I learned today that these words are made out of simple words:

  • Giraffe 長頸鹿:long neck deer
  • Hippopotamus 河馬:river horse

Many other examples exist of this sort of thing in Chinese.

My question is, how do you say "long neck deer" and not mean "giraffe"? How do you use the same simple words in a sequence yet not mean the formal thing like "giraffe", and vice versa (how do you know a multi-word/character-chain is actually a noun itself)?

I would like to know how you distinguish between casual noun phrases and formal nouns like these examples.

  • Species of Giraffe are not well defined in Chinese culture, there are many examples-> known species and sub species Masai Giraffe (Giraffa tippelskirchi); Northern Giraffe (Giraffe Camelopardalis) - Kordofan giraffe (G. c. antiquorum), Nubian giraffe (G. c. Camelopardalis), West African giraffe (G. c. peralta); Reticulated giraffe (Giraffa reticulate); Southern Giraffe (Giraffa Giraffa) - Angolan giraffe (G. g. angolensis), South African giraffe (G. g. giraffa) Oct 24, 2022 at 2:41

3 Answers 3


Single-character words in Chinese are like single-word English words. They have to be learned and memorized individually, and these words can join together and form a compound word that also needed to be memorized individually

Words like "chainsaw" are compound words that have to be memoized individually

If you have learned the words "chain" and "saw", it is easy to form a mental image of the two concepts together and remember the word "chainsaw"

Words like 長頸鹿 are also compound words that have to be memorized individually

When you know the characters 長, 頸, and 鹿, it is easy to form a mental image of a long-necked deer that resumable a giraffe

There's no shortcut.

To remember the word shortcut easily, you must know the words "short" and "cut"

It is the same for 捷徑. knowing the characters 捷(quick) and 徑(path) make it easy to remember the word 捷徑 (quick path) which translated to "shortcut"

More examples:

同 = same

意 = idea

同意 (same idea) is officially translated as "agree" and you have to remember it


合 short for 聯合 = join

同 short for 同意 = agree

書 = book/ document

合同書 means "contract" and it is shortened to "合同" in Chinese.

Now you've learned a new word "合同"(contract), thanks to your prior knowledge of 聯合 and 同意

How do you know when you are using compound words vs. a sequence of simple words in Chinese?

You know you are not using compound words when these words do not form a compound word that you can find in the dictionary

For example, 直接 is a compound word for "direct" but 直說 is short for 直白地說 (talk straight and honestly --> not talk in a circle), and they are two words (adv + v)

  • Excellent info, but what about the "how do you distinguish between long-necked deer as a generic phrase, from long-neck deer meaning giraffe" part?
    – Lance
    Oct 15, 2022 at 9:16
  • 長頸鹿 is a term coined just for "giraffes" and the three characters are unbreakable. A deer that has a long neck is a phrase that translated into Chinese would be 長頸的鹿, e.g. "長頸的鹿不單只有長頸的鹿" ( deers that have long necks are not just giraffes"
    – Tang Ho
    Oct 15, 2022 at 10:25
  • In Cantonese, 生肉 means "raw meat" (two words) but 生菜(one word) can only mean "lettuce"; when you want to say uncooked vegetable, you have to say 生嘅菜 (生的菜); raw lettuce is 生嘅生菜 (生的生菜); cooked lettuce is 熟嘅生菜 (熟的生菜)
    – Tang Ho
    Oct 15, 2022 at 10:30
  • I still don't get it, maybe you could elaborate more.
    – Lance
    Oct 15, 2022 at 10:50
  • 4
    @Lance since 长颈鹿 is specifically the name for giraffe, no reasonable people will use it to mean deer unless they are trying to mislead on purpose. Specifics override general. In any case, it’s easy to get fixated on potential confusions when learning a language, but in practice there’s almost always enough context for you to figure out what someone means to say.
    – EEQ
    Oct 15, 2022 at 15:30

This is not a everything-included test, but patterns that came to me while I type along.

  1. Words are compact, so if there's particle 的 , it is not likely a noun, e.g. 长颈鹿 (noun) vs. 长颈的鹿 (phrase). The same could apply to other particles.

