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Looking into the Chinese dictionary I have on my phone, I noticed that 我是 (I am) is listed as a word, while I as a non native speaker would consider this to be two separate words. Whether or not 我是 is listed as a word in dictionaries seems to be rather random since a few other dictionaries don't have it, but it got me thinking about the general state of words in Chinese. This is of course a heated debate even in languages with explicit spaces between their tokens, but I want to believe this is even a larger problem in languages such as Chinese.

I guess a few of my questions are:

  • Do Chinese people generally agree upon how a sentence should be segmented into its compounds?
  • Is a 词 different from a word in any sense?
  • Do even native Chinese generally split characters into words (词), or is the concept of words something we have forced into Chinese because it makes sense in western languages?
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    1) I would not rely on a smart phone dictionary app. The data for such apps might come from dubious sources. 2) Just because something is listed in a dictionary, that doesn't mean that's a word. Dictionaries list common expressions, too, which are common combinations of words. – Drunken Master May 12 '15 at 12:10
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    As Drunken Master suggested, many smart phone dictionary app have some sort of associative function that 'guess' what you're trying to type next, thus the words / terms shown is not necessary words – Alex May 12 '15 at 14:14
  • Word boundaries are clear from the spoken language, as it is in many Western languages. Here, English is an analytic language that often splits words into components (as in "ice hockey" rather than "icehockey"), but this is not true for most other Germanic or Roman languages. Simularly, when rendering Chinese into Pinyin, word formation follows the spoken language: qingwa, daxuesheng, yidianr, keke-banban. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pinyin#Orthography – user4452 May 15 '15 at 19:19
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"Q: Are there large discrepancies between what Chinese consider to be words?"

No. It is very clear what is a word and what not. A word can consist of one or more characters. Thus, a single character can be either a word by itself or is part of a polysyllabic word. Like in every other existing language, a word does officially either exist or not.

Q: Do even native Chinese generally split characters into words (词), or is the 
concept of words something we have forced into Chinese because it makes 
sense in western languages?

You can split a word into a character, but not a character into a word. If your question is, if Chinese was influenced by western languages to have polysyllabic words then the answer is "no". The reason why they do, is because there is not enough monosyllabic words to accurately describe every possible meaning. Nowadays words often consist of two or three characters (or even more).

As an example: While “书馆” can be a "teashop with performance by story tellers", "private school (in former times)" , or also "library (of classic texts)" it is clear that “图书馆” is a "library". Obviously, the more characters, the more accurate the word.

Q: Is a 词 different from a word in any sense?

“词” means word and can, as mentionned above, consist of one character or more.

Q: Do Chinese people generally agree upon how a sentence should be 
segmented into its compounds?

Yes. As mentionned above, there is clear grammar rules on how to construct a sentence. Nevertheless, people might have a different sense of choosing words to express their meanings. The result will be one less and one more beautiful sentence. But if a linguist checks both sentences, either of them can be grammatically correct or not.

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Hi Jimmy let me try to add some flavor to the answers:

Q1: Do Chinese people generally agree upon how a sentence should be segmented into its compounds?

Yes and No. Internet youngsters would disagree upon the normal segmentation of words and even use wrong characters to represent an added meaning to the original word, example:

我要和你生猴子

"I wanna give birth to monkeys with you". But it actually means "I wanna have babies with you", to represent the worship of the author by commentors. "猴子"monkey has a similar sound like "孩子"child.

普大喜奔

Is actually a compound internet word meaning “普天同庆,大快人心,喜极而泣,奔走相告”, consisting of 4 成语 words(Chinese Idioms with traditional roots) to mean the extreme thrill one feels about some tremendously great news, each meaning "Worth celebration by all people under Heaven", "Making people feel very joyful, usually after the resolution of some very bad matter", "So happy that I wanna cry out", and "Such a great news that I wanna spread it around all over the streets".

However, these words are not generally used in official circumstances.

Q2: Is a 词 different from a word in any sense?

Yes and No. In Modern Chinese language (taking root from Ancient Chinese language, emerging from Yuan Dynasty's everyday life, taking shape in 1800s with heavy influence from western languages, words, constructs, and even grammar, and formalized to be its current shape in 1900s), most of the Chinese 词 could have very good correspondence in western languages.

However in Ancient Chinese works or the very popular usage of them as 成语(Chinese idioms with traditional roots) in modern Chinese, we could see the segmentation of 字 as 词 much smaller than in everyday modern Chinese:

审时度势

This is a Chinese Idiom meaning to 审视(inspect, examine) 时局 (time, era) and 度量 (gauge, measure) 形势 (circumstance, context), and the whole Idiom means an attitude one takes within a complex circumstance, which stresses more on taking thorough considerations before taking wise actions.

And as you could see, more and more new internet idioms are being invented and circulated as the culture in China evolves, many of these taking direct root from 成语 (such as 普大喜奔), and most of them using smaller segments (one character) as 词 to shape a compound 词.

Q3: Do even native Chinese generally split characters into words (词), or is the concept of words something we have forced into Chinese because it makes sense in western languages?

