Chinese Language & Etymology

PreBabel -- the true Universal Language
the keynote speech at 2009 Linguistics Conference

The new Paradigm of Linguistics


Copyright number:
Date of registration: January 16, 2008
by Tienzen (Jeh-Tween) Gong

With China rising, the Chinese language is now listed as a strategic foreign language for our national security. Yet, it is very hard to keep students to stay in the program, especially for the advanced courses. This is because that Chinese language becomes very challenging, at least, in two points at that level.

  1. Although Chinese speaking language is not too hard to learn, the Chinese written words are seemingly stand-alone characters which must be memorized with a brutal effort.
  2. The pronunciation of every Chinese character must also be memorized with an irrational manner.

In the book, The Meeting of East and West -- an Inquiry Concerning World Understanding (The Macmillan Company, 1968 by Dr. F.S.C. Northrop), Dr. Northrop wrote, "The Easterner, on the other hand, uses bits of linguistic symbolism, largely denotative, and often purely ideographic in character, to point toward a component in the nature of things which only immediate experience and continued contemplation can convey. This shows itself especially in the symbols of the Chinese language, where each solitary, immediately experienced local particular tends to have its own symbol, this symbol also often having a directly observed form like that of the immediately seen item of direct experience which it denotes. For example , the symbol for man in Chinese is H , and the early symbol for house is . As a consequence, there was no alphabet. This automatically eliminates the logical whole-part relation between one symbol and another that occurs in the linguistic symbolism of the West in which all words are produced by merely putting together in different permutations the small number of symbols constituting the alphabet. (page 316).

"In many cases, however, the content of the sign itself, that is, the actual shape of the written symbol, is identical with the immediately sensed character of the factor in experience for which it stands. These traits make the ideas which these symbols convey particulars rather than logical universals, and largely denotative rather than connotative in character.

Certain consequences follow. Not only are the advantages of an alphabet lost, but also there tend to be as many symbols as there are simple and complex impressions. Consequently, the type of knowledge which a philosophy constructed by means of such a language can convey tends necessarily to be one given by a succession of concrete, immediately apprehendable examples and illustrations, the succession of these illustrations having no logical ordering or connection the one with the other. ...

... Moreover, even the common-sense examples are conveyed with aesthetic imagery, the emphasis being upon the immediately apprehended, sensuous impression itself more than upon the external common-sense object of which the aesthetic impression is the sign. Nowhere is there even the suggestion by the aesthetic imagery of a postulated scientific or a doctrinally formulated, theological object. All the indigenously Chinese philosophies, Taoism as well as Confucianism, support this verdict." (page 322, ibid).

Dr. Northrop was not simply discussing Chinese culture but was giving a verdict. His verdict has the following two points.

  1. About the Chinese written language (Chinese words): Denotative and solitary -- no logical ordering or connection the one with the other.
  2. The consequence of such a language: No chance of any kind to formulate scientific, philosophical and theological objects.

On July 13, 2007, I gave a presentation on Chinese Etymology at AP Annual Conference 2007 (CollegeBoard) in Las Vegas. In that presentation, I made two statements.

  1. Chinese written word system is an 100% root word system with only 220 root words, and it could be simpler than the high school geometry.
  2. The original meaning of every Chinese word can be read out loud from its face, and any high school student who did not know a single Chinese character could master the Chinese word system within six months.

I proved an etymology memory algebra. With only 220 root words (R), it generates 300 commonly used compound roots (also as sound modules, M). Thus, R + M = 220 + 300 = 520. With these 520, all 60,000 Chinese written words are generated. That is,

Etymology memory algebra is R + M = R x M

This textbook, Chinese Etymology, is the manifestation and the implementation of the above premise. It has three objectives.

