What is a word in Chinese?

Hmmm, somehow I never thought about it… do all languages have “words”? What is a word in Chinese, where all characters are evenly spaced, and sometimes a character stands alone to mean something, and sometimes means something together with the next character or characters.

I sometimes come up against this with flash cards or books that teach characters… like “er” 耳 for “ear”… we no one says “er” for ear, but rather “er duo” which is two characters 耳朵. Often when you look up two characters that are found together, they together mean something, and each of them separately means that same thing. So do you need one character to make a meaningful word or two? Take mei li 美丽… well “mei” 美 means beautiful, and “li” 丽 means beautiful, and “mei li” 美丽 means beautiful. Which is a word and which not?

Then there are characters like “de” (actually there are two I am thinking of)… one gives a connotation of “the way something is done”. Pao de kuai 跑得快 means run fast/quickly. Pao de man 跑得慢 means run slowly. Pao 跑 means run. Kuai 快 means fast or quickly. Man 慢 means slow or slowly. So, what is “de” 得 ? a word? a part of a word? A character that has meaning but isn’t a word? Same with the “de” 的 that gives a connotation of belonging. Wo de gou 我的狗= My dog. Ta de gou 他的狗= his dog. Mama ge wo de gou 妈妈给我的狗= the dog that mom gave me. Wo 我 means me. Ta 他 means he or him. Gou 狗 means dog. Ge 给 means give. Is de 的 a word?

Chinese characters are each a syllable. They have spacing between them that is equal. So it is a bit like: The hel i cop ter lift ed off the land ing pad and in to the hea vens. But then again not, since each character has meaning, unlike the individual syllables in that sentence.

When one reads chinese one must decide which characters are standalone and which must be read together to form a word. Sometimes in pinyin “words” are made more definite by gluing together syllables that would not be glued together in characters: Women shi Jianadaren 我们 是 加拿大人. We are Canadians. But that is really not how Chinese is written. It is Wo men shi jia na da ren 我们是加拿大人. It is a foreign construct to group them as if they were English words.

Apparently Chinese readers have no problem understanding when they read, but have great difficulty knowing what a “word” is… and when asked to underline or circle “words” in Chinese text, look to the one who has requested that for further instruction, as it is an unclear task to them.

I had never thought about this before, as “word” seemed obvious to me as an English/French/German/Swedish speaker and student.

It just goes to show how languages are different and how we take for granted what we grow up with. Fascinating.

Read more here if you dare!: Word Identification and Eye Movements in Reading Chinese: A Modeling Approach, Doctoral dissertation © Copyright by Chih-Hao Tsai, 2001. Very very interesting, if you are interested by that sort of thing!

But frankly, it makes me feel relieved that I am often wondering, is “er” a word? is “duo” a word? Is “erduo” a single word or a compound word like mailman? …. I am in good company. Even linguists don’t know.

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One response to “What is a word in Chinese?

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