I can recognize and translate the 215 radicals. Now, I'm told radicals combine with each other and other characters to make words, and that some radicals denote sound for pronunciation of the word. And that identifying the radical(s) inside the words won't always helps you decode its meaning; it just helps you find the stroke category in a dictionary or something.

So is mandarin always conveying two meanings (or levels of meaning) at once-- from the radicals and also from the new words that the radicals make when joined? Does this notion disappear once you gain fluency? Do you automatically ignore the radicals' individual meanings like they just don't exist? And why is mandarin like this, etymologically speaking?

4 Answers 4


You can consider radicals as affix and suffix, and when you see a common english word, most time you will not consider what's the affix and suffix means, because you know the word meaning, only when you consider on the word's source, you will discuss with the affix and suffix, that's same to Chinese. And, when you encounter a word that you don't familiar or recognize, you may guess the meaning by affix and suffix, but you also know, your guess may be wrong if you don't find a real explanation in dictionaries. Same to Chinese, we may guess the meaning and pronoucation of an unfamiliar char by radicals or by itself, but that's may not be correct.

  • Oh! Thanks so much! ...Is there a logic to how they merge? Often the radicals look like their meaning, e.g. legs look like two little legs. When the legs radical joins to make a word, will there be a reason why? The radicals "make sense" by themselves. Do they when combined? Sep 10, 2014 at 8:24

This is a very interesting question unfortunately I cannot vote up yet due to a lack of reputation (so I build it up now with a hopefully good answer).

My wife's Chinese and that of one of my linguistics professor Vietnamese (read up on their writing system, it's quite interesting!). I'm not studying linguistics, but because of the origins of our wives we often discuss East Asian languages - I try to give you a short resume of what has been talked there and next time I see him, I will ask for some book recommendations if you're interested.

First and foremost: Chinese radicals do not work any differently than those of Indogermanic words. Thus you can think of this question in your own language: How much are you aware that "obey" originally just meant "to listen (carefully)" when you use it in the meaning of receiving, accepting and carrying out an order or command?

If have undergone tertiary education you may be aware of this origin. It is the same for Chinese. Those who had profound education in such subjects will be more aware than other people. My wife studied something which had no connection to linguistics - and she did not even think that there could be another "radical" meaning behind the words she used. Because of my interest in linguistics she also started reading books on Chinese language history, etymology, etc. And now she suddenly recognises a lot of these meanings.

Long story short: If you know that there are several (not only two) layers, you are probably often aware of those "secondary" or "original" meanings. If not, you aren't aware of it. In other words: Chinese are as much aware of the meaning of their radices as we are aware of ours. After all, our writing system reflects them as much as the Chinese.

  • Thanks, this too is very meaningful and helpful. I appreciate your response. I guess I'm still a little in the dark since "obey" looks like 4 alphabets, but the radical for "mountain" looks like a mountain. In other words, even without etymological knowledge, someone could possibly infer that the concept and how you write the Chinese word are the same? But, if what you say about Chinese literacy acquisition is the norm, would that mean only the Chinese-as-second-language learners might pick up on the meaning duality? Sep 11, 2014 at 2:18
  • I have to admit that my example was not good. "obey" consists of a Latin radix which is not well-known to or easily recognisable by native English speakers. But in general, also my wife as a native speaker agreed, that it is pretty much the case that people are not aware of the radicals' meanings when they use a word - especially since you write it rarely compared to speaking it. And that's then a whole different story again with words sounding alike :) Sep 11, 2014 at 16:14
  • No worries. "Radix" is not well-known or easily recognized by this native English speaker! LOL! Sep 12, 2014 at 10:53
  • So, do readers of Chinese language have different cognitive experience when reading pinyin as opposed to reading in the ordinary way (of the signs)? Sep 12, 2014 at 11:29
  • They do in two ways. First of all it's harder for them to read Pinyin simply because it's the sound, not the word. My then-girlfriend-now-wife had to read my QQ-messages aloud sometimes to understand what I had written. But for the question asked here I do not think that it makes a difference. Think of how you read: You don't analyse word-by-word, you read the sentence, sometimes even skipping words of less importance. For Chinese it's the same: They read the sentence and don't analyse the characters in it. Sep 12, 2014 at 20:49

In fact most Chinese characters consist of a radical, which gives a hint to the meaning, and a purely phonetic part, which was simply chosen for having the same sound. One of my professors who was researching ancient Chinese estimated this to be the case for 98-99% of all characters, although sometimes the phonetic part is somewhat obscure because pronunciation changed a lot over time (>2000 years). E.g. 林 lín is phonetic part of 禁 jìn. Those characters, where the meaning of all graphemes actually contribute to the meaning of the character, are rare in comparison and mostly came from oracle bones already, e.g. 木 mù tree/wood, 林 lín grove, 森 sēn forest.

  • Thanks a lot! Where can I read or learn more about "Those characters, where the meaning of all graphemes actually contribute to the meaning of the character"? Sep 12, 2014 at 10:51

--I'm told radicals combine with each other and other characters to make words

No, radicals are one component of Chinese characters. They do not combine with each other to make words. They do not combine with other characters to make words.

Not all components of characters are radicals. What you wrote is correct: "it just helps you find the stroke category in a dictionary". If you are looking up the character 枫 (maple), for instance, the radical is 木 (wood, tree). The other part, 风, is not a radical, at least not in this word. 木, the radical, helps you look up 枫 in the dictionary. 风 indicates the pronunciation (roughly) but is not a radical.

--some radicals denote sound for pronunciation of the word

These aren't very common. Probably the majority of radicals indicate the semantic category of a word, like 木 (wood, tree) in 枫.

There is a fundamental confusion in your question between characters and words. Characters are written forms. Except for very simple characters, they are made up of various written components or elements, some giving a hint of meaning, some indicating pronunciation, and some representing garbled (and misleading) versions of their ancient form.

Characters in Chinese mostly equate to morphemes in linguistics. Words are created by combining morphemes together. For instance, 枫 'maple' and 梨 'pear' are two morphemes (each written with one character) that can combine to form the word 枫梨, meaning 'pineapple'.

Words are NOT created by combining radicals. The word 枫梨 is made up of 枫 and 梨. It was not created by mixing and matching radicals like 木 and 风 and 木 and 利. These four forms all occur in 枫梨, but only as constituent parts of 枫 and 梨, not as constituent parts of the word 枫梨. Radicals, as mentioned above, are components of characters and, as also mentioned above, are just used for indexing characters.

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