Posted by: rbbadger | May 21, 2009

Questions about the Chinese dictionary

My sister Christine asked about the recently completed dictionary in Korea.  East Asian scholars seem to like to have competitions with each other to see who can compile the largest character dictionary.  I am not sure how complete the new dictionary is, but it has more Chinese characters in it than anyone could possibly want including a number which are very, very rare.  I am not sure how many more there are out there and there are only estimates for just how many there are.  Hong Kong has about 1,000 characters which only they use.  For most formal writing, they will write using Mandarin grammar but would pronounce the words in Cantonese.  There are differences between the grammars of Cantonese and Mandarin, just as there are differences between German grammar and Dutch grammar.  For popular literature, such as Hong Kong tabloids, novels, and the like, they will write exactly as it would be spoken in standard Cantonese.  As there are no standard characters for some of these words in Standard Mandarin, a supplementary set of characters has been introduced.  Hong Kong, like Taiwan and Korea, uses only the traditional set of characters.  Things have been simplified a bit on the Mainland, though the task of learning some 4 to 5,000 simplified characters is no easy thing, either.   It takes about a year to learn to read and write 1,500 characters if you are learning about 30 per week.  When you reach the upper echelons of Chinese linguistics, you then have to master things like reading and writing in Chinese cursive (yikes!). 

Chinese dictionaries are not user friendly sorts of things.  If you know the pronunciation of a word, sometimes you can find the entry with an index which writes out the sounds of a word in Roman letters or in my case, Korean letters.  But many times, you will see a character and have no idea of its pronunciation.  Then, you would need to go through the painful process of breaking up the character into its component parts.

Except for simple characters such as 一 (one), 日 (sun), or a few others, most of the characters are composites of other characters, squished together to form a wholly new character.  There are 214 radicals which serve as the building blocks for the compound characters.  Each character is indexed in the dictionary under its radical.  Thus if we wanted to look up the world 語 which means language, we would look at the left side of the character.  So then we would look under the entry 言 and we should find 語.  Because there is no alphabet in Chinese, you have to count the number or strokes in the character.  Most dictionaries are indexed firstly according to the radical and then by the number of strokes a given character contains.  This can often be very tricky, as some of the radicals change their shapes when they are combined with other radicals.  Also, you have to know how many strokes the radical originally has in its pure form, as the number of strokes used to write it on its own and when you write it as a compound character combined with other radicals, can differ.  The word 語 provides a good example of how these characters are made.  The word 言 is a pictograph of words emerging from a mouth.  五 is the Chinese numeral for five.  口 is the Chinese character for mouth. 

Using a Chinese dictionary is not easy.  It gets easier the more you try to use it, but then so does “swimming the English channel in a lifejacket” to quote David Moser.  David Moser, in his fantastic essay “Why Is Chinese So Damn Hard?”, tells of how instead of spelling bees in Taiwan, they hold competitions to see which students can locate a given character in their dictionaries the fastest.  Imagine a language where just using a dictionary is a skill!  Even native speakers struggle to remember the characters.  Like with anything, I suppose, if you use it frequently, you are likely to remember it.  But it is still possible to forget.  Chinese has quite possibly the one of the simplest grammars of any modern language.  But what it has in simplicity of grammar, it more than makes up for in difficulty of writing.

As for Korean, looking up words you hear or see in the language is very easy.  You just follow the order of consonants, namely ㄱ,ㄴ,ㄷ,ㄹ,ㅁ,ㅂ,ㅅ,ㅇ,ㅈ,ㅊ,ㅋ,ㅌ,ㅍ, and ㅎ.  From then, you follow the order of vowels, namely ㅏ, ㅐ, ㅑ, ㅒ, ㅓ, ㅔ, ㅕ, ㅖ, ㅗ, ㅘ, ㅙ, ㅚ, ㅛ, ㅜ, ㅝ, ㅞ, ㅟ, ㅠ, ㅢ, and ㅣ.  For words which begin with vowels, you would look under ㅇ as the writing is always structured consonant, vowel, consonant or consonant, vowel.  When ㅇ begins a syllable, it is silent as in 어 (language).  When it ends a syllable, it is ng as in 홍콩 (Hong Kong).  But, if you are reading older Korean literature or history, at a time when the Chinese characters were in full use, or even when they were mixed with Korean letters, you might probably have to crack open the Chinese character-Korean dictionary, find the radical, count the strokes, and hope that you can find it.  Because often you won’t. 

Learning a language can sometimes be a lifelong endeavour.  But as long as it is interesting to you, there are no limits to what you can accomplish!



  1. You must be making it a life long endeavor! Good luck! I’m afraid I would be too intimidated to try. We got a post card from you with pictures of household items from a museum. Thanks! Someday we should send you some postcards, huh?! Have a great day! Love, Mama

  2. Yeah, I agree. I’m afraid I will be staying far away from Chinese. 🙂 That is just too scary for me.

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