2012-06-30, 11:01 AM (ISO 8601)
Bugbear in the Playground
Re: Random Worldbuilding Questions (Biology, Geography, Society, etc.)
Chinese characters actually have a lot of phonetic components, but you don't need to know them to learn the meanings of the characters. Understanding those phonetic components does help to explain some of the odd combinations of characters.
Originally Posted by Yora
A small minority of characters are purely symbolic like "sun" or "tree". A larger minority are ideograms like "'rest' is made from 'man + tree' to represent a man resting by leaning on a tree". A majority are basically equivalent to things like spelling "I love you forever" in English as "Eye heart U 4ever". For example, if you look at the numbers from 1 to 4, you'll see that "one", "two", and "three" are just one, two, or three lines. The character for "four" is 四, which is derived from a picture of a nose because the word for "four" rhymes with the word for "nostrils".
Sometimes when you see a character made by combining two simpler characters, it represents a concept by example (such as "man + tree = rest"); however, it usually means "a concept related to this symbol that rhymes with the word represented by this other symbol". For example, "water" + "tree" means "to wash yourself", because you use water to wash yourself and the verb "to wash yourself" is pronounced just like the noun "tree". "Tree" + "tree" means "small forest", but "water" + two "trees" means "to pour" because that's a liquid related word that rhymes with the word for forest.
Of course, this only makes sense in the original Chinese as spoken by the people who wrote the characters in the first place. If you use those characters for a different language like Vietnamese, Japanese, or Korean, you end up with a lot of people saying "Damn, this is confusing!" That's why Vietnamese is now written with a phonetic Latin script, Korean has a purely phonetic syllabary, and Japanese uses a phonetic syllabary to write the pronunciations of rare or unusual kanji so people will recognize the word (or at least know how to say it so they can ask "hey, what does X mean?").