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It is sort of a chicken and egg question. Before I started to think (maybe too much), I just assumed that Chinese characters had their own independent meaning and got chosen in certain compound words because of this, but maybe in some cases it's the other way around?

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This question is a little broad. Are you asking about the methods of making compound words? – Stan Jul 3 '13 at 16:48
@Stan I'm asking about the etymology of Chinese characters, and how their meaning were derived. – Jimmy Callin Jul 4 '13 at 3:50

Most compound words in Chinese appeared later on in the history of the language. In ancient Chinese, just about every single character had it's own meaning. Later on when the language started becoming more modern, many words became compound words to simplify the language by making it easier to differentiate homonyms and to make the language sound more fluid when spoken. I've had a teacher explain that Chinese people feel that characters sound more natural in pairs.

I don't know the exact history in how the compound words were created, but having studied some ancient Chinese, I can say that the individual characters came first :) .

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Minor quibble--some words in Chinese have always been multiple characters (although it's obviously much less common than the case you describe). – Stumpy Joe Pete Jul 3 '13 at 17:19
I could imagine that the increased use of compound words were introduced when they started to write more like how they spoke (in the end of the 19th century if I remember correctly), but please correct me if I'm wrong. It would be interesting to know if they during this point invented a lot of new characters, or if the old characters already were sufficient. – Jimmy Callin Jul 4 '13 at 3:54

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