  1. This is a self study book for someone who knows not a single Chinese written word, that is, the reader needs no tutor in order to study this textbook.
  2. This is a two hundred hour course which can be easily scheduled as a six month course. At the end of this 200 hours, the reader who knows not a single Chinese written word at the beginning should be able to read Chinese newspaper. Of course, there are two ways to read something.
    With 300 sound roots (modules), the pronunciation of 70% all Chinese written words can be read out loud, as most of them do carry a sound module as the sound tag.
  3. At the end of this course, a reader has acquired a foundation much, much stronger than native Chinese college graduates'. For those who did not study this course, every new word is as new as the first word they ever learned. For the readers of this book, every new word can be decoded from its face right the way.

Are these three objectives realities? The first two are very much self-evident. After knowing all anatomical parts, it is very hard to imagine that someone is still unable to dissect an ideograph which is composed of those parts. After knowing all decoding rules, it is very hard to imagine that someone is still unable to read an already decoded message. For the third objective, a litmus test is provided at the end of this book as a way to verify my claim. The reader who finished this course should be able to answer them 80% correctly with the first try. He ought to answer them 100% correctly with an open-book test. For native Chinese college graduates who did not study this course, I am sure that 99.9999...% of them cannot answer one question correctly although they do know each and every those words. In fact, all these three objectives and claims are testable.

Thus, for someone who is interested in learning Chinese language, especially the written language, he has two options:

  1. He can study 6,000 Chinese characters individually, one at a time, as they are not related and connected neither logically nor phonetically. This is how the native Chinese people does. Living in a language environment, he still needs 7 to 8 school years to learn 3,000 characters which is the minimum for reading Chinese newspaper. He will need to study 16 years (college graduation) to know about 6,000 words while he is still unable to comprehend the Chinese Classic writings. Not knowing one word in a sentence, we normally can guess it. If there are three or more words unknown in a sentence, the chance to guess them becomes nil. Learning Chinese written words in this way, one has no ability to decode the meaning of an unknown word from its face. As native Chinese people have a lifetime to learn the language, this is a workable pathway for them. This pathway is to learn a language as a living habit, and most of native languages are learned in this manner.
    For learning Chinese as a second language, it can become ... . Please read the article " Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard, by David Moser, University of Michigan Center for Chinese Studies -- "Someone once said that learning Chinese is "a five-year lesson in humility". I used to think this meant that at the end of five years you will have mastered Chinese and learned humility along the way. However, now having studied Chinese [in graduate school] for over six years, I have concluded that actually the phrase means that after five years your Chinese will still be abysmal, but at least you will have thoroughly learned humility."
  2. To learn a second language without a language environment is always a difficult task. However, if a language is a logic system with only a finite number of initial points (seeds or roots) and a finite number of logic rules, it can be learned as a knowledge (not a living habit) similar to learning geometry or chemistry. Chinese language (both verbal and written) has such a logic system. By only learning 220 root words, all (100%) Chinese written words can be decoded anatomically and syntactically. By only learning 300 sound roots (modules), the pronunciation of 70% of Chinese words can be known from their faces. With only 520 (220 + 300) ideographs to learn, one can master Chinese language (especially the written language) with a 200 hour course which can be easily scheduled as a six month course. In fact, it can be done in three months. A World Record was set for 89 days.

    the World Record

    of learning Chinese written language,
    from not knowing a single Chinese word to the level of being able to read Chinese newspaper (equivalent to 5 or 6 graders of native Chinese students in China),
    is 89 days .

    Furthermore, by knowing the logic of the language system, every unknown word becomes a pick-up word, that is, it can be picked up as soon as it appeared, as it can be easily decoded from its face.

With a root word system, there is no need to memorize the form and the meaning of each individual word. Preview the book Chinese Etymology

The following examples list some Chinese word roots (root words) and an example of a system which governs the forming of words from word roots.

Example one
Prefix Meaning and comments
Word root A:
A place of danger...for human

The word "cold" does not refer to a specific temperature, but rather the interpretation of that temperature to man. That is why "ice" in a place of human danger would be considered "cold."

earth, a pile of earth
A place of danger for human, such as a pit, has become "plugged" when it is filled with earth.
Plug, fill up

words, speech
Speaking at a place of danger will stutter.

