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I am on the hunt for simple yet "long" words in Chinese. I found this word for "Tablet" (like iPad), as 平板电脑 (píng bǎn diàn nǎo). Is this considered one word in Chinese, like should I put the 4 pinyin words together? Or is it considered multiple words (like a noun phrase in English)? Wondering if longer words like this should be pronounced as one long word (like sophisticated in English is 5 syllables as one word, vs. high bar is 2 syllables yet 2 words) or as multiple separate words. How does that work?

Related: List of 3-character Chinese words and longer words?

Basically I am wondering how to pronounce "long words" like 平板电脑 ("tablet") in Chinese, as individual parts, or one long multi-syllable sounding.

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    I don't see any difference when you consider it as "individual parts" or "one long multi syllable sounding" during speech. Even in English, how do we differentiate "kickoff" from "kick off" in terms of pronunciation?
    – dan
    Jun 15 at 1:42
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    Why would this affect pronunciation? And since Chinese doesn't separate words with spaces,there's really not much difference whether it is one word or not. Jun 15 at 2:37
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    I think there's some confusion about writing vs. speaking here, but are you asking about Pinyin standards or pronunciation? Also, what constitutes a "word" is not obvious in Chinese, and as others have pointed out, Chinese doesn't use spacing between words. If you wonder about Pinyin conventions, you can check this page: pinyin.info/readings/zyg/rules.html. If your question is about pronunciation, I think you need to rephrase or clarify the question a bit!
    – Olle Linge
    Jun 15 at 6:59
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    The answer to "what is a word?" in Chinese is often not straightforward, which is how we end up with questions like Does Chinese have 单词 ("words")? and Official definition of (單)字, (單)詞, 片語, 成語.
    – Becky 李蓓
    Jun 15 at 7:06

3 Answers 3

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For the issues on "words" or "词", see my opinions in the answer: Official definition of (單)字, (單)詞, 片語, 成語.

We can easily check how the computer system determine Chinese word boundaries (the rules might not be completely linguistically correct but practically useful). If your system supports Chinese, you should be able to do this at any place. If not, you can do it in editors with Chinese support like MS Words, WPS and etc. For example, I tested WPS. 1)平板电脑 Put the mouse pointer on 平 and double click it. 平板 is then automatically selected. Put the mouse pointer on 电 and double click it. 电脑 is then automatically selected. It's considered two words. 2)坐井观天 the mouse pointer on 坐 and double click it. 坐井观天 is then automatically selected. It's considered a single word. Intuitively I agree with the testing results. To arrange pinyin accordingly, píngbǎn dìannǎo、zuòjǐngguāntīan.


How longer 词语 are paused is a another story. The 音步 (foot) is the basic repeating rhythmic unit. Chinese prosody has a larger importance on syntax than syntax has on prosody.

I don't recommend learners at the beginner level continue reading the following sections, as it might create confusion. But if you're advanced learners or native speakers and find this interesting, there are a few books that provide comprehensive analyzing. Presented here is just a tip of the iceberg.

Here's the list:

《汉语韵律语法丛书 汉语的韵律形态》《汉语韵律语法丛书 汉语三音节韵律问题研究》《汉语韵律语法研究》《韵律和语法》《汉语韵律语法问答》《汉语韵律语法新探》《汉语韵律语法丛书 汉语的最小词》《汉语语句韵律的语法功能》《汉语伪定语现象之韵律语法阐释》《汉语韵律语法丛书 汉语的双音化》《现代汉语韵律与语法的互动关系研究》《汉语韵律语法丛书 音步和重音》


Before you continue reading, please bear in mind that PROSODY DOESN'T COMPLETELY ALIGN WITH WORD-BOUNDARIES OR SYNTAX. This might

  1. create confusion for beginners since sometimes syntactically we dissect the word, phrase or sentence one way, but prosody requires another (how we actually speaks).

  2. help you understand why some phrases, structures and etc. work while others with the same syntactic structure don't.

Classical/Literary Chinese, which is fundamentally one-syllabled and for which of course one-syllable forms a foot. Here I assume that the questioner is asking about Modern Chinese (the written form and Mandarins). The examples I gave are Modern Chinese, including fixed expressions inherited from Classical/Literary Chinese and are STILL actively used other than quotes but not Classical/Literary Chinese itself. For simplicity I call it Chinese hereafter.

