All those talk, discuss, chat and ect. In any language there are a lot of words expressing different connotation of people speaking.

In my own language (russian) there are lot's of them BUT I can hardly explain the difference. The etymology of those words is unknown to me. In chinese, on the other hand, I think, there might be some etymological information hiddend in 字 mentioned in the title.

Question: If not for all of those 字 listed in the topic, can you explain the difference between (for some of them) using etymology?

P.S. Added 述 to the question. Can anyone explain it's origing and how those origins affect the application of 述 to the speach.

P.S.S. Here is the list of connotations we have figured out:

  • - 牛 cow + 口 mouth → cow bending its neck in lowing → tell; inform; announce; signal
  • - 言+炎 abbreviated form of 淡=light+words→a light talk
  • - 兌=八split or strip+兄extend the arms→extend the arms&strip away a captive's clothes. 说=言+兌=words+strip away doubts→a speach; an explanation. Or a better hypothesis that 兌=八split+兄men = salient or wedge, that is a formation of troops as a salient. If 言+兌=to insert words
  • 報 or 报 - 服 (spread over) + 幸 (handcuffs) → spread a restraining device over part of a criminal's body in retribution for a crime → retaliation; recompense; remuneratereward. to report or to announce a crime as a punitive measure→official report or annoncment.
  • - 言 + elder scrolls → a doctrine, deep thoughts, a theory
  • - 言 + structure, scaffold → structured talk.
  • - 言 + a separated in half animal = dis + cuss = a discussion
  • - 言 + weaving, interconnecting = a narration
  • it would seem there is at least as much information available about Russian etymologies as Chinese,in other words users interested in Russian etymologies can easily learn them,看起来互联网上关于俄语词源的信息并不少于中文的,就是说有关信息感兴趣的用户轻易可获得
    – user6065
    Commented Mar 4, 2016 at 15:30
  • It is avalible, but for particular case "talk": говорить, разговаривать, беседовать и т.д. there is not much to be learned about the differences between words. It might be the same in chinese case, but there is a chance that chinese will be more specific in words usage.
    – coobit
    Commented Mar 5, 2016 at 6:19
  • This may be the wrong place to talk about Russian verbs, but the mentioned 3 Russian verbs are not interchangeable, for which etymology (going back to Indo-European roots?) might be useful but not needed. The etymology of a particular word is its history,which usually involves discussing genetically related words in other languages belonging to the same family, which would seem far removed from the usual topics at this site,说明某词语的历史来源,看起来需要牵涉着讨论属于其他言语遗传上有关系的词语,这就似乎远离本网站通常的主题."Chinese character etymology" is another matter, and web has ndd information。"Cce" 是另外一回事,互联网当然充满相关信息。 烂泥 一位一晃 暧昧 只管
    – user6065
    Commented Mar 6, 2016 at 2:18
  • etymology may be the wrong place to look for differences between Russian verbs, since evidently the aims of etymological dictionaries differ from those of regular dictionaries, the same seems to apply to English
    – user6065
    Commented Mar 6, 2016 at 11:04

2 Answers 2


言 (yan2) is the root of all words meaning talk. It says so in the 說文解字 (a dictionary from the Han dynasty):


The origin of the character 言 is a picture of a person with a big mouth. In ancient Chinese, it’s the general word for any form of speech or talking. In modern Chinese, it has become literary and is normally only used in compound words like 語言 (yu2yan2) "language".

Most other characters you mention are just 言 with a second component to indicate the sound of the word (this type of character is called 形聲字 (xing2sheng1zi4):

(tan2)’s phonetic part is 炎 (yan2), which means hot or inflamed. In ancient Chinese, this word has connotations of talking happily about something. It’s often used in the combination 談笑 (tan2xiao4), meaning "to talk and laugh". In modern Chinese, this is a general word for light conversation, similar to English "chat" or Russian "razgovor".

(lun4)’s phonetic part is 侖 (lun2), meaning logical order. In this case, this part also points to the meaning: Both in ancient and modern Chinese, 論 means to explain or to discuss. It can also mean to ponder something without actually talking out loud. Example from the 呂氏春秋:

闻言必熟论 the words heard must be carefully examined

(shuo1)’s phonetic part is 兌 (dui4), which can mean a number of things such as "exchange" or "melt". In ancient Chinese, 說 has two meanings. Pronounced "shui4", it means "to persuade". Pronounced "shuo1", it means "to explain", or, as a noun, "teachings". For example, 老子說 means "the teachings of Laozi". The meaning "explain" still exists in modern Chinese, but 說 has also become a general word for "speak", like English "say" or Russian "skazat".

