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I am under the impression that Chinese multi-character words form their meaning from that of the characters that form these words. (Let me know if I am mistaken!)

I know that 不得已 means "to have to". But consider each character, as described on wiki:

  • 不, "not"
  • 得, "particle to connect verb with modifying clause/to have to"
  • 已, "already/then/to stop"

How do these three characters form the meaning of the whole expression? Or is there no rule to this?

Also, my understanding is that 得 (dė) is a particle, yet 得 (děi) means "to have to". That said, would the pronunciation of 得 in this expression be děi?

Thanks in advance!

  • as far as pronuciation is concerned, this of course is easily answered by any number of dictionaries,e。g。现代汉语词典,iciba (which often does not supply pronunciation, does in this case [bù dé yǐ],(cf。answer#2),小马词典,汉语水平考试词典,etc。 – user6065 May 7 '15 at 12:13
  • 不得已 involves knowledge of Literary Chinese, you can search about this. – Shonminh Yang May 26 '15 at 18:14
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the usage is classical and shows up at least as far back as mencius: 吾豈好辨哉?吾不得已也。Here the meaning is quite literally "I cannot (不) achieve/obtain (得) an end (已)" to my argumentativeness. In other words, i have no choice but to argue. You might compare it with the much more colloquial 不得不.

By the way be careful about the whole multi-character words thing. Some (not I) would insist that they are mere syllables, the characters accidental byproducts of the spoken language. Better comparison would be with a language composed entirely of words like "counterproductive".

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得 also means 可以 (allowed, permitted), such as 不得吸烟(no smoking)

  • 不(bù): not
  • 得(dé): allowed
  • 已(yǐ): to stop

so not allowed to stop [something] becomes [something] must happen becomes to have to

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不得已 can be considered as a word, just like the single English word, so there is no rule to this. And here the pronunciation of 得 in this expression is "de ".

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