There are more than 50,000 characters in Chinese languages. What is the reason behind it? Are all 50,000 characters in use?

  • 5
    Why does English have so many words? Oxford Dictionary has 273,000 headwords. How many are still in use?
    – Mou某
    Jan 31 at 22:37
  • 1
    In one of his books, 唐德剛 said to read Chinese newspapers, one needs to know about 5,000 characters; to read New York Times, one needs to know about 50,000 words.
    – joehua
    Jan 31 at 22:46
  • 2
    @ joehua 5000 characters can make up to tens of thousands of compound words- e.g. 工會工人會見勞工部長 (Union workers meet with the Minister of Labor) contains 5 compound words 工會, 工人, 會見, 勞工, 部長, knowing what 工 and 會 mean is not enough. Since both 工 and 會 contain more than one meanings, people need to know compound words to start to understand Chinese, not to mention the grammar. So, 5,000 characters is more than a match for 50,000 English words
    – Tang Ho
    Feb 1 at 3:40
  • 3
    @TangHo An English words may also have multiple meanings. Only know the most common meaning of every words in the 5000 list won't help too. A Han-Character has its meaning itself. But a single English letter doesn't. That's why we commonly count character, not words. When writing article, we will also say "至少5000字" instead of "至少3000词" in Chinese. But we would say "at least 5,000 words" in English, not "at least 25,000 characters".
    – tsh
    Feb 9 at 3:14

Chinese may have many characters, but many are not in use such as some 甲骨文 and such. Many (pretty much all) Chinese characters are from drawings, with the exception of new ones such as 'biang' enter image description here. Your average Chinese adult that graduated college only needs to know around ~3000 and experts know ~5000 or ~7000 if you are really good. Some characters become redundant as they can be formed by others.

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