Before we talk about the Chinese alphabet, we need to indulge in the details and history of the Chinese language. The Chinese language is one of the world’s complex and interestingly also spoken by around 1.3 billion people. The Chinese alphabet makes the language speakable. This makes up 16% of the world’s total population. This diaspore speaks multiple variants of Chinese as their first language. It comes from the Sino-Tibetan language family. The speakers of the Chinese language also consider the spoken versions as dialects and not as variants. These only differ in the way people from certain regions speak and use the dialects and nuances.
The Chinese language has two main variants.
- Mandarin Chinese
- Simplified Chinese
Standard Chinese serves as the official language of the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan as well as one of the official languages of Singapore. Chinese is the world’s most spoken language and also one of the six official languages of the United Nations.
Table of Content
- History Of The Chinese Language
- Old and Middle Chinese
- Classical Variant And Literature
- Major Varieties Of The Chinese
- Composition of Chinese alphabet
- Introduction to Chinese characters
- Strokes: one of the basic components
- Radicals and their contribution to composition
- Components leading to meaningful units
- Why is there no Chinese alphabet?
- What makes Chinese characters unique?
- A few tips for learning Chinese
History Of The Chinese language
Going back to the history of the Chinese language, historians report over 3000 years ago records written in the Chinese language were found. The language has evolved over this period and the various local varieties have also become mutually unintelligible.
Old and Middle Chinese
The historians found manuscripts of the Old and Middle Chinese on oracle bones that date back to 1250 BCE. The period of Western Zhou came with the inscriptions on bronze artifacts. Moreover, Chinese scholars and linguists have tried to work on the phonology of Old Chinese by comparing it to classic poetry and its rhymes.
The dynasties of the Sui Tang, Song, and Northern and Southern during the 6th to 10th centuries used middle Chinese as their language. This period has been mainly divided into two periods.
- An early period as mentioned in Qieyun Rime book during 601 CE
- A late period in the 10th century reflected by rhyme tables
Both books talk about the phonological categories with the indication of the sounds that they represent.
Classical variant and literature
The Chinese language is popular due to many facts. There is a unique relationship between spoken and written Chinese. It represents diglossia. Diglossia represents a situation where two or more varieties of the same language are spoken by a single language community. The Chinese literature that they wrote in classical form soon started to emerge during the spring and autumn periods(770 to 481 BCE). Its use was quite rare until the late 19th century.
Major Varieties Of The Chinese
The Chinese language has a lot of varieties. New variants and varieties started emerging throughout the years. This gave birth to 10 major families of Chinese. These are also referred to as Chinese dialects. These all are part of the Chinese language.
The 10 of the most common Chinese dialects are:
- 官话 – Mandarin
- 粤 – Yue (includes Cantonese)
- 吴 – Wu
- 客家 – Hakka
- 赣 – Gan
- 徽 – Hui
- 平话土话 – Ping Hua Tu Hua
- 闽 – Min
- 晋 – Jin
- 湘 – Xiang
Composition Of Chinese Alphabet
The speakers of romance and European languages find it difficult to believe that there is no Chinese alphabet. It does not work with phonetic or syllabic writing systems unlike English, Spanish, and other languages. The Chinese writing system is purely logographic. This implies that it uses symbols that refer to Chinese characters and represent meanings but not sounds. It is also important to understand that the Chinese alphabet refers to Chinese characters and letters. There are up to 106,000 characters in the Chinese language. The exact number is yet to be found. Also as the dictionary of Chinese characters states thousands of these sound like enormous figures. However, if you know up to 3500 characters you can read a Chinese newspaper or learn it somewhat conveniently.
Introduction to Chinese characters
A basic introduction of the Chinese characters also called Hanzi 汉字 tells us that these are logographic symbols that they use in writing Chinese language. Unlike other languages which have letters to represent sounds, Chinese letters and characters help represent the distinct meanings and concepts the speakers try to speak or write. Chinese character structure goes beyond ancient history also reflecting the evolution of the language. This further talks about the cultural context of China.
When we come to know that the Chinese alphabets letters do not exist. People have to think about the writing system in the Chinese language. The Chinese writing system comprises numerous characters. This makes it a fascinating form of communication. In order to comprehend the Chinese characters, it is significant to understand and explore the structure and the components of the language in detail. There are radicals, strokes, and components as well. These help in understanding the basic principles behind the formation of the Chinese characters. Also, it is important to mention that Chinese characters are mainly made up of components and not letters. As for Chinese letters, these do not exist in the Chinese language.
Strokes: one of the basic components
Though there is no concept of a to z Chinese alphabet, however, basic components of the Chinese letters are strokes. These are some of the basic marks that contribute to Chinese character creation. Chinese calligraphy has eight basic strokes and these all are written with specific rules and order. These strokes are building blocks and characters are constructed there. It is extremely imperative to understand the strike as it further leads to the balance and aesthetics of the Chinese letters or you may say Chinese characters.