  2. If all component elements do not contribute to the integral meaning, then it is a word.

  • Chinese-originated words in this category are mostly 双声叠韵词. That is they are comprised of two syllables which have either the same initial or the same rhyme. They are also likely to have the same semantic radical. By semantic I mean the radical usually indicates some related property. For example, 迤逦 (rhyme 纸 > i, radical 辵, walk)、踌躇 (initial 澄 > ch, radical 足, walk). But this is not always the case, e.g. 犰狳 (radical 犬, beast) is unbreakable but its components do not have the same initial or rhyme.

  • Another large subcategory is phonetic loans from other languages, e.g. 珊瑚 (probably from Old Persian). If the word only has two syllables, then the Chinese people would prefer to write them with the same semantic radical, and even create a new character if not readily possible. For example, 珊瑚 is a sort of 玉 (gem, stone), as is 玻璃, while 葡萄 is 艹 (herbaceous plant). They are also many modern loans that are more than 4 syllables, e.g. 布尔什维克. Native Chinese words usually are not this long and individual parts do not contribute any meaning so they are easy to identify as phonetic loans.

  1. If some component elements do not contribute to the integral meaning but this meaning can be represented by the other components, then it is a word. Examples are less common, one is 螃蟹, which is 蟹. 螃 (*m-kˤreʔ) is semantically void and could be a legacy of the iambics in Old Chinese.

  2. If the last part of is a category/object, and the whole thing refers to a specific item in that category or resembles the object, then it's a word.

  • The first part could be a phonetic loan. This includes most two-syllable country names, e.g. 英国 (Eng > 英, 国 nation).

  • The first part could be some attributes. This includes many of the plant and animal names, e.g. 长颈鹿、河马. The basic active single-syllable animal words are limited. Remembering them helps you recognize more complex names. For example, hear 鹿 and 马 are basic animals. Note that this is not a biological category. It only represents some resemblance; 河马 surely is not a type of 马.

  1. If the components have the same/similar or the opposite meanings, then it's likely a word. For example, 大小、寻找.

  2. What could be a word is not always a word. This is an exception to the "specifics override general" rule mentioned by @EEQ. If we only restrict to Modern Chinese, then this phenomenon is rare. One example I can think of is 小白菜. It's a type of vegetable similar to the Chinese cabbage but is usually small. But in the song 小白菜呀,地里黄呀, it has the literal meaning, those Chinese cabbages that haven't grown big yet.

  3. I think what's more important is to accumulate vocabulary. Words have to be learned since they often have a fixed meaning that is related to the sum of the meanings of its components but not the same. For example, 河马 is related to 河 and 马, but it's a hippo, not any horse that live in the river. But you see 湖马, you know it doesn't exist in your vocabulary, then it's not a word. It could be a pun, or more likely that the sentence is segmented incorrectly, like 鄱阳湖马上要干了, or a typo (胡马).

  • Thanks for pointing out the exceptions in point 6. I'd like to add that I think “specifics override general” pertains more to the communicator (writer/speaker) rather than the receiver (reader/listener). When the communicator knows a word has a specific meaning, they will naturally avoid potential confusion by not using its more generic meaning, therefore the receiver usually doesn’t need to even worry about such confusion. This does mean that if the communicator has other priorities than being 100% unambiguous (e.g., rhythmic constraint), they might choose to “break the rule”.
    – EEQ
    Oct 16, 2022 at 5:04

how do you know a multi-word/character-chain is actually a noun itself?

Although we have been warned from time to time not to translate Chinese word by word, actually it meant character-to-character, as there are so many Chinese compound words, which consist of more than one character. How to recognize a compound word then? Other than broadening your knowledge of Chinese vocabulary by learning and memorizing, you should first translate the individual character into your native language, and see whether the resulting sentence makes sense or not. For example,


Since the translations can't make a sentence, we can single out the problematic characters - 動, 物, 園, and 河, 馬. Now solve the puzzle using a dictionary or a translator:

動物 - animal, so does 動物園 mean the "animal garden"? Up to here, you should be able to reach the conclusion, 動物園 = zoo.

Similarly, the term "river horse" means nothing to you, so put the characters 河馬 into a translator or find out its meaning from a dictionary. If not found, try a web search, which returns the result below:

enter image description here

Now gather the findings,


Finally, modify the finding in accordance with grammatical requirements:

"At the zoo, I saw the hippopotamus." or "I see a hippopotamus at the zoo."

Wish this method helps.

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