Getting Radical About Radicals

This post is also available in: Chinese (Traditional), German

da2Why you should think of characters in terms of functional components

Note: This article was first published as a guest post at Hacking Chinese. Thanks so much to Olle Linge for letting us post there!

Also, make sure to check out our dictionary project on Kickstarter, and donate some money if you’d like to see it get off the ground. Our dictionary explains characters as they actually work — they’re comprised of functional components, not radicals, as you’ll see in this article.

I know this advice is going to rub some people the wrong way, but hopefully by the end of the article you’ll understand why I say this: radicals are of little use for learning how characters work. Their purpose is indexing characters in a dictionary.

There’s a huge misconception about how characters work. You see this sort of advice all the time: Characters are made up of radicals, so you should learn the radicals first, or Make sure you learn the radicals, they’re the building blocks of characters

This is not true. People who say this are well-intentioned but ill-informed about the nature of the Chinese writing system. The word radical is best understood as a character component that sometimes plays the role of radical and NOT a character component that has the nature of being a radical.

For example, 大 dà “big” is a component that is on the list of radicals, but it is not the case that 大 always plays the role of radical when it appears in a character. A single character only has a single radical, no matter how many character components it has. And which of its components plays the role of radical may be different in different dictionaries.

And yes, many of the components on the list of radicals do show up a lot in Chinese characters and therefore should be learned, but they should be learned as being part of a system of functional components – components which express sound and meaning.

The concept of radical, or 部首 bùshǒu, didn’t even exist until after the publication of the Shuōwén Jiězì [說文解字], at which point the writing system had already been around for well over 1500 years, and the vast majority of characters in use today were invented before the Shuōwén. Read that again and let it sink in. If that’s the case, then there’s no way that radicals were what people had in mind when they were creating characters. There must be something else going on.

So what are radicals, really?

That’s an interesting question. The word radical is really a poor translation of 部首 bùshǒu in the first place. 部首 literally means section head. Following the model of the 說文, character dictionaries are traditionally arranged into sections containing similar graphic components.

These sections are called 部 bù in Chinese. The first character in that section is the 部首, the section head, or the first of the section. Each character in that section belongs to one 部首. Note that I didn’t say the character has one 部首. It’s an important distinction to make. The character is filed under a 部, or section. This is a choice made by the editor of a character dictionary, not an inherent part of the nature of Chinese characters.

Which section to file a character under can be a fairly arbitrary decision. Most people’s understanding is that the 部首 gives a hint about meaning and the sound component (聲符 shēngfú) gives a hint about the sound, and that the two are different entities. That’s not always the case.

Sometimes, the 部首 is the sound component. For example 刀 (刂 dāo, knife) is both the phonetic and the radical in 到, but it is not the meaning component – 至 zhì is (it means to arrive, just like 到).

Intuitively, one would think that radicals are assigned in a consistent manner, but sometimes the way they’re assigned can be very haphazard, even for characters that share the same structure:

Character Radical
彎 wān “curve” 弓 gōng “bow for shooting arrows”
戀 liàn “love” 心 xīn “heart”
蠻 mán “barbaric” 虫 huǐ “type of poisonous snake4; early form of 虺 huǐ”
變 biàn “change” 言 yán “speech”
For the first three characters, the radical and meaning components are the same. 變 is inconsistent with the others in that it’s filed under 言 (part of luán, the sound component which the other characters all share1).

So again, characters are filed into a given section. This is a choice made by a human being, not an inherent part of the nature of Chinese characters, and it’s a flawed but workable system.

So hopefully, you can see that radicals (remember: section headings, not necessarily meaning components!) are useful for organising and looking things up in a dictionary, but they’re not especially useful for explaining how characters work.

But there’s a better way

You should look at characters in terms of their functional components. Character components can serve a few different functions, and you need to understand those functions rather than lump them all under one category called radicals.

There are three attributes that all characters have (using 大 as an example):

da1

  • Form: What is it a picture of? 大 is a picture of a person (specifically, an adult).
  • Meaning: What does it mean? 大 means big, because adults are big in
    comparison to children.
  • Sound: What is its pronunciation? (Or, if it’s a sound component, what is the range of sounds it can represent?) 大 is pronounced dà in Mandarin.