A few of the important strokes are:
- Horizontal Stroke (横 héng)
- Vertical Stroke (竖 shù)
- Left-falling Stroke (撇 piě)
- Right-falling Stroke (捺 nà)
- Hook (钩 gōu)
- Dot (点 diǎn)
- Horizontal Hook (横钩 héng gōu)
- Vertical Hook (竖钩 shù gōu)
Radicals and their contribution to composition
Chinese characters are also formed of the radicals. These are the components that are connected with semantic and phonetic insights. They often indicate the clues about characters’ meanings and pronunciations. For instance, the character 爱 (ai) refers to ‘love’ and the radical 爪 (zhua) suggests its meaning while the phonetic component indicates pronunciation.
Radicals have different categories depending upon their position within characters:
- Left Radicals 左偏旁 zǔo piān páng
- Right Radicals 右偏旁 yòu piān páng
- Top Radicals 上偏旁 shàng piān páng
- Bottom Radicals 下偏旁 xià piān páng
- Full Radicals 全偏旁 quán piān páng
Once you understand the radicals and their contribution to Chinese characters, you get to understand character recognition and also start comprehending how the Chinese language works without a solid Chinese alphabet.
Components leading to meaningful units
Chinese characters had relatively small meaningful units and these are called components. These components hold great significance. These contribute to the character’s meaning and pronunciation. If you take the example of the character 家 which means family. It consists of the radical 宀 which means roof and the phonetic component further makes it 豕 which means pig. Moreover, it is important to mention that Chinese characters can have one or more components. A few of the components can excel as characters on their own. Understanding these components is extremely crucial. It helps to break down the complex characters into somewhat manageable ones.
Why is there no Chinese alphabet?
Now that it has broken to you that no Chinese alphabet exists. Thinking about the Chinese language and how it works comes naturally. Chinese is a tonal language as we all know. The Chinese language does not use any alphabet. People who have this approach that replacing the Chinese characters with alphabets would make things easier need to think again.
Chinese letters comprise multiple homonyms. Homonyms indicate a set of words that rhyme similarly with the same pronunciation but have different meanings. These are like a pair of words as one would say in the English language. Examples may include:
- Bark (dog sound)
- Bark (the layers of the tree)
- Fair (just)
- Fair (in terms of color light or pale)
Talking about the English homonyms, these are limited and people often get the word you are referring to relying on the complete sentence. There are hundreds of homonyms in the Chinese language and these are extremely confusing. If you do not involve the Chinese characters you are relatively inclined to get confused. Due to the logograph system, Chinese words have different characters with similar pronunciations.
A few of these are:
|Bei ju||悲剧||Tragedy||杯具||A glass|
|xiāng jiāo||香蕉||A banana||相交||To cross over|
|sòng zhōng||送钟||To gift clock||送终||To pay last respects|
What makes Chinese characters unique?
Here are some of the things that make Chinese characters unique:
Logo graphics make the Chinese characters unique. As we know there is no A to Z Chinese alphabet and Chinese characters represent the words and ideas. They don’t represent sounds. This further makes it very much versatile and the Chinese speakers also use these to write the language.
Many Chinese characters come with ideas and concepts. This helps them to be expressive. They convey the meaning reasonably as compared to the phonetic character. This attribute of the Chinese characters makes it unique and rare.
Chinese characters are also morphological. This tells that they represent the word and part of a word. Also, it makes it very efficient in the representation of the words or a single part of the word. Morphemes also allow them to write words quickly and easily.
Context is important. The Chinese letters are also context-dependent. The meaning of the Chinese character can change. This makes them complex and also enriches them and makes them expressive.
Learning Chinese comes with a lot of challenges. However, understanding Chinese letters vigilantly can help with Chinese culture and history. Also, it can open up a world of opportunities leading to communication and personal preferences.
A few tips for learning Chinese
Chinese is one of the most spoken languages and also one of the important languages that new language learners select to learn and speak. Learning this language requires a lot of time and effort. However, all the hardships and difficulties are worth it as learning Chinese can open a gateway of opportunities and possibilities for you.
Here are a few tips that can help you master this language.
- You should start with the easy steps. Try to learn the basic strokes of the Chinese language. Also, try to master a few basic Chinese characters and their use in a sentence.
- Try using a mnemonic device. A mnemonic device is a memory device that assists in learning. It talks about elaborative encoding and imagery. The tools of this device specify the encoded information. Hence, using this device can help you with the right pronunciation of the characters and their meanings.
- You should also indulge yourself in practice writing characters. Writing these characters more frequently helps with better memorization.
- Using flashcards is an ancient way of having a grip on a language. Flashcards, therefore, can help with learning new characters swiftly.
- Last but not least, surround yourself with Chinese content, characters, and people. Try reading Chinese books, and magazines. Chinese comics and war characters are amazing. Try interpreting these. Chinese movies, TV shows, and music can aid you with the pronunciation of Chinese words. As Chinese is a tonal language, Chinese podcasts can also improve your pronunciation.
Chinese is one of the ancient languages. As per the historians more than 4000 years ago written records of this language were found. More than 16% of the world’s total population speaks this language. Not only that, Chinese is among the United Nations’ working languages. The Chinese language has no alphabet, unlike other languages. There are more than 106,000 Chinese characters and 3500 of these would be sufficient for a person to know to read a Chinese newspaper. The main components that make the Chinese language are strokes and radicals.