Three Attributes, Three Functions

So, how do Chinese characters actually work?

It’s fairly simple, believe it or not. Most characters are made up of components, and those components can play different roles within the character.

Our dictionary breaks each character into its components and tells you exactly what each component’s function is.

Most components are related to the character’s meaning or sound (or sometimes both!), although some are completely unrelated to the character’s meaning or sound.

Let’s take a look at how that works.

Words and Writing

You can think of a spoken word as a combination of sound and meaning. Take the word “grass.” Its sound in American English is /græs/ and its meaning is this:

Writing adds another element to the equation: form. “Form” refers to what the writing looks like. So we can say that writing is a combination of sound, meaning, and form.

Put another way, a written word is a form that indicates a sound and meaning (a word). In this case, the form is:

That form indicates the sound /græs/ and the meaning “grass.”

It’s the same with Chinese characters. Let’s look at the three attributes (form, meaning, and sound) for the character 大.

So we can say that the form 大 indicates the sound and the meaning ‘big.’ So far so good, right?

The Three Functions

As I said earlier, most Chinese characters are made up of components. These components can have different functions, so we call them “functional components.”

The three main types of functional components in Chinese characters are directly related to the three attributes we talked about above: form, meaning, and sound. That’s why we’ve called them form components, meaning components, and sound components. Let’s look at an example of 大 playing the role of each type of component.

Form Component

When 大 shows up as a form component in another character, that means its form (a picture of a person) is what’s contributing to the character’s meaning. For instance, the character 美 (měi, “beautiful”) depicts a person (大) wearing a headdress (which today looks like 羊). You can see that more clearly in the ancient form:

So here the form of 大 (a person) is what’s contributing to the character’s meaning. The meaning of 大 (“big”) is irrelevant, as is the sound ( is unrelated to měi).

Meaning Component

When 大 shows up as a meaning component in another character, its meaning (“big”) is what’s contributing to the character’s meaning. An example is the character 尖 (jiān, “sharp”). 尖 consists of 小 (xiǎo, small) over 大 (“big”).

And why does “small” over “big” mean “sharp?”

So here it’s clearly the meaning of 大 (“big”) that’s contributing to the character’s meaning. The form of 大 (a person) is irrelevant, as is the sound ( is unrelated to jiān).

Sound Component

When 大 shows up as a sound component in another character, its sound () is contributing to the character’s pronunciation. An example is the character 达 (, “to reach, arrive”). Obviously, the sound of 大 () and the sound of 达 () are related.

One Component, Multiple Functions

Sometimes a component can have multiple functions. In the example of 达 above, 大 is not just a sound component, it’s also a form component. Let’s take a look.

The original form of 达 is this:

It depicts a person (the form of 大) walking across an intersection, hence the meaning “to reach, arrive.” So in this character, 大 is obviously a form component, as well as a sound component as we showed above. But the meaning (“big”) is irrelevant here.

So we’ve covered the three main categories of functional components. Form components and meaning components can be grouped under a single category called semantic components, since they’re both related to the character’s meaning. Sound components are in a category of their own, and are related to the character’s sound.

However, there are some components which have nothing to do with the sound or meaning of a character. We call those empty components, and we’ll cover those in another post!

4 comments on “Three Attributes, Three Functions”

  1. Kai Carver Reply

    Are there Chinese names for these four kinds of components? Might help me remember the distinction between the two kinds of semantic components… Also I’m curious to know if these are concepts you invented, or if they are used elsewhere.

    • Outlier Linguistic Solutions Reply

      We use Qiu Xigui’s (裘錫圭) terminology for these categories:

      Form component: 形符
      Meaning component: 義符
      Semantic component: 意符
      Sound component: 聲符

      Note that there are other terms for these concepts, but these are widely used and understood in the field. Also note that many people use the term 形符 to mean “the part of a sound-meaning character (形聲字) which isn’t the sound component.” That is, they use it to mean “semantic component,” which differs from our usage and Qiu Xigui’s. We (and he) only use 形符 for form components (that is, when the meaning of the character is derived from the form of the component), and 義符 for meaning components (when the meaning of the character is derived from the meaning of the component), regardless of whether the character is a 形聲字 or not.

      “Empty component” is our own term, but we use 虛符 when talking about this stuff in Chinese. There are several terms in academic paleography that we’ve lumped together under “empty component” for our dictionary, because the distinctions are too technical to be useful for learners. Two of the main ones are distinguishing marks (區別符號) and corrupted components (訛變部件).

      • Kai Carver Reply

        Very interesting, thank you!

        Would this be a roughly correct description of form and meaning components?

        * Form component: component used as a picture of something physical
        * Meaning component: component used as a symbol of something abstract

        • Outlier Linguistic Solutions Reply

          Yes, that’s more or less it, as long as you keep in mind that the same component can play either role, depending on the particular character you’re looking at. That is, a given component isn’t inherently a sound or meaning or form component, though there may be one role that it tends to play most often. To stick with the previous example, 大 is nearly always a form component, though it can also be a meaning component (in 尖) or a sound component (in 达, though it’s also a form component here).

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