The possible functions that a component can have derive directly from these three attributes.

There are three primary functions:

  • A component can express meaning by way of form. Example: 大 is a picture of a person, and that is its function in characters like 美 měi beautiful (which is not a big 大 sheep 羊, but a person wearing a headdress). This is by far the most common way of expressing meaning.

 

mei1

Other examples of 大 functioning in this way include:

  • A component can express meaning by way of meaning. Example: 大 means big, and it expresses the meaning big in characters like 尖. This is how most people explain all meaning components, but in reality this function is very uncommon!

sharp

  • A component can express sound. Example: 大 is pronounced dà in Mandarin, and it serves as a sound component in the simplified character 达2 dá “to arrive” (traditional: 達).

Then there is a fourth function that derives from the way Chinese characters evolved in form over time. A component can also:

  • Serve as a placeholder for an earlier form that has now been corrupted.

This one is difficult to ascertain without training in palaeography, but our dictionary will explain which components have been corrupted and how. Continuing with 大 as an example, there are 1) instances in which a component was originally 大 but has now changed to something else, and 2) instances in which a component started as something else but has corrupted to look like 大 today (post forthcoming on how you can’t trust your eyes).

1. The sound component in 達 is da3 (dá). The top part today looks like 土 tǔ earth, but it was originally 大, which was then corrupted over time. An uncorrupted version of this component would look like 羍 today3.

da2

The form above is written in small seal script [小篆 xiǎozhuàn]. This is what 大 and 土 looked like in small seal, for comparison:

tu1

2. In the character 莫 mò (do not, but originally represented the word sunset, which is now written 暮 mù), what today looks like 大 on the bottom was originally 艸 cǎo “grass” (there was 艸 on both the top and bottom, and the character depicted the sun setting behind the grass), which then corrupted over time to look like 大.

mo1

So now you’ve seen how the same component can serve completely different functions in different characters, and how components can become corrupted over time, obscuring their original purpose. Here’s the interesting thing: out of the characters I’ve just discussed, 大 is only the radical in 天 and 夫. In the others, it’s not, no matter which function it’s serving. The radical in the other characters is:

  • 尖: 小
  • 美: 羊
  • 吳: 口
  • 达/達: 辶
  • 莫: 艹

Summary

Again, all this is not to say that you should completely throw radicals out the window. They’re good to know, but you should keep in mind what they’re used for: looking up characters in traditionally-arranged dictionaries. That’s it. They’re not the building blocks of Chinese characters (that’s functional components!). They’re an imperfect, man-made system of arranging and looking up characters in a dictionary. The concept of 部首 didn’t even exist when the vast majority of characters were being created

But sound and meaning components did exist. Sound and meaning components are the building blocks of Chinese characters. Sound and meaning components are what people were thinking of whenever they made a new Chinese character. When you’re learning a new character, thinking in terms of these functional components rather than radicals will clarify a lot of confusing things about Chinese characters. Anything that tells you otherwise is inaccurate and (unintentionally) leading you astray.

Footnotes

1 – How can luán be the sound component for 變 biàn? This most certainly looks impossible judging from the Mandarin pronunciation, but what’s important is the phonology of the language when the characters were invented. If we look a reconstruction of Old Chinese phonology (i.e., a reconstruction of the sounds of the language that was in use when these Chinese characters were invented thousands of years ago), we can get a glimpse at what the language probably looked like.

In a future post, we’ll do an introduction to Old Chinese reconstruction and why it’s important for doing research in Chinese paleography, but for now we’ll just take a look at some reconstructions. Keep in mind, it’s not important that you understand what all of these symbols mean exactly. What is important, is noticing the similarities and differences (the symbol * just means that you are looking at a reconstruction):

䜌 *mə.rʕon (ballpark approximation “muh RON”)
變 *pron-s  (ballpark approximation “prons” or “prawns”)
蠻 *mʕron (ballpark approximation “mron” or “mrawn”)
戀 *ron-s (ballpark approximation “rons” or “Ron’s”)

The main thing to take away here, is that each of these words share the root *ron. Three of these words have prefixes: *mə-, *p-, *m- and two have suffixes *-s. It is similar to how root words work in English. Take the root “get”: get, forget, beget, got, gotten. Imagine that Chinese characters had been used in Old English and the same sound component was used for each of these words. Even though the sounds aren’t exactly the same, they do share a root and the reader would have been able to figure out which was meant by context and by the addition of a meaning component.

