I'm basing this question on several assumptions, so if they are wrong please say so as an answer:

  1. Written Chinese is mainly used for Standard (Mandarin) Chinese.
  2. Mostly other Chinese languages and/or dialects are mainly spoken and not written.
  3. Cantonese is probably the other language/dialect most written after Mandarin, and dialect words in Taiwan probably next most.
  4. Most other Chinese languages and/or dialects have at least a few words which have no established related word in Mandarin. (This means related by etymology, not just the same meaning.)

I know in Cantonese there are quite a few characters with the mouth radical, which are used for "dialect" words and not really used in Mandarin.

I know there are a few English letters used in some "dialect" words. I've seen "Q" used in Taiwan, "C" and "O" for types of coffee in Singapore, and there's a type of cabbage or vegetable often written "A菜".

If these assumptions are right, here is my question:

Where can I find some of the most common terms from any other Chinese (Sinitic) languages and/or dialects which do not have a standard hanzi character?

I'd prefer to find links to lists that already exist, but if that's not possible I could convert this to a community wiki to build a list right here.


6 Answers 6


It is probably not the languages/dialects that don't have a corresponding Chinese character, but rather regional slang. The A菜 you see is actually 萵仔菜, or ue-á-tshài in Hokkien. That became became e-á-tshài which led it to be transcribed back into Chinese as A仔菜 and eventually A菜.

There is actually a word for Q, but I am not aware of how to type that out on a computer. So have a picture of it instead: the word for Q is 食丘 (EDIT: This has apparently made it into Unicode as U+296A8, "𩚨")

Owing to the dominance of Standard Chinese, characters not in common use in that language tend not to make it into a common computer encoding. So in a sense, the dialectal words indeed do not have a corresponding standard Chinese character. On the other hand, that's more of an issue with the way Chinese works on computers.

In any case, this phenomenon tends to happen in cases where Sinitic languages/dialect retain words from Old Chinese rather than the more fashionable new words that have taken over in Standard Mandarin. A couple more examples from Hokkien:

  1. 敖 on top of 力 gâu, meaning "good at, skilled at, prone to"
  2. dirty dirty word lān, meaning "male genitalia"
  3. in in, meaning "them, her/his"
  4. tsip/sip tsi̍p, meaning "a taste, to treat to a casual meal"
  5. peh  peh, meaning "to climb"

There are likely hundreds if not thousands of such characters in common use. There might not be a list per se, but such characters can be found in dictionaries that caters to a specific language/dialect.

EDIT: I have a massive blindspot for Taiwanese loanwords.

Due to being under Japanese rule for five decades at a time of rapid change, Taiwanese had a rather unique opportunity at absorbing Japanese terms. Now, I don't know if we can say such words have no Chinese characters per se. Some of them came with kanji characters already. And naturally, they all have Mandarin equivalents, including some which are transcribed into Chinese from the same ultimate (Western) source. Examples:

  • Aspirin: a33 sir55 phi55 lin51 - Chinese 阿斯匹林, Japanese アスピリン (asupirin)
  • Clear-cut: at3 sa55 lih3 - Chinese 阿莎力, Japanese あっさり (assari)
  • Miso: mi55 sooh3 - Chinese 味噌, Japanese 味噌 (miso)
  • Tempura: thian35 pu55 lah3 - Chinese 甜不辣, Japanese 天麩羅 (tempura)

With Aspirin, both Chinese and Japanese (and hence Taiwanese) loaned the same word by transcribing its sound. The word for "clear-cut", on the other hand, it is a Japanese word that has been adopted in Chinese by transcribing its pronunciation - same as for Taiwanese.

Tempura and Miso are both Japanese words that had kanji. But whereas Chinese adopted Miso, it transcribed Tempura in other Chinese characters. And in both cases, Taiwanese follows the Japanese pronunciation.

Whether or not one considers them to be Taiwanese words without Chinese characters might be a matter of personal opinion. Compare and contrast with the following Taiwanese terms, which don't have such relationships to their equivalents in Chinese characters:

  1. Apron: e33 pu55 long51 - Chinese 圍裙, from エプロン
  2. Butter: ba55 tah3 - Chinese 奶油, from バタ-
  3. Bra: bu33 la51 jia11 - Chinese 胸罩, from ブラジャ-
  4. Condom: sak5 khuh3 - Chinese 保險套 from サック
  5. Gasolin: 29 ga33 soo55 lin51 - Chinese 汽油, from ガソリン
  6. Ice Cream: ai55 sirh3 khu33 lin51 mu11 - Chinese 冰淇淋, from アイスクリ-ム
  7. Bread: phang51 - Chinese 麵包, from パン
  8. Stainless Steel: sir33 ten55 le51 su11 - Chinese 不鏽鋼, from ステンレス

It's possible that this is mirrored in some other dialects/languages. Hong Kong Cantonese comes to mind.


