How meaning and sound of these words can be changed so dramatically by “adding water”:

替 (tì) replace + water = 潜 (qián) hidden (??),

世 (shì) world + water = 泄 (xiè) discharge (??),

难 (nán) difficult + water = 滩 (tān) beach (had ‘beach’ been made by ‘easy’ + ‘water’ I’d

smile and agree, but why ‘watery difficult’ ??)

舌 (shé) tongue + water = 活 (huó) live (??),

发 (fā) send (multiple) + water = 泼 (pō) splash (??),

去 (qù) go + water = 法 (fǎ) law (??),

Is there any explanation in terms of meaning, or there are just phonetic, either graphic purposes ?

  • 2
    The purpose for 氵 being added into all of the characters you've mentioned is to provide the meaning to the character. The others components you've mentioned that make up the characters you've listed with the 氵 component in it have NOTHING to do with water and are just only primarily there as a sound component.
    – prismcool
    Commented Apr 28 at 17:25
  • You’ve got several good answers already, but one thing missing is that sometimes characters are not what they seem. Over time (mostly during their early history), similar characters sometimes got mixed up or coalesced into one. The most prominent example of this is probably the radical forms of 月 and 肉 (⺼ with unattached diagonal strokes), but there are lots of examples. You’ve quoted a few more: the right side of 活 is not actually 舌 shé, but the highly obscure 𠯑 guā (probably won’t even show up on your screen here); and 法 is simplified → Commented Apr 29 at 12:11
  • → from the rather more cumbersome , whose origin in turn is less certain: it either contains 去 as a purely semantic component, or it has 蓋 as its phonetic component (itself a simple pictogram where part of the character just happens to look like 去 even though they’re completely unrelated). Commented Apr 29 at 12:15

5 Answers 5


Mostly, characters with 氵 pertain to water in some way (it's a semantic component), and the remainder of the character pertains to its pronunciation (it's a phonetic component). So it's only meaningful to compare the pronunciation of characters with or without the 氵.

Sometimes they have identical pronunciation with or without the 氵:

(yè) (tài) (yǒng​) (shū​)
(yè) (tài) (yǒng​) (shū​)

But in other cases, the pronunciation of the characters with and without the 氵 can vary. Chinese syllables are made up of "initials" (声母), "finals" (韵母), and "tones" (声调), and all three of these can vary.

Sometimes only the initial changes:

(dì​) (gào​) (guì​​)
(tì​) (hào​) (kuì​​)

Sometimes only the final changes:


Sometimes only the tone changes:

(wáng​) (zhàn​​)
(Wāng​) (zhān​)

Sometimes only the initial is consistent (and the final and tone changes):

(xī​​​) (liáng​​​​)
(xiáo​​​) (làng​​​​)

Sometimes only the final is consistent (and the initial and tone changes):

(nán/nàn​​) (gòng​​) (gān/gàn) (xiàng​)
(tān) (hóng​) (hàn) (gǎng)

Sometimes only the tone is consistent (and the initial and final changes):

(shì) (bù​​) (chóng​​)
(xiè) (shè​​) (zhuó​​)

And sometimes the initial, final, and tone all change:

(tì​) 西 (xī​​) (yě​​)
(qián​) (sǎ​​) (chí​​)

So all 2^3 = 8 possible consistent/inconsistent (initial, final, tone) combinations actually happen.

Why is it like this? I chalk it up to what happens when a language has evolved over thousands of years, and when the oral language predates the written language (and even after written language was invented, almost everyone was illiterate). Maybe if someone invented a new language today, they'd be more consistent.

In fact, for a given phonetic component (声旁), it's fairly rare for all of the characters it belongs to to have identical pronunciation. 邵敬敏 (in 《现代汉语通论》 3rd edition, p.62) says that 7.17% of phonetic components have this property. E.g., all the characters containing 皇 as a phonetic component are pronounced the same as (huáng​). So in general, we should think of phonetic components as only pertaining to a character's pronunciation(s).

  • 2
    Nitpick: The phonetic component in 淆 is not 希, but yáo (which in turn has yáo as its phonetic component). Also, your thinking in the second-to-last paragraph is somewhat backwards: when the characters were created, they were actually quite consistent and logical. It’s because the sounds have changed after the characters were created that they now sound completely different. Commented Apr 29 at 11:58

First of all, let's get the chronology right. In the beginning there were speech sounds, but sounds are transient. They disappear as soon as the speaker goes on to the next sound, or stops talking. In order to have a record of what someone says, writing was invented to represent the sounds in their speech.

