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Last week, we looked at how understanding phonetic components can help us learn to read and write Chinese characters. That’s usually something learners pick up more or less automatically, provided that the phonetic component is also a common character in itself. It’s kind of hard not to notice that most characters containing 青 are pronounced qing, albeit with different tones. This week, we’re going to look at some less obvious applications of phonetic components and how they can help us solve a truly tricky problem.

lianggenSome Chinese characters are confusingly similar

In the beginning, you can easily create mnemonics for each individual character and since you have so few visually similar characters, it’s not that hard to keep them separate. As the number of character increases, though, you will soon run into a very tricky problem: series of characters that look almost the same and only differs in one or two strokes.

If you try to learn these simply by writing them a lot, you will probably fail, or at least waste  a lot of time. Instead of doing that, there is a trick you can use to solve many of these problems. Often, the reason you keep confusing characters  is because it’s hard to remember meaningless things (the absence of a dot, the addition of a stroke). It’s much easier to remember pronunciation and/or concrete objects.

Confusing characters can be easily hacked by paying attention to the phonetic component

Naturally, not all confusing characters can be solved this way, but I’m going to show you some that are very easy to deal with so that you can keep your eyes peeled for these in the future. In short, the characters are really easy to confuse, but you can deduce which one is which based only on the phonetic component.

Let me give you a basic example first (adapted from this article). 良 (liang) and 艮 (gen) – When you write characters with these two components, it’s extremely hard to remember if there should be a dot or not. Considering that I know at least 25 characters with these components, it can become very confusing indeed. Until you notice that all characters containing 良 (with the dot) end with -iang and all characters with 艮 (without the dot) end with -in or -en. Like this:

With dot (view all here): 娘, 浪, 狼, 莨, 阆, 琅, 稂, 锒, 粮, 蜋, 酿, 踉
Without dot (view all here): 艰, 限, 垦, 很, 恨, 狠, 退, 垠, 哏, 恳, 根, 痕, 眼, 银, 裉, 跟

This means that you can know if there should be a dot or not simply by knowing the pronunciation of the character! You never need to worry about remembering this, you just need to know the pronunciation of the phonetic components. Conversely, you can sometimes guess the pronunciation of a new character if you know the phonetic component. Any character containing 良 (liang) are likely to be pronounced either liang or niang, and characters with 艮 (gen) tend to be pronounced hen or gen.

More examples (please add your own in the comments)

To show you how powerful this is, here are a few more examples of characters that might be trolling you. Some of these are not relevant for simplified characters, but rather than caring too much about that, focus more on the principles. Even though simplified characters sometimes avoid the problem, more and trickier problems are created by merging character components. That’s beyond the scope of this article, though.

延 (yan) and 廷 (ting)

Characters based on 延 (yan) are always pronounced -an…

  • 诞 dàn
  • 蜒 yán
  • 涎 xián
  • 筵 yán
  • 埏 yán shān
  • 綖 yán
  • 蜑 dàn
  • 莚 yán
  • 駳 dàn
  • 鋋 yán
  • 硟 chàn

…and those with 廷 (ting) are pronounced ting:

  • 庭 tíng
  • 艇 tǐng
  • 挺 tǐng
  • 霆 tíng
  • 蜓 tíng
  • 铤 tǐng
  • 梃 tǐng
  • 閮 tíng
  • 莛 tíng
  • 綎 tīng
  • 鼮 tíng

易 (yi) and 昜 (yang)

Characters based on 易 (yi) are always pronounced -i…

  • 锡 xí
  • 赐 cì
  • 踢 tī
  • 惕 tì
  • 剔 tī
  • 蜴 yì
  • 裼 xí
  • 埸 yì
  • 逷 tì

…and those with 昜 (yang) end with -ang:

  • 諹 yáng
  • 逿 dàng táng
  • 輰 yáng
  • 颺 yáng
  • 鍚 yáng

令 (ling) and 今 (jin)

