Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Radical, dude

Chinese characters are made up of distinct parts called "radicals," or sometimes called "section headers" (bu4 shou3 部首). (So called because of the way you look up characters in a Chinese dictionary.) The current 214-radical system is based on the Kang Xi Dictionary, which was formalized in the 18th century by Qing Dynasty Emperor Kang Xi (kang1 xi1 康熙 ). Most radicals are also characters on their own.

Each radical means something, and often the combination of radicals is a clue to what the whole character means, or sometimes it is a clue to the pronunciation.

For example: The radical represents "three drops of water (san1 dian'r3 shui3)." It even looks like it!

Then this radical, 目, represents "eye (mu4)." Unlike the 'three drops,' this is an actual character, as well as a radical. Put them together and you have "tears (lei4)"!

The characters I wanted to talk about today are characters that are made up of the same radical repeated 2 or 3 times within the same character. These are called "totally radical" characters. (Not really). With these you really get a sense of how cool and interesting the language is. Here are some good examples.

1) Forest and the trees: The character/radical mu4, 木, means "wood, or tree." Put two "mu's" together and you have 林 (lin2), which means forest (it's also a surname). Then put three of them together (森, sen1) and the meaning changes to "luxuriant vegetation!" Therefore a common word for forest is sen1 lin2, 森林. So the word for forest in Chinese is essentially "tree tree tree, tree tree."

2) Sound of Thunder: Thunder in Chinese (雷, lei2) is made up of two radicals, rain (雨, yu3) and field (田, tian2). But if you want to convey a really massive, intense, nerve-shattering thunderclap, throw three thunders together to get this insane ideogram:
This pen-destroying character takes a whopping 39 strokes to write, so if you use it you'd better mean it, buster.

3) Ancient chauvanists? The character for woman (女 , nv3) is a representation of a figure kneeling down. If you think that is sexist, check out this one: , jian1, which is three 'woman' radicals all together. This means "villainous, treacherous or debaucherous." (It really makes you wonder what happened to the guy who invented that character.) The 3-woman version is the traditional form of the character. In simplified characters it is , which is less blatant but still has one 'woman' radical in it.
In the same vein, the character 嬲, niao3, is two 'man' radicals on either side of a 'woman.' It means "to flirt or tease."

4) Five elements x 3: In Daoist philosophy, there are five main elements: Metal, Wood, Water, Fire and Earth. (金 jin1, 木 mu4, 水 shui3, 火 huo3, 土 tu3.) Each of these is a radical as well as a word, and each element has a character that is made up of itself repeated three times:
3 Metals: 鑫 xin1, used in names to symbolize prosperity.
3 Woods: 森 sen1, lush vegetation (as described above)
3 Waters: 淼 miao3, vast expanse of water, infinity
3 Fires: 焱 yan4, flames (also has a 2- and 4-radical version: 炎 yan2, inflamed; 燚 yi4, lots of flames)
3 Earths: 垚 yao2, embankment (also has 2-radical version, 圭 gui1, a type of jade tablet.)

There are many more of this type of character. If I find some really weird ones, perhaps I will revisit the topic in the future. Stay tuned!


Brian Morrissey said...

Your blog is so profoundly odd that it qualifies as awesome. Never trust three women together. Words to live by. Well, those and, "Wait until 4am to get the sausage egg and cheese at Grey's Papaya."

Ben Moger-Williams said...

Hey thanks Brian. Unfortunately there is no Chinese character for sausage egg and cheese at 4 a.m., otherwise it would be my favorite one.

Mom said...

Another terrific blog entry and very well explained.
I suggest you email Bard Chinese dept. and include your blog address
so they can see how Bard boy made good!

Really excellent, clear explanations
even tho I can't persuade Google to show me the *&^% characters!

Anonymous said...

I especially like the radical picture! ~Vince~