Keep in mind, I’m merely trying to make an analogy between two languages with very different histories, so be kind. The reconstructions above are from Baxter-Sagart OC v1. Check out their new book here.

2 – 达 is not a recent invention. It’s a variant of 達 attested as early as the oracle bone script [甲骨文jiǎgǔwén].

3 – da3 is also a meaning component. 达 is a picture of a guy walking across the road. The original meaning was “arrive at point b from point a”. 達 is the same thing, but has a guy leading a sheep from point a to b.

4 – We had originally mistakenly listed “poisonous insect” as the meaning of this component, but of course, as Chiwaku pointed out, it should be “poisonous snake.”

14 comments on “Getting Radical About Radicals”

  1. Chiwaku Reply

    Thank you for such an insightful article on radicals and functional components. This would definitely help many people have a correct idea about how radicals actually work.

    I have just one minor question to propose: if my memory serves, 虫 (虺) did not mean a kind of poisonous “insect” but a kind of poisonous “snakes.” Some would suggest that it was specifically “viper.” Characters that share the component 虫 are not always insects but “low-class” animals including insects and also reptiles. Is there any evidence that points out otherwise?

    • Outlier Linguistic Solutions Reply

      No, you’re absolutely right. It was a snake. I’m not really sure how we ended up with “insect” there, because we knew it was a snake when we wrote it! Thanks for pointing it out!

  2. Alex Alder Reply

    This is simply an outstanding blog and project.

    Looking forward to the release of the dictionary.

    You guys state that it will be multilingual, will the entries have the Korean readings of the characters as well?

    • Outlier Linguistic Solutions Reply

      We have serious plans for including dialect as well as Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese pronunciations, but what is not clear at this point is which version(s) will include these things.

      Thanks for the kind words!

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  4. 朱真明 Reply

    It’s funny when you say “I know this advice is going to rub some people the wrong way” when it is quite the opposite for me. Every time I read in some book that you should learn radicals so that when you encounter a new unknown character you can try and guess its sound and meaning. My only thought was, WHY ARE YOU GUESSING? when you can easily look at the dictionary and find out what they actually are. I never understood why people buy into these “easy” methods of trying to learn.

    In regards to “Make sure you learn the radicals, they’re the building blocks of characters” I tend to agree with this, that is when a person first starts learning Chinese and looks at the different types of characters there are the first thing that comes to their mind is that all characters are written uniquely and I have to memorise them all one by one. Introducing radicals to them in the beginning allows them to see that characters are actually made up of a set number of building blocks used to create the structure and shape of the character. So every time they see a new character they can understand its shape and structure allowing them to more easily remember it as well as write it. In conclusion understanding radicals allows the student to recognize and write easier but has little to do with the sound and meaning of the character.

    • Outlier Linguistic Solutions Reply

      Thanks for the comments! The problem is, though, that radicals are not the building blocks of characters. There is a set building block components (we call them “functional components”) and the components that appear on the list of radicals are a subset of those building blocks. There is also a huge amount of misunderstanding of what radicals are and what they do (both by native and non-native speakers of Chinese). Radicals are simply a tool to look up a character in a radical-based paper dictionary and that is the only thing they can reliably used for.