Characters based on 令 (ling) all start with l-:

  • 领 lǐng
  • 冷 lěng
  • 零 líng
  • 龄 líng
  • 怜 lián
  • 邻 lín
  • 玲 líng
  • 铃 líng
  • 岭 lǐng
  • 伶 lín
  • 拎 līng
  • 翎 líng
  • 聆 líng
  • 羚 líng

…and those with 今 (jin) don’t start with l-:

  • 念 niàn
  • 含 hán
  • 琴 qín
  • 贪 tān
  • 吟 yín
  • 岑 cén
  • 矜 jīn
  • 黔 qián
  • 芩 qín

I think this is enough to show you what I mean. If you have more examples of your own, please leave a comment! And if you want to check out more like this, I suggest you head over to the list of phonetic sets at HanziCraft. I also recommend using Zhongwen.com. Of course, not all sets are easy to confuse, but I hope that this article and the previous one will make you pay more attention to the phonetic components of Chinese characters.


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11 Responses to Phonetic components, part 2: Hacking Chinese characters

  1. Ben Winters says:

    Good article, as always. I’ve bookmarked the HanziCraft page for when I have more characters to distinguish between.

  2. Sara K. says:

    Just a random observation – recently, I watched a TV show in Cantonese, and I noticed that the pronuncition of 娘 sounded something like ‘leng’. Perhaps in Cantonese all of the 良 characters still have the ‘l’ initial.

  3. Emil Klein says:

    I don’t now whether I should thank you or not. it is posts like these that makes me wonder if I am ever going to learn some kind of fluently chinese. But, I will hang in there! So, thanks you!

  4. Neo says:

    I think I feel the same as Emil. This post should definitely make it a lot easier to learn. (I wish my books had gone into the details of character structure, rather than learning chars by rote in an order similar to the frequency of use.) At same time, it is a little depressing to see that there are so many characters that differ by so little as a dot or stroke. I was hoping that most characters would differ more substantially.

  5. Neo says:

    Learning a foreign language is like eating an elephant. You eat a little each day, eventually you’ve eaten the entire elephant. But Mandarin is more like eating a Brontosaurus. :-) If I want to feel depressed, I can look at advanced Chinese and see how far I have to go. If I want to feel encouraged, I can look at beginner Chinese and see how much I have learned. Articles like this help.

  6. Deanne Wise says:

    Thanks for peeling off another layer of the Mandarin onion. I often feel I have bitten off more than I can chew but then I remind myself that I know more than I did last year.

  7. Mannaf says:

    Can’t thank you enough for an article like this. :-)

  8. Georges says:

    Hi Olle,
    Hi Olle,

    Thanks for the post.
    Just a question does the ratio of 80% also work for simplified characters?
    Since the characters tend to drop a lot of the meaning with having less or altered strokes.
    Therefore thinking that the system might not always work that well with the simplified versions.
    Of course we might be looking at this from a wrong angle.

    Georges

    Thanks for the post.
    Just a question does the ratio of 80% also work for simplified characters?

  9. Jed Alexander says:

    I love this website, keep up the good work.

    One I’ve noticed recently from playing 象棋:presence of 將 normally gives you ‘jiang’
    將 漿 蔣 – jiang
    獎 槳 蔣 – jiang(3rd tone)
    醬 將 將 – jiang (4th tone)

    Note the two pronounciations of the original radical.

    Also, something that would come up day to day is the use of 漿(water + jiang = thick liquid) as in 豆漿, 米漿 for Soy/Rice Milk
    vs
    醬 (semantic radical indicating liquid + jiang = sauce/paste) as in 番茄醬 or 沙拉醬 for Ketchup/Mayonnaise

    Hope this helps someone, I still get my jiang’s wrong ordering food. I guess I drink jiang1 and eat jiang4 吧?

  10. John Carpenter says:

    Can’t recall where I saw them but I have seen books of hanzi which have tone marks over the hanzi. I personally have mixed feelings about using such material but…

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