Chinese Etymology

Lesson three -- Advanced studies

Reading the meaning of each Chinese word out loud from its face
Copyright © 2006 by Tienzen (Jeh-Tween) Gong

One: lesson text

In Introduction of this book, I have mentioned that Chinese word system is growing out from a two-dimensional path,

Yet, the roots of both dimensions are, in general, silent in their descendant words. Obviously, there are more internal dynamics in the Chinese word system. It has two additional dimensions. The followings are some examples:

Furthermore, the Chinese phonetic universe has four dimensions.

By knowing the dimensions and the internal dynamics of Chinese language, Chinese language (both verbal and written) can be mastered without learning it one word at a time. As there are two dimensions (silent and phonetic) and as the sound of any sound modules does not arise from its composing roots, the meaning of any word without a sound module as a radical can be read out loud by inferring from its composing roots only without the consideration of phonetic component. Furthermore, 70% of words which carry a sound tag are descendant words of horizontal roots or modules. In those words, the sound tag acts only as an ID differentiator, such as, 鳳 、 鳩 、 鳶 、 鴆 、 鴻 、 鳽 、 鴿 、 鴨 、 鸚 、 鵡 、 鵬 、 鶯 、 鷗 、 鷙 、 鷲 … … are all birds, just different kind of birds. There is truly no point to learn each of those words. By only learning the word 鳥 (bird), it is enough to know all those words are birds. In fact, for all phonetic loan words, we know one, and we know the entire group.

For sense determinator words which carry a sound tag (the remaining 30%), only 20% of them get the part of their meaning from the phonetic component of their sound tag. As a sound module has both meaning and phonetic, 80% of the time, they make their contribution to their descendant word with their meaning, not their sound. Thus, although the phonetic dimension does play a major role on constructing Chinese word system, it plays a minor role on inferring the meaning of those words. However, when the phonetic does play a role on inferring the meaning of a word, its process is a bit complicated. This is one of the reason that phonetic plays only a minor role. I will discuss this later.

After knowing all these, we can make the following summary.

In lesson two, I have shown 300 examples of how to read the meaning of a word out loud from its face. However, I will make some more detailed description below. The followings are some examples.

  1. Read it out loud as a phrase, as it is a phrase written as a single word.

  2. Read it out loud by inferring with some culture information.

  3. Read it out loud by inferring with word roots or modules (compound roots) plus culture information.
    The compound roots (modules) which are not stand alone words are not listed in dictionary. Thus, no one knows their meanings. This, of course, causes problems for people to read the meanings of their descendant words directly. However, the meaning of those compound roots can be read from their composing roots directly.

Similar to chemical compounds, the atoms (root words or modules) of the above examples are clear visible. However, not every word has such clear divided atoms. The simpler a word is, the more fusion and confusion are in it. The followings are some such issues.

The above issues do not play a major role in any second generation word or its descendant words which account for 80% of all Chinese written words. However, in order to guarantee that reader is able to decode all first generation words with those 220 root words, I will discuss the above issues in details here.

Chinese Etymology Physics

The 220 root words are rock bottom anatomical units, especially visually. In an analogy, they are the atoms for chemistry. However, they do have some internal structures, similar to the atoms in physics. This etymology physics does play some roles in decoding the first generation words. Those 220 root words can be divided into three groups.

Note: this info is available in the paperback.

The foundation of Chinese Etymology Dynamics

It is now very clear that to dissect and to infer a high generation (second or higher) word is not too difficult while the simple words are sometime very challenging. They, often, require some artistic imaginations, such as:


However, with the knowledge of Etymology Physics, I, now, can discuss the anatomy of some simple words. I will begin it from numbers (0, 1 to 10) and the way of marking dates, months and years.

In Chinese philosophy and cosmology, the numbers 0, 1 to 10 are not simply numbers. They describe the structure and the dynamics of a living universe. The 0 (zero) is a state before the creation of the universe, and this 0 is depicted as nothingness (wu). 一 (one, 1) is the force and the act which creates the universe; so, one is the father, the heaven. However, the 一 has divided 0 (nothingness) into two (nothingness and something), that is, 二 (two) is created by 一 (one). However, without the man, those 一 and 二 will never be recognized or praised. So, human is the third, 三 (three). Finally, the word 三 represents the universe, the top 一 is heaven (the father), the bottom 一 the Earth (the mother) and the middle 一 the human. Thus, anyone who is able to unify or to connect these three is 王 (king , that is, 三 is connected by and with | ). Now, the following words will make sense.

