I just arrived in this warm community and am glad to find a stackexchange about Chinese language. I merely began to learning Chinese and find it really exciting, yet many of uses and conventions are neither so clear to me, nor really explained -- or even underlined -- in my learning books and websites.

So here is my question: I feel a bit confused concerning the different sinograms relatives to the language and the speech. Here is what I induce from tremendously few examples and a lot of mystical extrapolations:

  • 说 (shuo1) means "to talk, to speak, to say" (i.e. talking in a general, theoretical way, referring to the idea/potentiality of speaking)
  • 话 (hua4) means "dialect, spoken word" (i.e. talking in a practical, pragmatic way, referring to the act/practical skill of speaking)
  • 语 (yu3) means "language" (i.e. the abstract building which is a language, endowed with its rules and theories)

Here I compared the three with two probable bias:

  • I assume sinograms to have a proper meaning by itself, which seems to rarely be the case
  • I propose the translations treating them sometimes as nouns, sometimes as verbs, even if it seems to be an irrelevant distinction in Chinese

Thus I add two more general questions about the Chinese language:

  • Are sinograms really used sometimes by themselves and understood like that, or do they only carry a meaning when cristalized in a "word" ? (That is to say : is my question relevant or is it more a meta-question for linguists and language anthropologists ?)
  • Do those three have "preferred" grammatical functions ? That 说 more often used as a verb and 语 more as a noun ? Or is my comparison of significations meaningful ?

谢谢 and sorry for the possible lack of precision :)

  • 1
    Something you may find interesting: Mandarin - 为什么说。。。 Cantonese - 点解话。。。
    – rhughes
    Commented Dec 8, 2016 at 15:20
  • @rhughes Indeed, we are far from a language with a rigid meaning for its characters ^^ Commented Dec 8, 2016 at 16:13

2 Answers 2


All Chinese character has its meaning or meanings. Some can be used as a word on its own,

For example:


  • 人(person(/ people/ human)
  • 火(fire)
  • 山(hill/ mountain)


  • 殺(kill)
  • 跑(run)
  • 吃(eat)


  • 大(big)
  • 小(small)
  • 好(good)

However, the majority of Chinese words are composed of two characters.

For example:

  • 正確(correct)
  • 討論(discuss/ discussion)
  • 明白(understand)

*See reference here

As for your question:

  • is mostly a verb for "speak" or "talk" but it can combine with other characters to form more specific words. For example: 演說 (lecture/ public speech), 說服(convince/ persuade), 說明(explain)

  • is mostly a noun for "spoken words" but it can combine with other characters to form more specific words, for example: 謊話(lie), 說話(speak/ talk) , 對話(conversation)

  • is mostly a noun for "language" but it can combine with other characters to form more specific words, for example: 語言(language), 英語 (English), 語音(speech tone)

Many characters' original meaning had became obsolete. These characters only become meaningful when they are a part of a "two characters word" or a part of a "four characters phrase". One good example would be "黷" in "窮兵黷武" . The character: "黷" itself originally meant "act wantonly" but today, no one would use this character on its own except in the idiom 窮兵黷武.

  • Thank you very much Tang Ho for your answer. I am beginning to learn, and many books and applications learn us the meaning of single characters, "real" words coming later. Hence I stick a little on those meaning... and it remains an efficient tool to remember more efficiently the words ;) Commented Dec 8, 2016 at 14:41

as a Chinese we can say 说,means talk ,it'sjust a ver, 话 means a sentence, these two words are often used on dailylife

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