The basic feet of Chinese are formed with 2 or 3 syllables. 1 syllable cannot form a foot in the sense that it must be used next to other feet or a long pause like punctuation. For example, 饭,我不吃. The feet is [1#[1/[2]]] ([] is used to delimit a foot or a super-foot, #a long pause, /a short pause). 我 is next to 不吃, and 饭 is next to a comma. Longer words and phrases always dissect in to groups with 1, 2 or 3 syllables.

Let me state some basic rules to get you started.

  1. One syllable doesn't form a foot. Thus anything with [1/1] is not allowed, except for situations with specific pragmatic purpose, pro-longed words (see the next item), or 并列结构 delimited by "、".

  2. Two syllables form a foot, even for a short sentence that is obviously composed of two words, like [[我饿]/了]. Usually a two-syllable foot doesn't form a sentence on its own, exceptions include 好的 and etc. We use 很、了 and etc to complete the sentence. Or pro-long a word, like [[我]~#[饿]] (~ denotes the prolonging of the previous word) emphasizing it's me who's hungry, and [[我]/[饿]~] emphasizing I'm huuuuuungry.

  3. Three syllables often form two feet, in the pattern [1/[2]] or [[2]/1]. Which one is used is usually semantically and syntactically determined. For example, [总/[经理]]. The internal pause is not always detectable, especially in rapid speech. But if native speakers try to feel it carefully, we mentally associate 总 with a breath and 经理 with another even if physically it's not always the case. This also means that *[[总经]/理] is wrong. Speeches with a lot of wrong feet like this would impede understanding. [2/1] examples include [[造纸]/厂], [[四川]/省].

[[2]/1] is more natural than [1/[2]] because in some cases, especially short sentences, [[2]/1] is the default. For example, [[你很]/美]. This might go against your intuition since 很 modifies 美 and 很美 predicates 你. This prosodic pattern contributes to grammaticalization of 很. Here, the meaning of 很 (very) is largely lost. Some scholars argue that it becomes something similar to a copula, others argue that it simply fills in a syllable. [你#[很美]] is also valid, but emphasizing that it's YOU who are very beautiful.

Three syllables can also form a single foot, mostly transliterated words, like [加拿大], [墨西哥], and words with a 并列结构 (three morphemes are juxtaposing), like [数理化], [海陆空], [天地人].

  1. Four syllables have the default pattern [[2]#[2]]. This over-weighs semantics and syntax. For example, [[平板]/[电脑]], [[刘总]][[经理]]. Note that syntactically, 刘总经理 is analyzed as {刘+{总+经理}}, inconsistent with feet. [1/[3]] or [[3]/1] could also exist in specific pragmatic uses.

  2. Five syllables have [[2]/[3]] (most natural) and [[3]/[2]]. [[2]/[3]] includes [[水漫]#[金山寺]], [[金木]/[水火土]], [[加利][福尼亚]]. [[3]/[2]] includes [[十字军]#[东征]], [[西红柿]/[炒蛋]].

Another evidence of prosody on syntax is [1/[4]] is not allowed, thus *大汉语词典 is ungrammatical, and we instead use 汉语大词典 [[2]#[1/[2]]].

  1. Six syllables have [[2]#[4]], [[4]#[2]] (for simplicity I leave [4] as it is while it can be further analyzed), and less commonly [[3]/[3]]. [[2]#[4]] include [[拼个]#[鱼死网破]]. [[4]#[2]] includes [[无人驾驶]/[汽车]]. [[3]/[3]] includes [[吃不了]/[兜着走]].

  2. Seven syllable have [[4]#[3]] (most natural) and [[3]#[4]]. [[4]#[3]] includes [[近水楼台]#[先得月]]. [[3]#[4]] includes [[为他人]#[做嫁衣裳]].

Seven syllables are usually how far we goes. Longer units can always be analyzed using the above.