    • ...
    • ...
    • These info are available in the paperback.
    • 庚 (geng) is (house) over (hand) over 人 . At 庚 , man should work in door.
    • 辛 (shin) is (violating above, such as heaven) over 一 (earth). At 辛 , Earth is in a harsh condition.
    • 壬 (ren) is (a flowing chi) over 士 (as a baby). After the harsh 辛 , the woman is pregnant. 妊 is the word for pregnant. Thus, 壬 is the time for planting seeds for new lives. So, 望 means hopes and looking forward.
    • 癸 (goei) is (the summit, the highest point) over 水 (not 天 ). This is one example of mutation. When the water has gone to the highest heaven, there is no water on the ground. At 癸 , earth is covered with ice.
  1. 地 支
    1. 子 ( tzyy, a baby, something small) is ...
    2. ...
    3. These info are available in the paperback.
    4. ...
    5. 戌 (shiu) is 戊 over 一 (earth). The chi of 戊 (hunting or planting) is now entered into ground (earth), and it is the time to prepare for Winter.
    6. 亥 (hay') is, in fact, 女 (woman) over 人 (man). At 亥 , it is the time for woman and man to copulate.
      Note: In Chinese culture, the words about sex intercourse are always camouflaged or disguised. 亥 is about the copulation of man and woman; yet it is used to be a time coordinate. Furthermore, the top part of 女 is disguised with (heaven). Of course, copulation is a heavenly ordained act. 后 (queen) is another highly sexual charged word. Its top radical is 入 (entering) turned upside down, and the 口 here is , in fact, signifying the vagina. The vulgar way to write copulation is 肏 which is 入 (enter) over 肉 (meat). In many dictionaries, this word is not listed. I am very surprised that this word 肏 is supported by the computer software.
      However, by fusion the (heaven) and 女 (woman), 亥 becomes a heavenly act, and, of course, its descendant words are also having very strong moral tone, such as:
      • 該 ( gai , ought to be)
      • 核 ( her' , nucleus)
      • 刻 ( keh , engrave)

Growing dynamics of Chinese word system

In addition to knowing of how to dissect any word anatomically and syntactically, we should also know the growing dynamics of Chinese Etymology. In lesson one, I have shown two examples:

I am going to show a few more examples below.

  1. (hand)
    • (a crafty hand)
      • 聿 , items which are made by a crafty hand.
        • 筆 , pen.
        • 律 , law.
        • 津 , a harbor.
        • 肆 , intentional doing.
        • 肄 , study.
      • 妻 (wife) is 一 (union) over (crafty hand) over 女 . A wife is a woman with crafty hand who made a union with a man.
      • 事 , events which are done by man.
    • 雪 (snow), the rain which can be held in hand.
    • 虐 (abuse) is (tiger's hand) over an abnormal (backwards) hand.
  2. (king's seal)
    • 令 (an order from a court) is (a union) over (king's seal). When king's seal is checked okay, it is an order.
      • 命 (verbal order or life) is 口 令 which means password. Knowing the password, one's life is saved.
      • 領 , leading...
    • 危 (dangerous) is 人 (a variant of 人 ) over (cliff) over (a variant of king's seal). When a man drops the king's seal below a cliff, he is in a dangerous situation.
      • 詭 , a deceiving trick.
    • 卯 (a correct proceeding) is beside (the image of king's seal). When the seal and its imprint matches, the things can proceed.
      • 柳 (willow tree) was used as a post for the horse of king's messenger who carried king's seal.
      • 卵 (egg) is an union of two parts which carry one dot (an essence) in each of them while this process is a 卯 (a correct proceeding).
        • 母 (mother) is the fusion after 卵 turned 90 degrees,
  3. 卜 ( buu , a way to get some answers from gods)
    • 用 ( yonq , using something or some methods) is (a cover, such as an upside down cup) over four 卜 , similar to playing dices. After all four dices (卜 ) agreed, a decision is taken, and it is a 用 (chosen to be used or followed).
      • 周 ( chou , all over the places or encompass) is 用 over 口 (mouth). By using the mouth, a thing (or an idea) can be all over the places.
        • 倜 、 徟 、 裯 、 綢 、 稠 、 碉 、 凋 、 調 、 甬 …
There are many more such examples. However, these three will suffice to get an understanding on the inferring logic of how to read the meaning of any Chinese word from its face. Some of those logic above are straight forward. Yet, some others are far removed from any direct observation. However, they can still be understood. The most difficult part in inferring the meaning of a Chinese word from its face is about the mutation of their root words. Some mutations can be easily guessed, such as from 雁 to 應 、 膺 . Some others must be learned. The followings are some of those cases.
  1. 光 ( guang , light) is 火 (fire) over 儿 (child). In the ancient time, adult carried spear while child carried touch during a night hunting. Obviously, the four strokes of the word 火 was changed.
    • 黃 ( hwang , color of yellow) is 田 (grain field) inserted into 光 , between 火 and 儿 . The 光 (light) or the color from the dirt of the grain field is named as 黃 (yellow). However, the four strokes of 火 was mutated even further, and it is almost not recognizable.
      • The shared radical of 漢 、 艱 、 難 is, in fact, a variant of 黃 as its radical 田 was changed as 中 (center) over 土 (earth) which means the middle kingdom. 漢 (hun , name of Chinese race) is, in fact, a word for Yellow River (黃 河 ) . Among many attributes of Yellow River, two stand out, its yellowish water (which is described with the word 潢 , [water] beside 黃 ) and its people 漢 . Thus, the yellow color becomes the color of the emperors.
    It is very hard to imagine that this kind of mutation which happened in sequences can occur naturally. It is a reasonable guess that it was an engineered disguise in order to camouflage the logic of Chinese word system to prevent any foreigner to master Chinese written language before he is Sinicized. Thus, there are many more examples of un-needed mutations.
  2. More examples of mutations:
    • 甘 ( sweet) becomes 日 (Sun). The 日 in the following words is, in fact, 甘 .
      • 旨 、 香 、 厭
    • About 目 ( eye) and 网 ( a net).
      • 眾 、 蔑 have radical of a side way 目 .
      • 羅 、 罹 、 罟 、 罡 、 罩 … have the radical of 网 .
    • About 十 ( ten or perfection) and 屮 (grass).
      • 早 has a radical of 屮 .
      • 章 has a radical of 十 .
    Note: there are some more (about 18 more) such mutations listed in my book Chinese word roots and grammar. Reader is encouraged to read it after you have completed this textbook.

