Chinese Etymology

Lesson two -- 300 Chinese sound modules

Copyright © 2006 by Tienzen (Jeh-Tween) Gong

One: lesson text

It takes 10 school years for native Chinese to learn 5,000 Chinese words on their word forms, word meanings and word sounds. For an American high school student, if he wants to reach a level the same as a 10th grader of native Chinese in six months, the material he learned must be 20 times more powerful and useful than the material that native Chinese students used. That is, we must not learn those words one at a time. We must learn one while know 100. In lesson one, we need only to learn 220 root words in order to master all 60,000 Chinese words in their word forms. In this lesson, we also must not learn the word sound one at a time.

Chinese verbal language is a mono-syllable language, that is, one word has only one syllable (one sound). Yet, there is something very unique in Chinese verbal language. For every and each Chinese verbal sound, it has four-tones (| n ). The theory of four-tones is discussed in my book Chinese word roots and grammar, and that theory will not be discussed here. I will simply use it in this lesson.

With the knowledge of four-tones, we are able to learn the bandwidth of the entire Chinese verbal universe instead of just learning the sound of words with one word at a time. The bandwidth of Chinese verbal universe consists of four parts:

  1. There are, at most, 500 sound modules in Chinese word system. A sound module is a radical of a word, and it is the sound tag of that word. In this lesson, I listed 300 sound modules which encompass 70% (not 60%) of the entire bandwidth. In order to master Chinese language in six months, I must reduce the text material as much as possible for readers. By knowing the 70%, the remaining 30% can be picked up by readers with ease.

  2. Every Chinese sound (word sound) has four-tones. This does not mean that a word is pronounced with all those four-tones. A word is normally occupying only one of those four-tones. The other three tones are occupied by other words which might not have a connection of any kind with this word. Sometimes, there is an empty spot in a four-tone, that is, there is a tone while no word corresponds to it. In such a case, I have used X or Y to show the existence of that tone.

    For the total 60,000 Chinese written words, there are only, at most, 250 four-tones, that is, there are only 1,000 tones (for all 60,000 Chinese written words) in the entire Chinese verbal universe. Thus, every tone is carrying an average of 60 words (from 20 to 100). That is, 60 words in average are having identical sound (pronunciation). This is one reason that Chinese verbal language is not a hard language to learn. Of course, it will cause some confusions for the beginners. In this lesson, the 300 sound modules encompass 175 four-tones which is 70% of the entire bandwidth (175/250 = 70%).

  3. Many sound modules have a span of sounds. One sound module can have many different sounds. If a sound module is also a stand alone word, its sound is the default sound. When that sound module becomes a radical of other words, it is the sound tag of that word. Yet, that sound tag can pronounce with different sounds, entering into different four-tones. The following is one example.
    The sound tag q (guann, a water bird) has, at least, four different sounds,

    The span of a sound tag is caused by the different ways of inferring the meaning of its descendant words. The details of the span of a sound module and of how to infer the meaning of a word are discussed in Lesson three.

  4. Sound modules can spin off some new sound modules. I have shown many such examples in this lesson.

By learning these four parts (300 sound modules, 175 four-tones, span and spin of those sound modules), reader can master the entire Chinese verbal language universe without learning the pronunciation of words with one word at a time. Thus, the central points of this lesson are:

The followings are 300 sound modules.