Yes and No. Within the Chinese language itself there is a long history of moving from shorter words (1-character words) to longer words (2,3,4-character words). And the shaping of modern Chinese language is directly and heavily influenced by western languages to use western-origin compound words. Many of these words are firstly translated by Japanese scholars into Chinese compound words in Japanese language, then brought back to China. For example:

物理 化学

each meaning physics and chemistry. Literally they mean "the principles(理) of things(物)" and "the study (学) of transformation(化)"。

Personal thoughts: as for me a native Chinese, I found the distance between grammars of Chinese and Japanese is larger than the distance between grammars of Chinese and English.

And more as I dive into the histories of the evolution and formation of cultures and languages, more I found the current versions of our cultures(western or eastern) all take influences from each other.

The Chinese language construct of character-word constructs 字词构造 make it very good as as future-oriented platform for cultures, subcultures and efficiency of communication to evolve and prosper. It is neat, yet meaningful. As long as one has mastered the basics of Chinese, non of the world's mysteries would be hidden to him/her in the shape of an 'unknown pronunciation' of an unknown word. True wisdom lies within the small fabrics of Chinese words, feeding the whole culture ecosystem with the hidden intelligence all the participants have contributed:

思路

this word means the ways one have used in thinking about the solution of a problem or puzzle. Teachers would ask students: '你解这道题的思路是什么?'(How do you solve this puzzle?) A colleague may praise your plan and initiative as "思路不错!"(Nice plan! Well thought!) This is a very commonplace word in Chinese, however it literally means 'the way of thought', English equivalent being "train of thought" or "stream of thought" or "line of reasoning" or "path of reasoning". Quoting wikipedia:

The term "train of thoughts" was introduced and elaborated as early as in 1651 by Thomas Hobbes in his Leviathan, though with a somewhat different meaning (similar to the meaning used by the British associationists):

By Consequence, or train of thoughts, I understand that succession of one thought to another which is called, to distinguish it from discourse in words, mental discourse. When a man thinketh on anything whatsoever, his next thought after is not altogether so casual as it seems to be. Not every thought to every thought succeeds indifferently. — Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, The First Part: Of Man, Chapter III: Of the Consequence or Train of Imagination

yes, 你的思路是什么? A hidden wisdom lies deep in the language itself without being discovered before one starts to think about exactly how people would think, the succession of ideas and nodes in the neural network, and the vivid transmission of concentration from one node in the word-sense network to another, a path leading from the starting of a maze till the end of it, and a bridge linking the different aspects of existence itself and cutting through the darkness and mist of unknowness. 思路, is the exact word people could use to denote our thinking mechanism.

similar expressions are '思绪'(threads/strings of thought, similar in meaning to 思路, but stresses more on sentimental feelings or thoughts) or '思潮'(waves of thought, to describe the massive spread and expansion of thoughts within people and society)

  • as a comment to myself. The English language construct of Acronyms(abbreviation of expressions using their initial letters) is a somewhat counterpart of the Chinese Idiom with traditional roots. Compared to CI, Acronyms are more suited to circulate within smaller cultural or working contexts, such as science and engineering developments as well as complex corporate works to provide more clarity and preciseness. CI and their modern evolutions are more suited to represent cultural heritage regarding society or inter-personal activities, which is a main theme of Chinese culture and philosophy. – alex00zoe May 22 '15 at 3:05
  • It is clear that even in modern Chinese science and engineering documents English and its abbreviations are widely used. The acronyms are to be highly efficient if to be used properly, but may also prove quite complicated and exclusive to the people who are not within the context. There is a long-observed deficiency of over-using acronyms(or simply over complicated expressions themselves) in highly complex corporate or social or engineering activities in the English culture-sphere. – alex00zoe May 22 '15 at 3:09
  • Meanwhile, the discourse of traditional Chinese works of thought focus more on clarity of the key ideas themselves without strong stress on the deductions. In the discourses, they simply utter the different shapes of the same idea system under different circumstances. The merit and wisdom hidden behind these works are only to be found when one is complicated enough, and has been through a lot of thoughts and experiences, and are always seemingly rough or dull to youngsters. – alex00zoe May 22 '15 at 3:13
  • The "research", or to be more appropriate "reflection" of human minds and interpersonal activities, their desires their thoughts and their interactions within the social context of layers of statuses and power constructs, is one of the main themes of traditional Chinese philosophy, inside which there are phenomenons of stressing on moral or teachings, and there are also core assets about evaluation, reflection, and empathy, the strategies and self-assessments. So, traditional Chinese culture in its core is quite mature within the minds, however not much so outside the minds in the raw world. – alex00zoe May 22 '15 at 3:19
  • Example as the records for ancient Chinese's documentary of local geographical records etc. More rhetoric than precise, these works could provide a glimpse of the mind frameworks of the ancient Chinese, other than their description of the county's good scenery or landscapes. Out of these I have to see the induction of natural science and engineering education in China utterly necessary, and still not good enough. Traditional Chinese philosophies are most useful for top-level leaders and politicians or entrepreneurs, but not very useful for our interconnected modern economy and science. – alex00zoe May 22 '15 at 3:25

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