Some radicals do not seem to be commonly in use for their meaning, but only to convey pronunciation, as an answer to this question and many websearches revealed.

Is that true for many radicals?

Could you share a list, noting which radicals are no longer or rarely used for their original meaning, but just to convey a sound?

  • By definition radicals are always the meaningful part. For example, has as radical, while in , the radical is actually . However, there may be exceptions that I'm not aware of. – Wang Dingwei Dec 3 '14 at 9:03
  • I believe these two pages, Radical and Phono-semantic compound characters, can offer you an overview of those concepts. – Stan Dec 3 '14 at 9:23
  • @WangDingwei could you please give me an example where the 阜/阝 contributes to meaning not the sound – anonnymous Dec 3 '14 at 11:37
  • 阡(qian1)陌(mo4), both mean "path", and are obviously related to geographic entities. The phonetic part is 千百. Side note, in the character 部(bu4) is meaning something related to a county or similar regional administration, while 咅(pou) is the phonetic part. – Wang Dingwei Dec 3 '14 at 12:13
  • You can search for a component on this site which will show what function it has wherever it is a component (scroll down to the Component uses section). E.g. is a meaning component in 5 characters (靖 倩 靛 婧 锖) and a sound component in 25 characters )情 清 請 请 精 静 靜 睛 猜 晴 靖 倩 菁 蜻 氰 靓 靚 婧 锖 鯖 鲭 腈 箐 鼱 圊). Not all characters have full details, but I've always found what I was looking for. – gnucchi Sep 21 '20 at 11:40

This is an interesting question.

Before I say anything I should warn you that I am not a linguist and some of my terminology could be off. Just to share some of my insight as a native Chinese speaker and hopefully you will find it helpful.

I think there's some information lost in translation.

There're two related, similar but not interchangeable concepts called 偏旁(偏 means partial, 旁 means on the side) and 部首(literally means "section header"). However they are both translated as "radical".

While they are both components of Chinese characters, there are differences. From their literal meaning, you can loosely think 偏旁 as a partially-formed 部首 placing on one side of a character. With that in mind, 部首s are mostly used for classification purpose (as in a dictionary) and 偏旁 are mostly used when talking about character structure and composition (as in this question). But don't worry about that too much, since many native Chinese speakers couldn't tell the difference all the time either.

Take 阜 and 阝for example, you can see right away that 阝is a simplified version of 阜, hence it's a partial (偏) form of 阜. You can put it on the left side of a character, as in 阴, 阳. As well as on the right side, as in 邓, 都, 部 (though in this case, 阝is short for 邑 instead). In both situations, they have no contributions to the characters pronunciation.

Some other examples:

  • 水 and 氵
  • 心 and 忄
  • 金 and 钅

To sum it up, 偏旁s almost never convey phonetic information, while 部首s (in the context of character composition, not for classification) sometimes do. 偏旁s almost always have something directly to do with characters meaning, while 部首s only sometimes and indirectly do. So it's not an exact science.

  • FYI, when 阝 appears on the right side, it is actually the shorthand form of 邑, not 阜. See: baike.baidu.com/view/457766.htm – Claw Dec 3 '14 at 18:06
  • @Claw Yep. Should have mentioned that. – AKFish Dec 3 '14 at 18:36
  • Amateur point of view: "部首" literally means the head (the same component) of a group (similar characters using the same component). Most 部首 have variants but maintain the same meaning and function, purely, because of the nature of Chinese characters: square. Imagine put 人 and 白 side by side to make it into a new square. Impossible! You have to shrink the width of one of them, hence 亻was created. Notice that most the variants are "skinny"? Both the original (combination is up-down like 会) and the variants are used as 部首。偏旁 is purely part of the structure, not necessary 部首。 – James Liu 刘老师 Sep 18 '20 at 22:28

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