In an earlier question I wanted to learn about the nature of proper nouns in a language-neutral way, but the comments and answers to that question so far state that this is not possible, that only languages have word categories and that concepts of those categories do not exist independently.

So following on from that I want to ask if Chinese has proper nouns, since most of us familiar with languages written in dual-case alphabets correlate proper nouns with capitalization.

If Chinese has proper nouns how then are they distinguished from common nouns? Lexically? (property of each individual word) Semantically? (distinguished from the meaning of the word in a given context) Or are there also morphological and/or syntacic cues? (ways the words can be combined with other morphemes or arranged within a phrase that do not work for common nouns)

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    "not that concepts of those categories do not exist independently": it seems that there's one "not" too many in that sentence. Mar 5, 2012 at 18:18
  • For what it's worth, there are ways of marking proper names in written Chinese, though they're rarely used: see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proper_name_mark. It looks like you're asking about spoken Chinese grammar, and not about the conventions for writing and punctuating written Chinese, but this might still be useful to you. Mar 7, 2012 at 16:56
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    @RonMaimon: Can you back up that statement with some references to confirm that common nouns such as "jack" and proper nouns such as "Jack" never take different morphosyntactic markers or behaviours to one another? Or perhaps I haven't worded my question well, in which case could you point out which parts are unclear. Mar 8, 2012 at 11:28
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    @RonMaimon: But you are not distinguishing "Jack" and "jack", you are distinguishing the single word "Jack" with a more complicated noun phrase. For instance you can say "the player" but you can't say "the Jack". In English, proper nouns cannot take articles under normal conditions whereas common nouns can. This is one example of a morphosyntactic difference. Are there morphosyntactic differences which distingish common and proper nouns in Chinese also? Mar 8, 2012 at 12:02
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    @DanielHershcovich: I already asked the general question, and linked to it in this question. In fact it was the feeback to the general question that led me to ask a specific question. I would very much like to know about all the languages you listed too but didn't want to flood the site with similar questions right away... In particular, Kamil S. states that only languages have such features and that they do not exist cross-linguistically. Mar 8, 2012 at 18:53

2 Answers 2


I'm not a linguist, but I will try to provide some relevant information here as a native speaker.

Words that come from other languages and get translated into Chinese are so different that I don't really know how important semantics is here. For example,

Leonardo Da Vinci 达芬奇 (da fen qi)

Though "fen qi" can be a word in Chinese (分歧, difference in opinion), "da" does not make any sense if put before "fen qi". And one would know from the context that "da fen qi" is a person. Additionally, "da" is also not a common Chinese family name, so we know intuitively that "da fen qi" is a foreigner.

There are also a few characters only used in foreign names. For example, "耶" is for the sound "ye". Though "耶" has a lot of homophones in Chinese that are more often used, people who first introduced foreign proper nouns into China probably found "耶" more exotic. So yes, sometimes lexically.

Yale University 耶鲁大学(ye lu da xue, da xue = university)

Jerusalem 耶路撒冷(ye lu sa leng)

And how do we distinguish proper nouns originated in China from common nouns? For example,

Tian'anmen Square 天安门广场(tian an men guang chang, guang chang = square)

Since you have "Tian'anmen" before "Square", it is understood that you are talking about a specific place. In English, you might (???) later refer to it as "the Square" (with a capitalized "S"). In Chinese, since there is no articles* or capitalization, you can simply use "那个广场" (that square) or "广场" (square). For example,


(literally) I yesterday went to the Tian'anmen Square. Square* (on it) had a lot of people.

*Definite Article:

Unlike English, which has only one definite article “the", Mandarin  does not 
have this word at all. You can say ‘this’ or ‘that’, ‘these’ or ‘those’, but 
not ‘the’.  

Indefinite Article:

While we have (a / an / some) in English as indefinite articles,  these words 
do not exist in Mandarin.  To say ‘a book’ in Mandarin Chinese, you say ‘one 



I was reading an article in which there was a man named Greg Weeks. Is it easy to distinguish "Weeks" (his last name) from "weeks" (the time unit)? Yes, even if they are both capitalized (at the beginning of a sentence, for example)! I think context is everything - and same with Chinese.


Since names exist in all languages, I'm assuming that you're asking whether proper nouns in Chinese are distinguished lexically, semantically, or morphosyntacically from common nouns.

The only relevant link that I found was this one.


This link mentions a syntactic distinction between Chinese commmon and proper nouns. Common nouns may take modifiers, whereas proper nouns, like pronouns, generally don't.

Presumably, semantics and syntax are sufficient to distinguish the pronouns from the proper nouns.

As for whether certain Chinese nouns do double duty as common & proper nouns (e.g. witness the English name for the L.A. borough "Eagle Rock") or whether certain nouns are synchronically only proper (e.g. witness the surname "Smith"), the article doesn't say.

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