Monday, November 26, 2007
Written Chinese refers to the written symbols used to represent spoken Chinese, along with rules and conventions about how they are arranged and punctuated. These symbols are commonly known as Chinese characters (traditional/simplified Chinese: 漢字/汉字; pīnyīn: hànzì), many of which have been definitively traced back to the 商 Shāng Dynasty about 1500 BCE, though the process of creating characters likely began some centuries earlier.
Chinese characters in other languages
Written Chinese is unusual in being the only major modern-day writing system not based predominantly on an alphabet or a compact syllabary. Instead, Chinese characters are glyphs whose parts may depict objects or represent abstract notions. These parts may occasionally stand alone as independent characters; far more typically, they are combined, using a variety of different principles, to form more complex characters. The most popularly known exposition of Chinese character composition is the 說文解字/说文解字 Shuōwén Jiězì, compiled by 許慎/许慎 Xǚ Shèn around 120 CE. Since Xǚ Shèn did not have access to Chinese characters in their earliest forms, his analysis, based as it is on somewhat later forms, cannot be taken as authoritative.
The last two principles do not produce new written forms; instead, they transfer new meanings to existing forms:
Chinese characters are generally written to fit into a square (except for simple characters such as 一 yī "one" for which this is not possible), even when they are composed of two simpler forms written side by side or top to bottom. In such cases, each form is compressed appropriately so that the entire character continues to fit into a square.
象形 xiàngxíng: Pictographs, in which the character is a graphical depiction of the object it denotes. Examples: 人 rén "person", 日 rì "sun", 木 mù "tree/wood".
指事 zhǐshì: Indicatives, or ideographs, in which the character represents an abstract notion. Examples: 上 shàng "up", 下 xià "down", 三 sān "three".
會意/会意 huìyì: Logical aggregates, in which two or more parts are used for their meaning. This yields a composite meaning, which is then applied to the new character. Example: 東/东 dōng "east", which represents a sun rising in the trees.
形聲/形声 xíngshēng: Phonetic complexes, in which one part indicates the general semantic category of the character (such as water-related or eye-related), and the other part is another character, used exclusively (in most cases) for its phonetic value. Example: 晴 qíng "clear/fair (weather)", which is composed of 日 rì "sun", and 青 qīng "blue/green", which is used solely for its pronunciation.
轉注/转注 zhuǎnzhù: Transference, in which a character, often with a simple, concrete meaning takes on an extended, more abstract meaning. Example: 網/网 wǎng "net", which was originally a pictograph depicting a fishing net. Over time, it has taken on an extended meaning, covering any kind of lattice. Today, in fact, it can be used to refer to a computer network; the word 網上/网上 wǎngshàng means "on the Internet".
假借 jiǎjiè: False borrowing, in which a character is used, either intentionally or accidentally, for some entirely different purpose. Example: 哥 gē "older brother", which is written with a character originally meaning "song/sing", now written 歌 gē. At one point, there was no character for "older brother", so an otherwise unrelated character with the right pronunciation was borrowed for the purpose. The structure of Chinese characters