After some more research I've learnt of a few Taiwanese words where the proper Chinese character was unknown or disputed or perhaps non-existent. This, combined with long term marginalisation of Taiwanese, resulted in some chaos in terms of how some words were written.

As I suspected in the comments, however any words that didn't have a character have been matched with one nonetheless. And in 2009 the government made an effort to standardise the writing system. In some cases, supposedly new characters were created; but so far I haven't found truly new ones.

In any case, here are some words that apparently had no universally agreed upon correct character (prior to 2009, at least:

  • bē/buē: officially 袂, was/is written as 𣍐, 未
  • gâu: officially , was/is written as 賢, 爻
  • buaih: officially 勿愛 squished together, was/is written as 無愛, 覅
  • suí: officially 媠, was/is written as 美, 水
  • tsia̍h: officially 食, was/is written as 噍, 吃
  • phah: officially 拍, was/is written as 打, 扑
  • beh/bueh: officially 欲, was/is written as 要, 卜
  • kah: officially 佮, was/is written as 及, 甲, 合
  • : officially 毋, was/is written as 不, 呣, 唔
  • tshù: officially 厝, was/is written as 茨、戍
  • So you believe there are no words/morphemes/particles in any Chinese/Sinitic language/dialect which don't have a character? Jun 10, 2014 at 6:58
  • I strongly suspect they all have a character originally, although there's certainly no way for me to be sure. I only know that I am aware of no such word. Do you have any candidates?
    – Semaphore
    Jun 10, 2014 at 7:09
  • 1
    Oh no, they certainly would have acquired new words. But I think generally those words would either come with a corresponding character, or be fitted to one. However, I just changed my mind. There are several Taiwanese Hokkien loanwords that can be said to have no corresponding Chinese characters.
    – Semaphore
    Jun 10, 2014 at 7:31
  • 1
    I added some, I hope that's intelligible :p
    – Semaphore
    Jun 10, 2014 at 8:23
  • 1
    I would consider these all to have characters, just as words like "jacket" and "bye bye" from English in Standard Mandarin have characters. If different people wrote them different ways I would feel otherwise. My guess is the morphemes without characters would be found in the less well known varieties. Anyway it's now a very good answer so thanks for the effort. Jun 10, 2014 at 9:13

Before getting into you assumptions I think it's best if we take a look at a post on Language Log from Victor Mair, a name students of Chinese are probably quite familiar with:

Cantonese Novels by Victor Mair

In my estimation, there is far too little genuine topolectal literature in China. Throughout history, nearly everything has been written either in one or another style of Literary Sinitic (Classical Chinese) or in the national koine / lingua franca vernacular (currently known as Pǔtōnghuà 普通话 [in Mainland China] / Guóyǔ 国语 [in Taiwan] / Huáyǔ 华语 [in Southeast Asian countries]), i.e., Mandarin.

I wish that there were vibrant, vital written forms for Hokkien, Shanghainese, Hakka, and many other varieties of Chinese, just as there are for Bengali, Gujarati, Oriya / Odiya, and so forth in India. Considering the plethora of spoken languages in China, I believe that the development of corresponding written languages for at least the major varieties would lead to mutual enrichment and invigoration, including of the national language. While there have been some sporadic efforts to write Taiwanese / Amoyese, a full-blown literary tradition has never developed for that language (see Sino-Platonic Papers #89, #92, and #172, as well as the works of Henning Klöter). There have also been occasional efforts to incorporate a few words of the local language in so-called Shanghainese literature, but it usually amounts only to a sprinkling of Wu lexical items in what is basically a Mandarin matrix. The situation for the other topolects is even less, with next to none or no written form at all.

It is only in Cantonese that there has been anything approaching true topolectal writing. I suspect that this has been possible mainly because of the special sociopolitical conditions that obtained while Hong Kong was a colony of the British Empire. Whatever the reason, I am always pleased when I learn of evidence that written Cantonese is clinging to life.

Consequently, I was delighted to learn about a recently published novel in written Cantonese, called naam4 jan4*2 m4 ho2 ji5 kung4 男人唔可以窮 ("A man Ought not Be Poor" or "A Man Must not Be Poor"). It’s interesting that the book originated in a series of posts on the popular HK web forum HKGOLDEN (gou1 dang1 leon6 taan4 高登論壇), which is part of a computer information portal.

