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I'm wondering what do Chinese speakers do when they are reading aloud and encounter a character they don't know (sometimes it happens, isn't it?).

In phonetic languages, there is a possibility to read an unknown word correctly, but in the ideographic ones you have no idea on the pronunciation. Meaning is also hard to guess, because that unknown word is likely to be a very narrow term. E.g. it's difficult to guess what the bleak or anticlinorium are, even having the context.

So what is the most common way for native Chinese speakers to read aloud unknown words?

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Many characters have a phonetic component (such as 洛 in 落, 兰 in 栏) and that's the hint. Of course this is not always accurate nowadays after two thousand years of sound evolution. For instance, pronouncing 绔(ku4) as kua; such mistake is called 念半边, which is a mistake that people would ridicule others for being undereducated. – user58955 Mar 17 '14 at 21:18
@user58955 I'm a chinese and I approve this – Mc Kevin Mar 18 '14 at 2:22
I think the problem is your assumption that Chinese is "ideographic". Very few characters are either pictographic or ideographic. Most of them are, as others have mentioned, 形声字 which combine a phonetic with a semantically suggestive radical. – Stumpy Joe Pete Mar 18 '14 at 17:07

When encountering unknown characters, native speakers often refer to dictionaries, which have pinyin of the unknown character.

While it is hard to guess the exact pronunciation of unknown characters, there are a subset of Chinese characters, called phonogram(形声字), whose pronunciation is related to part of the character. For example, 蛛(spider) has the same pronunciation with 朱.

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I have asked this question before to native speakers, and their answer was the same as my natural intuition did in cases where I have read unknown characters.

The most probable case is that the character is read with a similar pronunciation as one of its radicals. For example, many native Chinese speakers may not know with certainty how to pronounce the word 椛 (hua), but their best guess would be that it is pronounced as its radical 花 (hua1), or with another tone (hua2, hua3, or hua4).

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What we say is, 有边读边,没边读中间。

Sometimes this becomes 有边读边,没边自己编!


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This is my favorite question so far.

We can only guess!

For example, I don't know how to pronounce character 笪, what can I do? Well, I will pronounce as 旦(dan4). Is that correct? Maybe or maybe not.(Actually it is da2)

Let me give you one more example, I don't know how to pronounce character 啝 so I will just pronounce 和(he2), and in this case, it's correct.

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We will try to read the character using the phonetic component, get it wrong and get corrected by others, then move on.

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Keep Calm and Move On! – Ave Maleficum Mar 19 '14 at 2:21

Chinese is such a mish-mash of ideograms/pictograms and other grams that reading a new character is virtually impossible. But there are clues in the radicals but there are no clear rules the helpers embedded in there for meaning and sound - the best thing would be probably an educated guess.

Consider 紅 for example - the color red, the 工 present to the right is the "phonetic helper" - same goes for 空. Consider 東, 凍 the meaning here comes from the radical while the character helps with the sound.

Then there are the "phoyinji" (that's the approximate pronunciation of what my teacher told me) which is the same character pronounced differently.

[This is the point where its totally legit to have a panic attack, but thankfully there aren't too many of these.]

It seems to me that the language is constrained by the sounds that can be produces. Another interesting question would be "What happens when a sound that is new is heard?"

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I have the impression that "phoyinji" is supposed to be 多音字 duōyīnzì, character with many sounds. – MickG Jan 8 '15 at 20:43
I can understand that is ji in some dialects, but duō->fo/pho… very strange. – MickG Jan 8 '15 at 20:49

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