A foot in a place of danger is stuck.

Having treasure in a place of danger, people competes to get it.
compete, contest

Hands in a place of danger are taking a risk, adventure.
adventure, taking risk

Obviously, the word root A is a word root. Yet, for a few thousand years in the past, no one in China knew that word root A is a word root. This situation is the same as the body meridian system which is believed by almost every Chinese, but no one knows how it was developed.

Example two
Prefix Meaning and comments
Word root B:
Something small, relate to (or tag along to) human

Something tags along in heart
Thinking about or loving someone

beating with hand
Something small was beaten by hand, and it will be changed.

A very small piece of meat, it cannot be shared.
small piece meat, imply: cannot be shared

A girl as a very small treasure, she cannot be shared.
beautiful girl, cannot be shared

baby, child
Twin are smaller than the full grown new born.

Hands would like to tagalong with someone.
hoping to hold hands with someone

hill, mountain
A small mountain can be reached easily by man.
small hill

Bow is bent. The bow string is easily bent.

tree, wood
Small trees around the tomb. It is used as a Last name now.
trees grew around the tomb as a fence

A legendary small bird, when it lands on King's carriage, the peace comes to the world.
a legendary small bird.

gold or metal
Originally, it is a bell made of metal to simulate the bird song. It was carried by the King's carriage to symbol the arriving of peace. Now, it means King's carriage.
King's carriage

bug, insect
This word was a name for an insect-like small bird. Imply: it pertains to be a bird. Further imply, pertain to be civilized. Now, it means not civilized.
not civilized

Again, word root B is obviously a word root. Yet, no one in China ever knew that it is a word root. The following two examples further show how Chinese words were formed with word roots. The methods of forming words are also briefly discussed.

Note: Word root A and B are not words; so, they are not radicals. Yet, by definition, they are not basic word roots as they are the composites of word roots. They are compounded word roots.

Example three
Word or word root Meaning and comments Word forming method

Moon Pictograph for concrete object

Night, this is not a touchable object. Yet, it can be pointed out with an concrete object, such as moon. So, one stroke was removed from the word moon, and it becomes the word of night. Pointing with a concrete word.

Many, unlimited. This is an abstract concept and cannot be pointed out with anything concrete. Yet, night comes and night goes to no end, and it can point to the concept of many, unlimited. So, this word was formed as night top (comes) night bottom (goes). Sense and meaning combination

covered, packing
This is not a word but a word root. It symbolizing packing or covering. Symbolizing with a pictograph

Mouth Pictograph for concrete object

When mouth was covered, the speaking stops. This word means a sentence, a period. the end of a sentence. Sense and meaning combination

When the unlimited many is stopped, it means enough. Sense and meaning combination

Example four
Word or word root Meaning or comments Word forming method

Water flow or people flow Symbolizing with a pictograph

Right hand
A right hand Pictograph for concrete object

A magistrate
Using hand to direct the flow of people is a magistrate Sense and meaning combination

Mouth Pictograph for concrete object

King, who gives order to a magistrate with mouth and would not work with hand. Sense and meaning combination

sheep Pictograph for concrete object

group, a herd
King herds sheep; it is a group, a herd Sense and meaning combination

land, country
Symbolizing a pile of earth. Pictograph for concrete object

King rules over a land, and it is a county. A county is a land having laws. Sense and meaning combination

More examples

Comments from University Presidents in China

Brief translation:
From the President of Nankai University Which is the top 5 university in China.
"... your book was reviewed by the experts of this university. They told me that it has set the foundation on the knowledge of how the Chinese word system was formulated. ...Thanks."

It is wasting student's youth by memorizing Chinese words with a brutal memorization method.

Sample Textbook (Course Outline and Syllabus) for AP Chinese -- CollegeBoard

The following essay shows more examples of the facts that Chinese words are formed with a word roots system.

TV news report on the publication of Chinese-Word-Roots and Grammar

Copyright © 2006 by