Unsurprisingly, even though Hong Kong is supposedly a part of China, HKGOLDEN is blocked by the Great Firewall in the PRC. The forum is subject to severe hacking, and has periodically had to close for repair and maintenance, but when the forum is open it flourishes.

I haven't been able to find much about the novel in English, but was very happy to stumble upon this "Blog of Cantonese Resources" with an article entitled " New Wave of Cantonese Literature: HKGolden Literature". I recommend it heartily for basic information about "A Man Must not Be Poor" and several related novels.

This page in Chinese is quite informative.

This discussion page shows the enthusiasm with which Cantonese language literature is welcomed by readers.

Mandy Chan tells me that she has read several chapters of "A Man Must not Be Poor" and that it is written completely in colloquial HK Cantonese. She says that the storyline isn't quite her cup of tea, but she can see how it "resonates" with what is called din6 ce1 naam4 电车男 ("train man") type of guys. The latter notion derives from Japanese densha otoko 電車男 (movie, TV series, novel, manga, etc.), which was very popular in Hong Kong.

The din6 ce1 naam4 电车男 / densha otoko 電車男 ("train man") is akin to the zaak6 naam4 / taku otoko 宅男, i.e., otaku おたく/オタク.

Hong Kong street parlance tends to use gong2 naam4 港男 ("Hong Kong man") these days to denote the same category of Hong Kong men who are socially awkward and lacking in accomplishment, yet with a high degree of self-esteem. The gong2 naam4 港男's mortal enemy is the gong2 neoi5/2 (note change in tone from original Mid-low Rising 5 to High Rising 2 to indicate colloquial pronunciation) 港女 — Mammonish, controlling, loud (often foul-mouthed), socially aggressive, old-but-still-pretending-to-be-"cute" (kawaii) type of HK woman.

The duk6 naam4 毒男 (lit., "poison man") acts in an even more introverted fashion than the gong2 naam4 港男 ("Hong Kong man"), to the point of being a "weirdo".

Extensive discussion of densha otoko 電車男 ("train man") and related terms may be found in these Language Log posts and the comments to them.

Here is the relevant entry from the draft manuscript of the ABC Cantonese-English Dictionary by Bob Bauer:

.hw zaak6 naam4 char 宅男 ps N. clf 個 go3, 條 tiu4 en lit. house male; fig.; term was likely orig. borrowed from Jp. into TW. Man. in 2005 in connection with the broadcast of the popular Jp. TV drama 電車男 densha otoko 'train man'; term is similar in mng. to 毒男 duk6 naam4; sl. see also 毒男 duk6 naam4 df nerd, geek, i.e. a young man who barricades himself in his room at home and spends most of his time surfing the internet on his computer, playing video games, avoiding face-to-face interaction and communication with other people, esp., women, and neglecting his physical appearance and personal hygiene exchar 佢面口青青,又奀奀瘦瘦,污頭垢面,成日屈住喺屋企唔出門口,成條宅男咁款 exrom keoi5 min6 hau2 ceng1 ceng1, jau6 ngan1 ngan1 sau3 sau3, wu1 tau4 gau3 min6, seng4 jat6 wat1 zyu6 hai2 uk1 kei5/2 m4 ceot1 mun4 hau2, seng4 tiu4 zaak6 naam4 gam3 fun2 exeng He's both sickly pale and unhealthily skinny, his hair is dirty and his face is oily, he shuts himself up in the house the whole day and doesn't come out, he's such a complete nerd

The author's name is sit3 ho2 zing3 薛可正. It's his pen name and very few people actually know what he looks like (the nature of the HKGOLDEN forum membership is rather secretive).

Sit's tale isn't altogether unique, because you can find many such stories on the HKGOLDEN forum, but one of the main differences with Sit is that he managed to finish the entire novel within a reasonable amount of time. The stories are written in episodes and it is very common for an author to let his tale peter out. Incidentally, it seems as though all the authors of the HKGOLDEN forum novels, at least the ones I know about, are males.

Mandy once listened to a radio interview with Sit, in which he said that the story is 70% "real" — meaning that it's not necessarily his own biography, but it does contain episodes and occurrences that have either happened to him or to people he knows. It seems that the reason Sit has been able to attract so many "train men" followers is because he is able to express their sense of helplessness and Ineffectualness. But he writes about other things too, like his relationship with his father.

While Sit's audience is made up of many gong2 naam4 港男 type guys, he isn't writing about them per se, at least his portrayal of the main character isn't about gong2 naam4 港男 vs. gong2 neoi5/2 港女 issues, yet because his storyline is about the psychological struggle against helplessness and ineffectualness, it resonates with many Hong Kong men. Having the story written out in Hong Kong street Cantonese is a big reason why the novel has received such disproportionate attention on the Hong Kong cultural scene.