The last but not the least, it is the role of phonetic in this inferring logic. As I have mentioned before,

There are three ways for a phonetic component to play a role in the meaning of a word.

  1. Direct and explicit contribution:
    • 甬 is 乜 (root 23, not yet sprouting while ready to do so) over 用 . At here, the meaning of 用 does not make much contribution on the meaning of 甬 which still means "ready to breakout of something," such as,
      • 蛹 ( cocoon)
      • 涌 ( water is rushing through)
      • 痛 ( the aching under the skin)
      As a root word is used in many descendant words, it is easier to express its original meaning also with a different word instead of by itself. Thus, 甬 is the word form manifestation of the word root 乜 while the sound of 甬 is coming from 用 .
    • 巍 ( a very tall mountain) is 山 ( mountain) over 魏 . Yet, what is 魏 ? By a wild guess, it means tall. Can we infer the meaning of 魏 as tall from the above inferring logic?
      In terms of the word form, 魏 is 委 ( delegating or abandoning) beside 鬼 (ghost). In fact, 魏 is a name of a ghost who might live at mountain's peak. When anyone met this ghost 魏 , he must surrender (委 ) to that 鬼 . From a 魏 monster to a tall 巍 mountain, the logic steps between them might not be too difficult for someone with a great imagination.
  2. Indirect and implicit contribution:
    • 祭 ( an offering ceremony to gods or ancestors) is 又 (hand) holding 月 (meat) while asking the answers or signs (示 ) from above. Yet, its sound (pronunciation) is identical to the word 即 which means "ready to be seated." Thus, the true meaning of 祭 is asking gods to be seated to enjoy my offering. In this case, the precise meaning of this word is pointed out by its phonetic component while it is not a part of the word form.
    • ( winning) is 亡 (disappear or death) over 口 (mouth or people) over 月 (meat), 貝 (treasure) and 丸 (an elixir pill). With so much treasures while no one (亡 口 ) can share it, it must mean winning. Furthermore, its sound (pronunciation) is identical to the word 盈 (a filled up or over flowed dish). Thus, the precise meaning of this word is to own a filled up or over flowed treasure box. Again, while the precise meaning of this word is pointed out by the phonetic, the phonetic is not a part of the word form.
  3. The different words with identical sound can be used as the same word. This rule is the most confusion and is the most forgiving. An illiterate person can write a sentence by using many wrong words (whose meanings are million miles off the mark from the correct words while they do have the same sound of those correct words) while his intention can still be understood. This issue is again discussed in details in my book Chinese root words and grammar, and there is no reason to repeat it here.

Two: Exercise

Homework one:
Please read the meaning of following words out loud from their faces.

Homework two:
Try to dissect all node words (first generation words) in Lesson one

  1. Anatomically,
  2. Syntactically, reading out the meaning of a word from its face.
  3. Phonetically.

Note: this lesson has 22 pages in the paperback.