(jiang3)'s traditional character had the phonetic 冓 (gou1), which can mean a number of things, including "to meet" and "to combine". Accordingly, 講 in the 說文解字 means "to reconcile". The simplified character uses 井 (jing3), meaning water well (Russian "kolodets"). In modern Chinese, 講 has a number of meanings, but the most common ones are:

講故事 tell a story
講價 negotiate the price

In some dialects, 講 replaces 說 as the main verb for "speak".

(yi4) has 義 (yi4), which means "meaning" or "righteousness". Both words reflect the meaning of 議, which means "opinion" or "comment" and is normally used in compound words.


There are different explanations of this character. I originally followed the "cow that makes a noise" explanation found here, but that seems to be wrong.

告 (gao4) consists of the parts 牛 (niu2) "cow" and 口 (kou3) "mouth". Various explanations for this character exist. The 說文解字 explanation does not make sense to me. This article (PDF in Chinese) claims that the character originally described a method of catching or keeping cows. Later it acquired the sense of "to sacrifice" (also written as 祰). From there, its meaning as "report" developed. In ancient Chinese, 告 meant "to report something to a superior". Nowadays it means "to tell somebody about something".

(bao4) is interesting. The left side is a criminal (辠 zui4). The right part is a hand and a kneeling person, a shorter version of the character 服 (fu4) "punish". 報 originally meant "court documents", but the meaning has expanded to cover the English words "report", "answer", "repay" and, from those meanings, "newspaper".

  • Great answer! Can we say that 講, having 冓 (my dictionary gives translation "inner rooms of a palace" for this HanZi) as connotation of some sort of a high ranking "talking" affairs is mostly used in ralation to something official or grand?
    – coobit
    Commented Mar 5, 2016 at 22:18
  • Not for the modern usage, but the ancient usage seems to be mostly about official negotiations.
    – KWeiss
    Commented Mar 6, 2016 at 18:19
  • If 告 has such an origin (cow speaking), does it have the connotation of "to fink" (to be an informator). Does this HanZi ever used alone or as a main part of a word?
    – coobit
    Commented Mar 7, 2016 at 8:47
  • 告 can be used alone and in longer words like 告诉 (tell), 警告 (warning) etc. If you want deeper information about the etymology / usage of one of the words, that might be worth its own question :)
    – KWeiss
    Commented Mar 7, 2016 at 9:14

I have found a more sound explanation of the meaning of 讲(講) and of 议(議).

About 讲(講):

According the Shirakawa, 冓 is a shape of braided ropes;

enter image description here

冓 signified “to connect two shapes.” Then 木 “wood” was added. Together they meant wooden configuration that repeated the same patterns that people constructed. It meant “structure; to construct.”

讲(講) “to lecture; talk” is "made" out of 冓.

The right 冓 was used phonetically for to mean “to connect two things,” and the left side had 言 “word; language.” Together “people reconnected by talking” gave the meaning “to reconcile; lecture; talk.”

But when simplification process was carried out the 冓 part was replaced by 井 because:

  1. 井 has soud component needed for 講
  2. 井 looks like a some sort of a simplified structure, scaffold (冓)

Now we can understand WHERE and HOW to use 讲 - this HanZi stresses "structured talk, logically structred and so on".

About 议(議):

enter image description here

From left to right - "a sheep body with a saw in the process of separating it in halves. Next the sheep is on top and at the bottom is a more elaborate halberd that had saw-like blades. Together they meant cutting a sacrificial sheep with a saw to prepare it as offering to the god. Something suitable for the god meant “morality; just.”

There are many words where 義 posess connotation of "just, right ect." but in our case:

言+義 = 议(議)

hanzi 義 stresses not the "righteousness" but "separation, cutting" meaning of a 義. So 议(議) has meaning - “to discuss what is just” or “to discuss.” But there is even more to this!!!

According to http://www.etymonline.com/

discuss - comes from Latin "to smash/cut to pieces" or "smash apart", "scatter, disperse". From dis- "apart" + quatere "to shake". So the meaning "to take into pieces, to analyze" what 義 is all about!!! This way english etymology converges to chinese etymology (I think not by chance but by design).

About 述:

As far as I can tell 述 comes from "wall" + "(术)術 weaving baskets". You can see 行(speciality or industry) in the 術 which "prooves" the theory that 术 is a "speciality of making baskets".

So 述 means "to go" + "to weave" = to narrate.

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