Mandy is also writing a historical romance in street Cantonese, but it's not as easy as she thought it would be because she doesn't know how to write out some of the slang words, and she gets a headache when going over her own draft because she's not used to reading something that is written purely in Cantonese. I wish her luck in her novelistic project.

I should say a few words about the gong2 neoi5/2 港女 phenomenon more generally. Gong2 neoi5/2 港女 is not just about Hong Kong women, but a specific kind of Hong Kong women. The creation of this category has something to do with the sex-ratio imbalance in Hong Kong (more females than males). To compound the problem, many Hong Kong men of marriageable age prefer to "go north" (i.e., go to the mainland) to find their spouses. Their defense is that mainland ladies are more gentle and tender, etc. I suppose it's a matter of personal choice, but in doing so they put down HK women (at least that's the way the Hong Kong women perceive the situation). Because many Hong Kong women regard themselves as being mentally tougher, more independent, and less "scheming" than their mainland counterparts, the actions and speech of some Hong Kong men cause tremendous anguish among Hong Kong women. With the passage of time, it is no wonder that gong2 naam4 港男 and gong2 neoi5/2 港女 developed into oppositional terms as a way to address this Thurberesque war of the sexes.

Perhaps it is time for the gong2 neoi5/2 港女 to start writing their own Cantonese novels to defend themselves from the aspersions in all those written by gong2 naam4 港男.

[Thanks to Bob Bauer, Simon Pettersson, and Wicky Tse]

Now if we take a look at your original assumptions:

Written Chinese is mainly used for Standard (Mandarin) Chinese.

Mostly other Chinese languages and/or dialects are mainly spoken and not written.

-A common misconception but obviously not the case.

Cantonese is probably the other language/dialect most written after Mandarin, and dialect words in Taiwan probably next most.

-Yes there seems to only be actual, complete writing only in Mandarin and Cantonese. Other topolects, like the article mentioned above, are basically Mandarin with sprinklings of topolectical words.

Most other Chinese languages and/or dialects have at least a few words which have no established related word in Mandarin. (This means related by etymology, not just the same meaning.)

-This is absolutely true on both fronts (etymology and meaning).

Where can I find some of the most common terms from any other Chinese (Sinitic) languages and/or dialects which do not have a standard hanzi character?

On this front I agree very much with what @Semaphore said in his/her answer. Many times talking about dialects, topolects or Chinese-based languages speakers will very quickly come out with the classic, "oh this is only spoken - it can not be written" phrase - which is actually just a very ignorant reply. Most of these so-called 'nonexistant' characters can actually be found fairly easily with some research. An example:

四川话 has the word ba4 dan1 (Sichuanese Pinyin): meaning 'bed sheet' - if you ask most people from the Sichuan area they should be able to understand this word (in the correct context, of course), but(!) if you ask them how to write it 99.99% of people do not have the slightest idea how to write it and will probably tell you "oh this is only spoken - it can not be written". 成都话方言词典 does, though, have an entry for this word using the following character for ba4:


and 单 for dan1.

While this may seem a little arbitrary - like they may have just made the character up themselves - the same character for ba4 can also be found in 《中华字海》: zhonghuazihai:ba

and online at zisea[dot]com: zisea online

Both of which clearly indicate it's a Sichuanese character!!!

So, why?

Why do natives not know their own language?

The basic answer this that topolects, dialects and all non-standard Chinese languages in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan have been suffocated, strangled and slaughtered to the best of the abilities of those in charge.

The Education Bureau in Hong Kong has claimed that Cantonese is not an official language.

Students are not allowed to speak anything other than Mandarin in modern day classrooms.

How can people expected to know their own languages?


Even in Mandarin there are quite a few terms that aren't written in Hanzi or are written in several different ways. The New Age Chinese-English Dictionary has a page with Words or Expressions Beginning with Western Letters, which lists the kind of words you're looking for.

The list is of course not exhaustive. I would add:

  • PM2.5 is the name of a air quality index, which is very commonly used, also in informal and non-technical situations, and therefore can be considered an everyday Chinese word (the actual technical term for PM2.5 is 細懸浮粒子),
  • APEC蓝, to quote Wikipedia:

    refers to the rare blue sky in Beijing during APEC China 2014 due to emission reduction campaign directed by Chinese government. Because of its transience, the new phrase "APEC blue" also refers to something wonderful but also fleeting.