  1. The shared radical of B ( chian , a dangerous place for human) is (weeds) inserted into (cave, a place of living). When the living room is growing with weeds, it becomes a dangerous.
    4T - [ M( B ), e A L A ], identical to SM - 37.
  2. The shared radical of B ( luan , something small yet important to human) is (human speaking) inserted into (silk, also means small).
    4T - [ X, M(} B q ), x (roan'), (luann)]
  3. The shared radical of C B M ( lhing' , fire of spirit or ghost) is (rice, as offering here) over (a bad chi or omen). This is about the spirit or ghost coming for a feast.
    4T - [ A M(C B ), A O ], identical to SM - 13.
  4. The shared radical of d B ( liau , a fire in a pit) is @ (earth) over (fire) over (Sun) over p (small). After the Sun has set, this module is a camp (ground) fire.
    4T - [ X, M(d B ), F (leau), (liaw)]
  5. The shared radical of p B _ (pih , an old habit) is (chi or energy) over (Sun or day) over (walking comfortably). Walking comfortably day after day is an old habit.
    4T - [ (pi), (pyi), (pii), M(_ B p )]
  6. , the shared radical of A B (huann , an enormous culture) is H (man, a slight different way of writing in this module) over I (a net) over j (huge or great). Man's net is covering something huge and great.
    4T - [ w (huan), (hwan), (faan), ]
  7. M (wei , a situation of danger) is H (man) over (a cliff) over (king's seal). When king's seal is dropped off cliff, it is a situation of great danger.
    4T - [ A M A A ], identical to SM - 21.
  8. , the shared radical of y B ( yanq , long running water, such as a small creek) is (sheep) over ] the long lasting water). Herding the sheep must go after water.
    4T - [ A v A o A ], identical to SM - 54.
  9. s ( jye , footwear) is (a crafty hand) inserted into (attached to calf).
    4T - [ A s A A ], identical to SM - 82.
  10. ( chyuan , total or totality) is J (enter) over (it is, in fact, a , jade). A pure jade without any contaminant is called . Later, it is also the title of emperor.
    4T - [ (jiuan), , (cheuan), U (chiuann)] Note: ( jin , the name for all metal, especially as gold) is H (man, it is also a mutation of J of ) over (jade) while an additional B (dot, meaning something additional) is inserted. That is, is greater than (the pure jade). Later, it is also the title of emperor. is normally silent when it acts as a module.
  11. T (tsann , the quality of top grade rice, the best quality) is (a thorough inspection) over (rice).
    4T - [ A I A G A T ], identical to SM - 205.

Note: the other sound modules are available in the paperback.

Two: exercises and homework

Homework one:
Are the words B B sound modules? If not, why not?

Homework two:
On page 112, The Columbia History of the World, ISBN 0-88029-004-8, it states,
"Structurally, the Chinese writing system passed through four distinct stages. No alphabetic or syllabic scripts were developed, but each word came to be denoted by a different character. The earliest characters were pictographs for concrete words. A drawing of a woman meant a woman, or of a broom a broom. Such characters were in turn combined to form ideographs. A woman and a broom became a wife, three women together treachery or villainy. The third stage was reached with the phonetic loans, in which existing characters were borrowed for other words with the same pronunciation. The fourth stage was a refinement of the third: sense determinators or radicals, were added to the phonetic loans in order to avoid confusion. Nine-tenths of the Chinese characters have been constructed by the phonetic method. Unfortunately, the phonetics were often borrowed for other than exact homophones. In such cases, the gaps have widened through the evolution of the language, until today characters may have utterly different pronunciations even though they share the same phonetic. The written language, despite its difficulties, has been an important unifying cultural and political link in China. Although many Chinese dialects are mutually unintelligible, the characters are comprehended though the eye, whatever their local pronunciation. One Chinese may not understand the other's speech, yet reads with ease his writing."

Question one:
Are the four developing stages of Chinese written words listed by Columbia the same as the description of this textbook? If not, what are the differences? Which description is making more sense?

Question two:
Is a word which has a sound tag (sound module) always a phonetic-loan word? If not, list three words which have sound tags but are not phonetic-loan words.

Hint: The statement in "The Columbia History of the World" that "Nine-tenths of the Chinese characters have been constructed by the phonetic method" is not correct. Yet, it is not an ignorance of Western Sinologists. It is the view of all Chinese language linguists. See the news report below.

Question three:
The sound tag q (guann, a water bird) has, at least, four different sounds,

  1. B with guann sound.
  2. [ (guan, looking at or inspection)
  3. v (chyuan, power of something)
  4. U (chiuann, advice)
Are these different sounds a result of non-exact homophones, as the gaps have widened through the evolution of the language? If not, what are the reasons for a sound tag having a few different sounds?

Homework three:
With the examples of three hundred sound modules which are dissected syntactically (semiotically), please dissect all node words (first generation words) of lesson one,

Three: additional information

The followings are additional sound modules. Reader is encouraged to find out their 4-tones. However, those information are available in the teacher's handbook.
  1. i
  2. g
  3. N
  4. e
  5. N
  6. h
  7. }
  8. C
  9. i
  10. The shared radical of r B
  11. The shared radical of G B
  12. The shared radical of f B X
  13. The shared radical of n B l

Note: this lesson has 46 pages in the paperback.