We've all been there. Say you're reading an article about something, and you come across a new word you've never seen before; how do you find out what it means or what it sounds like?

In most non-logographic writing languages (alphabets, syllabries, abjads, etc.) it's fairly simple, due to most non-logographic languages more or less being symbol-to-sound mappings, you can more often than not guess the pronunciation of the word based solely on its spelling; and dictionaries often have words written in a specific order corresponding to the order of the symbols (i.e. alphabetic/lexicographic order).

Enter Chinese. Chinese is a tonal language, an analytic language, and its writing system is a logography. Each morpheme has its own symbol, and the symbol has little-to-no correlation to its sound, and the really abstract looking ones can often look too abstract to decipher based on shape.

So my question is: Say you run into a new Chinese character in printed media (can't copy-paste it), you have no way of guessing how it sounds, and no idea what it's supposed to mean. How do you then figure out what it means and how it reads?

I can imagine the lexicographic order of Chinese characters works differently from what it does in Western languages, so I can imagine looking up an unknown word would be next-to impossible without having to sift through the entire dictionary. How would one do this? Native Chinese speaker or otherwise.

  • Doesn't accurate meaning of logographic oriental languages stem from their relationship to the characters previous to them? As such shouldn't sounding out the word or phrase be 80% of deciphering meaning? If you're in the conversation an I mistaken when I say you got sidetracked if you didn't follow right along? Cultural expression and neologisms. One need not apply. – user18367 Nov 25 '15 at 15:37
  • I cannot understand what user18367 is trying to say. Which characters "previous to them"? If you mean that sometimes the meaning of a character in a polysyllabic word is different from the the meaning of that character on its on, then yes, that is sometimes true. But that is not usually any help when encountering a character you don't know. And "sounding out" is exactly what you can't (reliably) do in Chinese. – Colin Fine Nov 25 '15 at 19:00
  • yeah mine was more inquiry than answer there, but you understood it. Why is it you can't sound out Chinese with a frame of reference for characters? – user18367 Nov 25 '15 at 19:03
  • You can't sound out Chinese because there is only a very weak and unsystematic relationship between characters and sounds. – Colin Fine Nov 25 '15 at 19:07

It's very easy to find a Chinese character in a dictionary even if it isn's known to you and you don't know its pronunciation. Naturally, to do that you've got to know how to use Chinese dictionaries. There are several different ways a Chinese dictionary is organized and the characters are looked up, and a big good dictionary usually combines several of them, you can choose the one you prefer.

The main ways the modern Chinese dictionaries are organized are:

  • By radicals: first you find the radical in the character, you go to the section of the radical in the dictionary, and then by the number of the remaining strokes you find the character.
  • By the four corners: since every character can be imagined as having the shape of a square, you define which stroke is in each of its four corners, which you convert into a numeric index of the character in the dictionary.
  • By the right bottom corner: you define which stroke is in the right bottom corner, you go to the section of that stroke in the dictionary, and then inside the section you find the character you need by the system the particular dictionary uses, by the number of strokes, by the order of strokes, etc.

As you can see, one hasn't got to sift through the entire dictionary. Still, if you want to look up characters effectively, you have to know the system of your dictionary well, and also know the radicals and strokes together with the numeric indexes ascribed to them in your dictionary, those are a kind of alphabetic order used in European-style dictionaries.

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If you don't have a dictionary handy, there are some clues in the characters themselves. Many characters have meaningful radicals embedded in them, as well as pronunciation clues. For example, 妈 "mom" includes the radical 女 nǚ "woman, female" for semantics and 马 mǎ "horse" as a pronunciation clue.

Of course, these are only mnemonic devices, and for many older characters semantic shift and sound changes may have rendered them useless, but occasionally you get a good idea. The first time I encountered it, I was successfully able to guess that 肝 referred to an organ meat (it has the radical 月/肉 used with body parts) and approached the pronunciation gān well enough to order 猪肝面 zhūgān miàn, which I learned means "pork liver noodles".

That said, I would highly recommend carrying a dictionary. There are plenty of mobile apps that can look up characters from handwriting input. The one I use is Pleco, which can be upgraded with OCR so you can point your camera at printed text to look it up.

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