  • O2O, a buzzword from the Chinese e-commerce industry. Even though it's an English-language acronym (“online to offline”), it seems quite clear that it originated in China and is quite widely understood there (and not so much anywhere else). Therefore I consider it a Chinese word.
  • Similarly, 4S means “authorised car dealership”. Again, it's an exclusively Chinese word, even though the name comes from English words sale, spare parts, service and survey.
  • The slang word for “to buy” is bài, sometimes used e.g. in connection with Taobao. The most popular way of spelling it is /, but I've also seen BUY and .

  • The letter n may mean “a lot” in Mandarin. To quote Sinosplice:

    That’s the mathematical n, as in an unspecified number that could be really high. It might seem strange to bring mathematical variables into everyday conversation, but in modern Chinese it happens on a regular basis. In Mandarin when you do something n遍 (n times), you did it so many times you don’t even know how many. Like we say “a million” in English, or, perhaps more appropriate in its ambiguity, “a zillion.” Rather than n遍, you can also say n次, which also means a zillion times [...]

Moreover, some words are very commonly written with various characters, even though some spellings are etymologically more “correct”. For example:

  • 牛B/牛逼/牛比, a word meaning “(fucking) awesome”. The “correct” spelling is supposed to be 牛屄 (屄 meaning “cunt”), but is rarely used in practice.
  • 屌絲, a word for “loser”. 屌 is “correct” here and means “penis”, but the word is sometimes written as 吊絲.

Depending on what you're looking for, we could also include very standard words, which nevertheless are written with one character by some people, and with another character by other people. Examples include “to stay” (待 or 呆) and “tangerine” (橘子 or 桔子).


Other people have given very informative answers and I want to add a simple addition.

I speak Shanghainese which is a dialect of Wu Chinese. There are many characters that people don't know how to write them correctly due to several reasons:

  1. The character was obsolete in modern Mandarin and so no one knows how to write it. Note in this case the correct writing exists but most people don't know how to write it. Side note: Mandarin is the only language taught in school while the teaching of Wu Chinese is illegal under current policies.
  2. The character comes from non-Sinitic language. In northern Wu, especially in Shanghai, there are phrases adopted from English, French, Russian, Japanese etc as there used to be an international installment and a large number of foreign population in Shanghi. In southern Wu, e.g. Wenzhou, certain words come from ancient language spoken by native non-Sinitic ethnic groups. In this case, the correct way of writing doesn't always exist unless the usage of the adopted word is common and the writing is fixed.

Many Cantonese expressions are written with 俗字 "folk characters", which are not valid characters in Standard Mandarin Chinese. However, some of them have their 本字 "original character", which are usually valid, standard characters fallen into disuse for a certain meaning.

For example, the Cantonese third person pronoun is keoi5 (Guangzhou dialect), which is usually written as 佢. However, its 本字 is actually 渠, which used to be a third person pronoun in classical written Chinese, but now only mean "ditch" in Mandarin.

However, there are some Cantonese words without 本字. Many of them are assumed to be Tai-Kadai as opposed to Sinitic in origin, which are borrowed from the Baiyue 百越 (a Tai-Kadai people who inhabited southern China long ago) language into Cantonese. Two very common examples include 痕 han4 "itchy" and 甩 lat1 "loosen", which are cognates with Zhuang /hom/ and /lot/.

I don't know for sure about Wu and Hokkien, but I am very confident that there are this kind of Baiyue loanwords in both languages. I could think of a few very common Hokkien expressions that do not show cognate relationships with Sinitic, such as 攏 lóng "all". However, I am no expert on Hokkien.

Nevertheless, it is a quite commonly accepted theory that Tai-Kadai and Sino-Tibetan are ultimately related, all of the aforementioned terms likely will have (distantly related) cognates in Mandarin. However, their resemblance with Tai-Kadai vocabulary is much higher, and are thus much more likely Tai-Kadai loans than Sinitic in origin.

Note: for Cantonese I use LSHK Jyutping, which romanizes the Guangzhou/Canton dialect. For Hokkien I use the ROC Taiwanese Romanization System, which is a standardized form of Hokkien Peh-Oe-Ji (POJ) that romanizes the Hoklo/Quanzhang 泉漳 dialect.


Not sure if this is what you are looking for, but, in 江苏泰州 they speak a funny dialect. 今天 is spoken 'gen er zei' My friend has no idea how you might write that in characters. It is not written. She has lots of other words.

  • 2
    In Taichou dialect, 今天 is likely to be 今儿朝, and 明天 is 明儿朝.
    – Lucius Hu
    Feb 8, 2017 at 18:27

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