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Chinese Cultural Studies:
Chinese Logographic Writing


Articles adapted from: David Crystal, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987) [pp. 200-201]


are those where the graphemes [the smallest written unit of the language] represent words. The best-known cases are Chinese, and its derivative script, Japanese kanji. The symbols are variously referred to as logographs, logograms, or - in the case of oriental languages - characters. But there are two terminological complications. First, because Chinese writing derives from an ideographic script [where each grapheme has an abstract, and not necessarily a clear pictorial, link with the meaning of the word represented], with several pictographic elements [where there is a direct pictorial link with the word represented], the characters are commonly referred to as ideographs. However, this term is really not appropriate, as the characters refer to linguistic units, and not directly to concepts or things. Secondly, the characters in fact often represent parts of words or morphemes [for example "happi" in "happiness" constitutes a morpheme] as well as whole words, so that even the term 'logographic' is slightly misleading; but in the absence of a more appropriate term (such as "morphographic"), it continues to be used.

Several thousand graphemes are involved in a logographic system. The great Chinese dictionary of K'ang Hsi Kangxi (1662-l 722) contains nearly 50,000 characters, but most of these are archaic or highly specialized. In the modern language, basic literacy requires knowledge of some 2.000 characters. Similarly. in Japanese 1850 charactcrs are prescribed by the Japanese Ministry of Education and adopted by law as those most essential for everyday use. Of these, 881 are taught during the six years of elementary school.

Most languages make use of some logograms: a selection of widely used graphemes is given below. Note that these signs, which are familiar to many modern Westerners, mean the same thing in any language. In the same way Chinese characters mean the same thing whether they are read in a variety of Chinese "dialects", or even in Japanese, a language which is as unlike Chinese in its internal structure as it is possible for a language to be.


Traditionally, Chinese characters are divided into six types (liu shu "six scripts").

Most characters are of this type containing two elements. There is a semantic element, known as a "radical'. This is combined with a phonetic element,whose function is to remind the reader of how the word is to be pronounced.

For example, the word "mother" ma is expressed by the semantic element "woman" followed by a phonetic indicator ma .The word for "scold" is also ma (with a different tone), and this is expressed by the semantic element "mouth" (repeated) followed by the same phonetic indicator. In both cases the meaning of the ma character when used alone ("horse") is disregarded.

These characters represent abstract ideas and are closest to ideograms, for example

Compound characters in which the elements have a semantic connection, for example:


Characters formed by modifying the shape or orientation of a character to produce a word of related meaning. For example the character for "corpse" derives from "man"

Characters that were borrowed from thers of similar proununciation For example

wan "ten thousand" derives from the use of this character for wan "scorpion".

A small group of characters that retain a close connection with original pictograms, for instance the forms for (a) "sun", "day" (ri), (b) "mountain" (shan) and (c) "field' (tian).

Please send any comments or corrections to Paul Halsall