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  • This answer is confused and filled with fundamentally flawed assumptions. Take, for example the claim that " [1/[4]] is not allowed thus *大汉语词典 is ungrammatical". Here are some classical evidence that unanimously prove otherwise: 「究.天人之際,通.古今之變,成.一家之言」—司馬遷(typical 1.4 or 1.2.2);「養.天地正氣,法.古今完人」—孫文(1.4 or 1.2.2);「先.天下之憂.而憂,後.天下之樂.而樂」—范仲淹(1.6 or 1.4.2)
    – Sati
    Jun 16 at 1:48
  • @Sati You are talking about Classical/Literary Chinese, which is fundamentally one-syllabled and for which of course one-syllable forms a foot. Here I assume that the questioner is asking about Modern Chinese. The examples I gave are Modern Chinese, including fixed expressions inherited from Classical/Literary Chinese and are STILL active.
    – lilysirius
    Jun 16 at 2:10
  • @Sati Please give a Modern Chinese counterexample so we can continue meaningful discussions. Also, you said "fundamentally flawed assumptions". Plural means multiple, but you only give opinion on one claim.
    – lilysirius
    Jun 16 at 2:11
  • There is no clear-cut grammatical distinction between 文言 and 白話. If you analyze the corpus of words 詞匯 commonly used in modern Chinese, you would always be able identify individual 單音節詞 of classical origin that have been compounded to form the modern word, that latter often having a nuanced and sometimes different meaning from its source. This is a question of semantics and morphology rather than grammar. Some of the examples you cite 「近水樓台先得月」「為他人做嫁衣裳」 are also typical 文言 expressions.
    – Sati
    Jun 16 at 2:31
  • Dr Sun Yat Sen, the author of one of my quotes above, is a modern man and a revolutionary modernist who is more than familiar with the modern colloquial Chinese language and its nuances. There is no issue of Chinese grammar (modern or otherwise) over here. Since you gave the title of a dictionary as an example, here is a counter-example of similar vein: 《大漢和辭典》.
    – Sati
    Jun 16 at 2:41
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We need to clarify certain key concepts in order to answer this question.

What is a word(詞)in the Chinese language?

A "word" in Chinese is officially defined as the smallest unit of speech that can be utilized independently. 最小可以獨立運用的語言單位。

While many words are in fact morphemes 語素 expressed by a single mono-syllabic character (such as 我、吃、飯 etc), there are many exceptions.

Some of the most typical examples are the unbroken words or 聯綿詞. These are words such as 葡萄、鸚鵡、叮噹 etc. These words often consist of characters that are phonetically related by alliteration 雙聲 (琵琶、玲瓏), rhyme 疊韵(蜻蜓、逍遙)or both(輾轉、鄭重). Most, if not all of the onomatopoeia 擬聲詞 (嘩啦、乒乓) also fall into this category. Some of these words can be up to four characters in length(唏哩嘩啦、嘰裏咕嚕).

A quick illustration before we move on: 嘩啦 is a word; 唏哩嘩啦 is also a word that consist of the morpheme 唏哩 prefixed to the word 嘩啦. 唏哩 is a morpheme (which serves to modify or constrict the meaning of 嘩啦) but not a word, because it has no usage and meaning independent of 嘩啦.

Is 平板電腦 a single word?

平板電腦, in this case, can be considered one compound word 複合詞 (because it is a single noun), consisting of the "morphemes" (which are, in fact, words) 平板 and 電腦 (like mobile phone in English, but pieced together to form a single word, mobile-phone), the former can actually be used as an abbreviation of the full noun.

It is convenient, semantically, to consider a noun as a single compound word in Chinese, even though it can be further broken down into more basic word-units that very often boil down to the individual characters.

Since a noun can have many nested qualifiers, we will find long constructs such as: 北京中央电视台春节晚会演员休息室 which qualifies as a single compound word for being a single lexical unit that should not be broken up, and can be independently used as a part of speech.

How to read long words

In modern Chinese, the basic compound word unit is often determined by prosody (C.f. @lilysirus's answer above), which defines the prosodic word 韵律詞 that forms a basic 2-beat pattern or foot by which bi-syllabic compound words are constructed. So a compound word of four syllables would be 2 feet: [平板][電腦]. Words with one or three syllables would be respectively considered a degenerated or super prosodic word [聽/][收音機] that can be incorporated into the 2-beat rhythmic system.

It should be noted that the prosodic word must not be longer than 3-syllables and should be distinguished from the lexical definition of a word because we commonly have 4-character idioms 成語 that must be taken as a single lexical unit, but must still fall into a 2-beat pattern when spoken out loud: [裡應][外合]、[我行][我素].

In principle, long words or phrases should all fall into the prosodic 2-beat pattern and read in groups of 2-3 syllables which respect the lexical word boundary. Therefore, there should not, for example, be a long pause between two feet in a 成語: [坐井]#[觀天] - unless you are a language teacher anticipating your students to fill in the blank.