      The key to gaining predictive ability and long-term recall in the quickest, most efficient way possible is understanding which components in a character express sound and meaning and HOW they express sound and meaning (it’s also very useful to know which components are giving neither a sound nor a meaning). This allows you to use the sound and meaning of a word to recall its written form.
      This post here shows you the benefits of learning this way. If you learn by radicals, you either won’t get these benefits at all or you won’t get them until you’ve learned several thousand characters.
      -Ash

      • 朱真明 Reply

        Well, what I meant by radicals is not just the dictionary use of radicals but every radical a character might have regardless of their functional attribute. In regards to functional components, if their sound connections are based of old or middle Chinese pronunciations how is it useful for learners of modern Chinese? And given the variety of ways Characters are used to represent different meanings, how is it helpful to learn what the original structure of the character is pertaining to? I’m speaking from a beginners perspective here, maybe when the workbook is released it will answer alot of my queries. In essence, if the original characters pronunciation are based on a different spoken language and the original meaning and usage of the character is based upon it’s earliest form and are different from the modern age then how is studying these aspects useful for the modern learner.

        You also state that ” Helps you to make intelligent predictions about characters you have not yet learned”. I would like to know the usefulness of this method. Why would anyone want to make predictions about characters they do not know if they can learn them instead. For example, if I were reading through a text and come across a character I don’t know, should I stop and then try to understand this characters functional components to try to understand how to pronounce it and what it possibly means?

        Many Thanks

        • Outlier Linguistic Solutions Reply

          I think if you read the post The Benefits of Learning Chinese Characters with Outlier it will answer a lot of your questions.

          The reason we use the term “functional component” is because it is not ambiguous. The term “radical” should only be used to describe a component of a character used to look up that character in a dictionary. There is only one radical per character. The reason for this is that “radical” does not describe the nature of a component, it describes the role a component can play in a character and by definition, only one component plays the role of radical per character per dictionary. There are only 214 kangxi radicals, but there are way more components than that that appear in characters (and many of these components can not be decomposed into the components that appear in the list of radicals).

          You are correct in saying that sound connections were created during the Old and Middle Chinese periods. That does not mean that they are not useful. It just means you have to learn how to use them (you can’t depend on Mandarin pronunciation to understand them). This will be taught explicitly in our dictionary in a very simple way. Knowing how sound works in Chinese characters is extremely useful for learning/recalling/make predictions about modern characters.

          You are also correct in pointing out that modern uses of characters often differ from their original usages. That still does not mean knowing the character’s structure isn’t useful. Once again, if you read the Benefits post, this should be really clear.

          As far as why someone would want to make predictions about characters they haven’t learned yet… Well, if you are going to learn to read Chinese, then you will need to do a lot of reading. When you exit the world of textbook Chinese and enter the world of real Chinese, you will often come across many characters that you don’t know. You will be in this situation for a significant amount of time (it was years for me). You need strategies for dealing with this. Should you look them all up? Should you skip over them? Should you write them down for later? It really depends on you, what your needs are and what you like to do. But, chances are, you aren’t going to first learn 6000 characters, then learn how to read. Being able to make intelligent guesses about meaning are useful for reading. Being able to make intelligent guesses about sound are useful for looking up characters (especially if you use paper dictionaries) and for making connections between words you have learned by hearing and their written form or vice versa.

          If you learn characters via understanding their functional components, you won’t have to “try to understand this character’s functional components”, because it will come naturally to you.

          -Ash

          • 朱真明

            On the topic of reading, as you probably already know, most of the words in a Chinese text are compound in nature. How is your dictionary going to account for 80% of the required vocabulary that is compound words. Is your dictionary just a 字典 or is it going to include compound words as part of the subject.

          • Outlier Linguistic Solutions

            Yes, each character entry will have a list of the most common words (and their meanings/pronunciations) that the character appears in. You can’t learn characters effectively without learning words. The idea is to use the characters you know as often as possible. That can only be done by learning the words that characters appear in. Our dictionary will be a 字典 mainly, but will contain common words as well. It’s main purpose is for learning characters, though, so it won’t be a comprehensive 詞典.
            -Ash

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  6. Enrico Brasil Reply

    I think you can’t say that 大 isn’t the radical in 尖. The head sections vary from dictionary to dictionary. I just checked the 现代汉语词典 from the commercial press and I could find 尖 under both 大 and 小.

    • Outlier Linguistic Solutions Reply

      Yes, as I said in the article, “which of its components plays the role of radical may be different in different dictionaries.” That’s my point—radicals aren’t an inherent aspect of characters, but they’re chosen somewhat arbitrarily by dictionary editors.

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