My 15-year-old daughter is learning Chinese, but these different terms baffle us! How do they differ? Where do these other terms fit into Table 3.5, which contains merely four of the terms in the title of this question?

  1. Chinese S.E. (this site) has ! Tzu-Ray Su, Hung-Yi Lee's Learning Chinese Word Representations From Glyphs Of Characters mentions glyphs.

  2. This U. Albany website on Chinese characters mentions pictograms and logograms.

  3. This U.C. Berkley website on Chinese characters mentions pictograms and ideograms.

  4. Linguistics S.E. has a post on ideograms vs. logograms.

  5. page 295 in Henry Rogers' book Writing Systems defines

    morphogram. A single grapheme of a morphographic writing system. A grapheme which represents a morpheme of the language.

  6. page 298 of this book defines

    symbol. A general term for a graphic mark without regard to its graphemic status.

    Enter image description here

    Henry Rogers, Writing Systems (2004), p 27.

  • Related: What is the difference between a character, a code point, a glyph, and a grapheme? looks at this from the Unicode standpoint.
    – DevSolar
    May 30, 2021 at 19:31
  • Focus on learning via sound and form. Get some sort of audio recordings that are matched to the text and you can learn together. You could even get a bilingual copy of the Tao Te Ching: simple, wise, mathematical: everything ad nothing. Don't constrict the language by getting lost in its nuances when you're still establishing the ground rules.
    – sage
    Jul 22, 2021 at 23:27

1 Answer 1


Tl;dr: make sure you understand the difference between form (形), sound (音), and meaning (義). Some terms are also avoided in Chinese SE.

  1. Syllable is a terminology of sound. In Chinese, the overwhelming majority of characters is monosyllabic, which is why the first two named columns are essentially identical. This is in stark contrast to Japanese for instance, where the following example shows how one character can bear as many as five syllables:

     (Japanese)        承        る
     (Hiragana)        うけたまわ る
     (Transliteration) uketamawa.ru
     (Translation)     to.attend.to
  1. In English, notice how the word renewables can be split into re-, new-, -able, and -s. They each mean something (some are of grammatical worth, such as the plurality marker -s), and cannot be split, according to meaning, any further. These chunks are therefore known as morphemes (a terminology of meaning).

    There is only one way to split bisyllabic (or bi-character; they are frankly interchangeable in Chinese) words — you split them in half. But not all bisyllabic words in Chinese are splittable.

    When you split 鐵路, you see 'iron' and 'road' which makes sense.

    When you split 蝴蝶, means 'butterfly' (likely an abbreviation of 蝴蝶), but the meaning of is illusive (perhaps nonexistent). The same goes for 珊瑚 ('coral'), 玫瑰 ('rose'), 駱駝 ('camel')... These words are called binomes (連綿詞). The two characters must be bound together to signify the desired meaning. Individually, they do not make any sense. An explanation for their unsplittability is that they perhaps were once monosyllabic in the past. Take 蝴蝶 as an example:

    From Middle Chinese *ɦuo dep (first syllable unstressed), from Old Chinese *ɡaː l'eːb, derived from a proto-form of *kʰleːp ~ *ɦleːp, a prefixed form of the root *lep (“butterfly”). Wiktionary

    Binomes are much rarer than splittable bisyllabic characters. In most cases Chinese words are splittable.

  2. There are many askers on Chinese SE that are interested to know why a character (an entity that has form, sound, and meaning) bears a certain meaning, i.e., how its form (形) relates to its meaning (義). Here we put the questions under the tag . In Chinese, we use liushu (六書) for explanation (there are six possible categories):

    • Pictograms (象形): ('mountain') really looks like the shape of a mountain.

    • Ideograms (指事): ('one'), ('two'), ('three') do not look like any tangible objects. They are abstract realisations of concepts.

    • Compound ideographs (會意): ('to rest') is a combination of the pictograms (equivalent to , meaning 'man') and ('tree'). It represents a man resting by a tree.

    • Phono-semantic compounds (形聲): most Chinese characters belong to this group. If I were to create a new writing system for English using emojis and say

      🙏🐝🍀 'to believe'

      I am using 🐝🍀 only for the sound of the word (bee + leaf) and 🙏 for the meaning of the word (to pray).

    • Rebus (假借) is when an originally formless character borrows the form of another character based on their phonetic similarity. Their meanings are of course different.

    • Derivative cognates (轉注).

    These six categories are mostly mutually exclusive. For example, meaning 'I' is a rebus character. meaning 'good' is a compound ideograph. So if you're insistent on putting these terms into Table 3.5:

    Characters Syllables Morphemes Words Character origin
    1 1 1 1 rebus
    1 1 1 1 compound ideograph
    珊瑚 2 2 1 1 both phono-semantic compounds
    蝴蝶 2 2 1 1 both phono-semantic compounds
    鐵路 2 2 2 1 both phono-semantic compounds
    字典 2 2 2 1 字: phono-semantic compound, 典: compound ideograph
  3. Grapheme is the smallest functional unit of a writing system. So c in cat and in 朋友 ('friend') are both graphemes. But a grapheme in an alphabetical language is not necessarily a morpheme, whereas in Chinese it's possible. Since language learners are usually more interested in the meaning of a word/character, rather than its form (how it relates to meaning is a separate matter), we seldom use this term. We use glyph here instead.

    A logogram or a logograph is a written character that represents a word or a morpheme. (I took this definition from Wikipedia, the Cambridge Dictionary of Linguistics does not provide a definition.) Again I think this is used in a meta-language sense: they include Chinese characters, Egyptian hieroglyphs, and cuneiforms. We seldom use these terms in Chinese SE.

  4. The terms sign and symbol are very, very broad. We tend not to use them here. A white flag is a sign that means surrendering. Marilyn Monroe is widely considered to be a sex symbol. They both are not written entities. There's also the Saussurean dichotomy of signifier (能指) and signified (所指): the letters 'tree' and the pronunciation [t̠ɹ̠̊˔ʷɪi̯] are both signifiers (form and sound), but the concept of a tree is the signified (meaning). While the concept of a tree is common to humanity, depending on which language you speak, the signifiers you use are different. Therefore when we say sign and symbol, we are also thinking of their arbitrariness, which is arguably more philosophical than linguistic.

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