than simply looking the whole word up by its string of alphabetical letters. Thus in this imaginary Chinese-inspired "English" orthography, /kæn/ could on the one hand be written as '[tin] can' (counted as 5 strokes, I'll have you know!) and enclosed within a semantic (囗, which we'll call the "container"), or as '[ability] can' and enclosed on the left and bottom side by a right arm, viewed from the front and held out from the body whilst bulging its bicep (i.e. something like [_n_ :) ). (This analogy is based on one of DeFrancis's: see pg 194 of http://books.google....tsec=frontcover ). That's not to say however that a somewhat unfamiliar Chinese character can't in reality ever be looked up phonetically/by rough syllable (thus avoiding any involved radical identification and residual stroke counting), once one is familiar enough with the range of phonetic components used. One can become more familiar with these phonetic components simply by taking note of them whenever one notices them (which one will start to!) in Pinyin-ordered dictionaries, but more explicit and comprehensive listings can be found in Wieger's Chinese Characters, and modern works drawing on it e.g. Harbaugh. Online versions of both are mentioned in the footnote of the following post: http://www.chinese-f...077#comment-237077 (and regarding simplified vs traditional characters generally, the following should be helpful: http://www.chinese-f...post__p__247321 ).

Anyway, on an immediately very practical level: after learning Pinyin thoroughly, and presumably something of the spoken language, one should make sure that one doesn't stint on learning the strokes and radicals, and mastering Chinese conventional paper dictionary look-up skills (doing so will help increase one's overall understanding of the Chinese writing system). The following resource will provide a reasonable grounding in those areas: http://www.chinese-f...ified-radicals/

One thing that will definitely require quite a lot of work is memorizing tones (i.e. the suprasegmental part of the syllable). Books such as Learning Chinese Characters ( http://www.amazon.co...10101348&sr=8-1 ) offer mnemonic story devices that may be of help, but not everyone is convinced that that these are worth the effort (as they can become quite involved - "memory palaces"). There is an interesting thread about the Matthewses' book on Language Log, as linked to in the Chinese-forums thread mentioned at the end of the preceding paragraph. Bear in mind however that no character and thus tone is ever really used that often in complete isolation - that is, there are often tone sandhi (tone change) rules to consider in certain linguistic contexts/co-texts. One resource that will be very useful in this regard is the recently-published ABC ECCE dictionary (see the ninth paragraph of the following review: http://www.chinese-f...post__p__237924 ), which has developed a sophisticated system that indicates the tone changes that should be effected whilst at the same time retaining the canonical tones (whereas resources prior to the ABC ECCE either kept to just the canonical tones, or indicated tone changes, but never really both simultaneously like the ABC ECCE does! http://www.chinese-f...h__1#comment-85073 ).

Or you might just prefer to read pp 6-14 (a detailed and very interesting review of DeFrancis's Visible Speech) of the following pdf: http://www.sino-plat...ook_reviews.pdf

*If this or any of the other Google Book previews I mention are no longer available when you go to preview them, ask and I can type them up (I own all the books mentioned, with the exception of the Changs', and the Matthewses'). By the way, I link to the books generally, rather than specific pages in them, because I have learnt from experience that linking to a specific page seems an almost surefire way to make any page that was previously previewable become suddenly non-previewable! (I guess this apparent denying previews of "demanded/in demand" pages could be one of Google's and/or the publishers' ways of getting people to actually buy the books?).

**That's not to say that the morphosyllables of Chinese haven't ever been divided further from a purely phonological (i.e. phoneme-based) point of view, for the purposes of e.g. compiling "rhyme" dictionaries such as the Qieyun, and for "spelling" syllables aloud. See the second and third paragraphs on pg 42, and pp 116-124, of Ramsey ( http://books.google....tsec=frontcover ) and e.g. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fanqie . Note that the method used to indicate character pronunciation before fǎnqiè was developed, that is, the dú ruò (读若, "read/pronounced like") method, also goes by the name of 直音 zhíyīn. Two disadvantages of the zhiyin method were/are that it can't deal with characters that lack complete homophones (e.g. 白 bái), or when their only homophones are rarer than the character they are seeking to phonemically define (which can lead to circular definitions: "A is pronounced like B" and "B is pronounced like A"). Fanqie however is not without its problems too, so the modern solution has of course been to develop phonetic alphabets like Pinyin, that can indicate standard pronunciations pretty much independently of characters, possible dialectal differences in readings, etc. Binyong & Rohsenow's Modern Chinese Characters (unfortunately not previewable on Google Books) is very informative for stuff like this. http://books.google....id=732pQgAACAAJ

***Note that there are a lot of lexical items ("words", if you like) that are bi- and poly-syllabic (i.e. multisyllabic) in modern Chinese - that is, have come to be expressed using more than one character/morphosyllable/morphosyllabogram. (A general term for this would I guess be 'compounding'). From what I have gathered, the increase in multisyllabics was a response to, to help offset, the loss especially in the north of the country of sounds that had kept previously monosyllabic items reasonably distinct; that is, the increase in multisyllabics helped maintain intelligibility.

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I'm a native Chinese speaker. It's even difficult for Chinese to remember how to write Chinese characters. I use keyboards to type Chinese much more than use pens or pencils nowadays. Yes, I 'write' faster. But you know what, I gradually forget how to write Chinese characters. Sometimes I look at a character and ask myself: is this character written correctly? I'm not the only person. Many of my Chinese friends have the same problems.

I advise you to read and hand-write more Chinese. By reading more, you can remember some vague images of characters. By hand-writing more, you can change those vague images into clear ones. That's how Chinese students learn Chinese today. A Chinese student in a primary school need write 10~20 characters at least 10 times every day.

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Many of my Chinese friends have the same problems.

Yeah, and I have to admit that I feel a certain degree of schadenfreude about natives struggling with some of the same problems as learners do. Whenever I feel bad about my Chinese I do the "打喷嚏"-trick. I ask a Chinese native "打喷嚏的嚏怎么写" and enjoy the confusion that often results. If they get that, I follow up with "饕餮大餐的饕餮呢?" :P

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Whenever I feel bad about my Chinese I do the "打喷嚏"-trick. I ask a Chinese native "打喷嚏的嚏怎么写" and enjoy the confusion that often results. If they get that, I follow up with "饕餮大餐的饕餮呢?" :P

That's true. We learn something purely for exams. B) After we leave school, we totally forget it. But it doesn't cause trouble to me in daily life.

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