Different civilizations invented different ways to record those sounds. To call it an invention sounds like it was done very quickly, but in reality, it took many generations for writing to evolve into the way they look now. But to simplify a long and often complicated story, the Phoenicians invented the alphabet. Hence, the word "phonetic". Many languages use a phonetic alphabet to represent their sounds.

The Chinese language, however, went on a different route. Pictures, later evolving into characters, were drawn to represent meaning, and the sound of the character would be just what people said when referring to that object. Well, pictures are fine for certain things, but it gets harder when you need to represent something abstract or less straightforward. So, other ways of representing words became necessary. One of the ways is what we call "phonetic compounds", with part of the Chinese character representing the meaning (usually the radical), and the other part the sound. New characters are not made, and sounds are not changed, by adding, for example, the "water" radical. Rather, new characters are made to represent sounds that already have meanings. For example, the sound "he2" already means "river". To make a character for it, the "water" radical was added to the character "可", which sounded similar to “河”。 Again, I am simplifying the process for easier understanding.

Each of the characters you have quoted has its own etymology. Understand that language sounds change over time, and that's why, in some cases, the phonetic component of a character may not sound like the character itself. You will need to get into the etymology of each character to find out its history.

  • 1
    "Hence, the word "phonetic". may not be entirely accurate: phonetic: from Greek phōnētikos "vocal," from phōnētos "to be spoken, utterable," verbal adjective of phōnein "to speak clearly, utter," from phōnē "sound, voice," telephone: tele, far + phone, sound (not remote Phoenician) :)
    – Pedroski
    Commented Apr 29 at 5:30
  • 可 (ke3) is the sound part of 河 (he2) that is believed to be a 形声字。Many 声 parts in 形声字 have only the same final 韵母 but not the initial 声母 and tone 音调.
    – PdotWang
    Commented Apr 29 at 10:40
  • 5
    @Pedroski To put it more decisively: “Hence, the word ‘phonetic’” is absolutely not correct. There is absolutely no connection between the words ‘Phoenician’ and ‘phonetic’, apart from the fact that both came into English from Greek. Φωνή phōnḗ ‘voice’ has a clear and unambiguous Indo-European etymology (from *bʰeh₂- ‘speak’ also found in φημί phēmí ‘speak’, Skt. भनामि bhanāmi ‘speak’, Arm. բամ bam ‘say’, Gmc. bannō ‘proclaim’, etc.). The etymology of Φοῖνιξ Phoînix is unclear (perhaps Egyptian, perhaps Phoenician, perhaps not), but it’s definitely not related to ‘voice’. Commented Apr 29 at 11:54

在《康熙字典》中,"潑"字的解釋為水漏,也有棄水的意思 【玉篇】水漏也。一曰弃水也

潑水/潑灑:意指 澆、灑

撒潑/潑辣:形容 蠻橫不講理

活潑:形容 靈活生動

  • "潑" 閩南語(Minnan Language): 音讀:phuah

Ref: https://pedia.cloud.edu.tw/Entry/Detail/?title=%E6%BD%91&search=%E6%BD%91

  • "發" 閩南語: 音讀: huat

Ref: https://pedia.cloud.edu.tw/Entry/Detail/?title=%E7%99%BC&search=%E7%99%BC

所以它被歸類為形聲字(ideogram plus phonetic)



This is called 形聲(form - sound),one of the Six Ways (六書) to form Chinese characters. The raical or root part(部首) of a 形聲 character provides clues to what the character is related to, and the sound part provides the sound / pronounciation for the character.

For example, the character 潜 belongs to the water (氵) category. That tells you this character has something to do with water. The 替 part tells you that this character is pronounced as 替.

You may ask, why doesn't 潜 sound like 替 at all? That's because pronounciations change during the long course of history.


I totally understand your question, chinese characters are very different from english or other alphabet languages and it takes awhile to wrap your head around.

While chinese has no alphabet, it important to remember that vocab should still be viewed as whole units of one or more characters, and not judged by there individual parts. if you add an extra piece or take a piece away, its not actually the same word or vocab at all anymore. Just like in english if you add a letter to the word ink, it will become sink or rink-- why did the meaning of ink change so much? well, it didn't, its just that ink and those other words are very visually similar in their parts, its not necessarily related. same with chinese when you add or take away components ((or characters themselves in longer vocabulary)).

I will say, sometimes there are patterns to these additions and subtractions-- many of the words in english starting with re are a repetition of some kind, many chinese words starting with 亻 are related to people or careers.

these aren't set in stone rules though, and are not required to know to learn and understand chinese. You will probably naturally pick up on a few of the patterns through out regular learning, and if you like this stuff you can go out of your way to actively learn the etymology//linguistic side of things. Hope thes comparisons between chinese component character//vocab structure and english letter//word part//vocab structure helps it make sense (◐‿◑)

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.