In the case of the long noun cited above, this should be read like so:

[北京]/[[中央][电视台]]#[[春节][晚会]]/[[演员][休息室]]

Words nest together can be read at a slightly hastened pace on a single beat. A regular bi-syllabic rhythm that is blind to semantics would not work:

  • [北京][中央][电视][台春][节晚][会演][员休][息室]

It would definitely sound very awkward and mind-boggling if words were grouped together in a rhythm which violates lexical boundaries like so:

  • [[北京][中央]]/[[电视台][春节]]#[[晚会][演员]]/[休息室]

Some Additional Notes about Prosody

After a lengthy discussion with @lilysirus, here is my take on the issue:

  1. Prosody is a study of linguistic functions such as intonation, stress, and rhythm in speech.
  2. The basic rhythm of speech is defined as the foot, which, in the case of Chinese, would be the bi-syllabic Prosodic Word 韻律詞. This gives us a basic [DUM-dah] rhythmic pattern in verbal Chinese.
  3. According to Feng Shengli, the foot is by definition 2 syllables because stress (輕重抑揚) is involved in rhythmic patterns, and this can only be apparent when there is contrast between a pair. 「音步非二分不足以表抑揚」
  4. The assumption that the bi-syllabic foot "only applies to modern Chinese" is wrong. Feng has not made that distinction in his classic study 《漢語的韵律,詞法與句法》 and there are many examples to show that a comprehensive reading of classical Chinese does involve a basic rhythmic pattern of 2-3 syllables. Ex. 「[學而]#[時/[習之]],[不亦]/[悅乎]?」「[白頭]#[搔/[更短]],[渾欲]#[[不勝]/簪]」.
  5. The prosodic word is a very specialized theory that works pretty well to explain certain phenomena in the construction of compound words in modern Chinese, but is limited in the task of delineating meaningful lexical constructs and should not be used in place of the semantic and syntactical definition of a word.
  6. Take, for example 漢語大辭典, cited by @lilysirus above. This would naturally form the following triple 2-beat rhythmic pattern when read: [漢語][大辭][典#], which, seriously speaking would not sound funny to the native ear at all. A more lexically-informed reading, however, would be: [漢語]/[大辭典] (with the latter word forming a triplet in 2/4 a rhythm), or even more precisely [漢語]#[大/辭典]. But an apparent long and short pause in between would actually sound awkward when spoken out of context. (So, @lilysirus claims that it's "not even detactable by ear". In other words, its a theoretical construct.)
  7. The reason why 漢語大詞典 is preferred over *大漢語詞典 can, indeed be understood as follows: Given the basic 2-beat foot that forms a prosodic word, 大 must be closer to the noun which it modifies (it is the dictionary that is "big", not the language) than one which it does not. However, there are similar lexical constructs that are very common in modern Chinese, such as 大東北地區, which can very much be a 1+4 or 1+2+2 (but is actually a 3+2), and is preferred over *東北大地區. 大地區, when implied, is almost always abbreviated as 大區 (as in 東北大區). The difference is because 大東北 is a meaningful word, but *大漢語 is not. So it still boils down to semantics and syntax, but prosody informs how compound words can be constructed out of the 2-3 syllabic foot or prosodic word.
  8. There is no hard and fast rule that explicitly forbids a 1+4 or 1+2+2 lexical construct in Chinese - modern or otherwise. In prosody, the mono-syllabic leading-word can be read with a pause, like: [究/][天人]/[之際]、[先/][天地之][憂/][而憂]; modern Chinese of a similar lexical construct can be read the same way as well: [別/][欺人][太甚]、[請/][注意][安全]. The leading word can also start on a light up-beat to stress on what follows: [/別][欺人][太甚] (i.e. Don't be a bully!, Vis-à-vis Don't be a bully!)
  9. The prosodic foot should respect lexical boundaries as much as possible to avoid sounding monotonous (in the case of a steady and constant-speed bi-syllabic flow) or misunderstanding (in the case of pausing in at position where there should not be a one).
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  • I think 唏哩嘩啦 is a phrase (片語) that consists of two words, (語素) - 唏(sound of sobbing)哩 + 嘩(uproarious noise)啦. 哩 and 啦 have no distinct meaning but a phonetic addition that supplements 唏 and 嘩. The two characters (字) in each 語素 are inseperable and must be used together to deliver the meaning.
    – r13
    Jun 15 at 17:49
  • 唏哩嘩啦 is a compound word(複合詞) , made up of the bound morpheme (規範語素) 唏哩 and the word 詞 (also a free morpheme 自由語素) 嘩啦. The individual characters are bound morphemes in their own right, that can and must be compounded to form different words.
    – Sati
    Jun 16 at 3:00
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除了 成语 之外,一般 不会 有 4个 字 的 复合 词,即 现代 汉语 的 单词 字数 一般 不 超过 3个。你 尽 可以 把 它 拆成 一个 词组 —— “平板 电脑”。

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