I'm wondering what do Chinese speakers do when they are reading aloud and encounter a character they don't know (sometimes it happens, isn't it?).

In phonetic languages, there is a possibility to read an unknown word correctly, but in the ideographic ones you have no idea on the pronunciation. Meaning is also hard to guess, because that unknown word is likely to be a very narrow term. E.g. it's difficult to guess what the bleak or anticlinorium are, even having the context.

So what is the most common way for native Chinese speakers to read aloud unknown words?

  • 9
    Many characters have a phonetic component (such as 洛 in 落, 兰 in 栏) and that's the hint. Of course this is not always accurate nowadays after two thousand years of sound evolution. For instance, pronouncing 绔(ku4) as kua; such mistake is called 念半边, which is a mistake that people would ridicule others for being undereducated.
    – user58955
    Commented Mar 17, 2014 at 21:18
  • @user58955 I'm a chinese and I approve this
    – Mc Kevin
    Commented Mar 18, 2014 at 2:22
  • I think the problem is your assumption that Chinese is "ideographic". Very few characters are either pictographic or ideographic. Most of them are, as others have mentioned, 形声字 which combine a phonetic with a semantically suggestive radical. Commented Mar 18, 2014 at 17:07

7 Answers 7


When encountering unknown characters, native speakers often refer to dictionaries, which have pinyin of the unknown character.

While it is hard to guess the exact pronunciation of unknown characters, there are a subset of Chinese characters, called phonogram(形声字), whose pronunciation is related to part of the character. For example, 蛛(spider) has the same pronunciation with 朱.


I have asked this question before to native speakers, and their answer was the same as my natural intuition did in cases where I have read unknown characters.

The most probable case is that the character is read with a similar pronunciation as one of its radicals. For example, many native Chinese speakers may not know with certainty how to pronounce the word 椛 (hua), but their best guess would be that it is pronounced as its radical 花 (hua1), or with another tone (hua2, hua3, or hua4).

  • Sorry, Gerardo: 花 is the phonetic, which provides the pronunciation; the radical here is 木 mù / wood, tree, which provides the clue to the category (related to wood or tree, or plant). Commented Jun 14, 2019 at 16:01
  • @LillianChia I thought radicals referred to both phonetic and semantic components of a character. So in the case of 椛, there are two radicals: 花 (phonetic component) and 木 (semantic component). Ref: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radical_(Chinese_characters) Commented Jun 19, 2019 at 15:24
  • Radicals (部首) are the category component (your "semantic component"): e.g., water radical for words related to water. The phonetic is the other part, providing the pronunciation (hence "phone" in "phonetic) -- not 100% consistently predictable. Commented Jun 22, 2019 at 14:48
  • A character can only have one radical. Sometimes, you'll find a character with both parts that can serve as a radical (e.g., in 李, 木 is a radical, 子 is also a radical), but only one of those 2 can be THE radical for that character (e.g., in 李, the radical is 木, not 子). 椛 is not Chinese, but Japanese; the radical would be 木, the phonetic 花. Commented Jun 22, 2019 at 14:50

What we say is, 有边读边,没边读中间。

Sometimes this becomes 有边读边,没边自己编!



This is my favorite question so far.

We can only guess!

For example, I don't know how to pronounce character 笪, what can I do? Well, I will pronounce as 旦(dan4). Is that correct? Maybe or maybe not.(Actually it is da2)

Let me give you one more example, I don't know how to pronounce character 啝 so I will just pronounce 和(he2), and in this case, it's correct.


We will try to read the character using the phonetic component, get it wrong and get corrected by others, then move on.

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    Keep Calm and Move On! Commented Mar 19, 2014 at 2:21

Chinese is such a mish-mash of ideograms/pictograms and other grams that reading a new character is virtually impossible. But there are clues in the radicals but there are no clear rules the helpers embedded in there for meaning and sound - the best thing would be probably an educated guess.

Consider 紅 for example - the color red, the 工 present to the right is the "phonetic helper" - same goes for 空. Consider 東, 凍 the meaning here comes from the radical while the character helps with the sound.

Then there are the "phoyinji" (that's the approximate pronunciation of what my teacher told me) which is the same character pronounced differently.

[This is the point where its totally legit to have a panic attack, but thankfully there aren't too many of these.]

It seems to me that the language is constrained by the sounds that can be produces. Another interesting question would be "What happens when a sound that is new is heard?"

  • I have the impression that "phoyinji" is supposed to be 多音字 duōyīnzì, character with many sounds.
    – MickG
    Commented Jan 8, 2015 at 20:43
  • I can understand that is ji in some dialects, but duō->fo/pho… very strange.
    – MickG
    Commented Jan 8, 2015 at 20:49

Often, it feels that the language will play tricks on you, especially when you're starting to get complacent (about having formulated some clever "rule" or mnemonic).

The general rule (note the use of "general") is one element of the character is the radical -- tells you what category it is: hand-related, water-related, etc.; the other is the phonetic -- tells you what the sound is (not the tone). Well, not always.

This is the example I always use in my teaching (I'm not bringing the tones in, as same phonetic doesn't always = same tone):

The reading for 番 is "fan", so it should follow that 翻 should be "fan" as well. Correct.

The reading for 潘 should be "fan" too, since it has the same phonetic 番. Wrong. It's Pan (a surname). OK, even if they have different initial consonants ("f" / "p"), at least they have the same vowel sound ("an").

播: (i) first guess: reading should be "fan". Nope. (ii) "pan" then, given the 潘 experience above. Nope. What's the reading? "bo" --> totally different initial consonant from the others, totally different vowel.

In case you're thinking it's because the simplification process has ended up making them all have the same phonetic: no, the characters are the same images in the traditional script.

Rule / Lesson: Do not take the Chinese language for granted. Never be complacent! (As I say to my poor students who feel constantly wrong-footed.)

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