How to systematically arrange characters (e.g. in a dictionary)

Discussion in '中文+方言 (Chinese)' started by emjay_uu, May 24, 2008.

  1. emjay_uu New Member

    England , English

    I would be grateful to know the answer to a question I have been pondering for some time. I know no Chinese at all, but am obviously familiar with the fact that traditional Chinese is written using glyphs very different to the Latin alphabet.

    How are Chinese characters systematically arranged or listed e.g. in a dictionary? Is it by concept (denotation) or is it by the geometical qualities of the glyphs?

    I believe it has something to do with the latter i.e. with the underlying simplified Han(?) Radicals and the number of substantive horizontal or vertical lines in the glyph, but I have on idea if this is correct or not.

    My apologies in advance if this is a frequently asked question!

    Best regards
  2. shivasprogeny Member

    Columbus, OH, USA
    English - Ohio, USA
    Each dictionary is a little but different, but usually they are arranged according to the radical of the character and then by the number of strokes of the character not counting the radical.

    The radical is sort of like the base of the character and can either carry phonetic meaning or semantic meaning (although in both cases, it's usually a stretch).
  3. Yasin New Member

    Beijing, China
    Chinese - English
    Most chinese dictionnary are arranged in pinyin order.
  4. samanthalee

    samanthalee Senior Member

    Mandarin, English - [Singapore]
    In regions that use the pinyin (China's romanisation standard), the dictionaries will be as Yasin has mentioned; mostly arranged in alphabetical order according to pinyin.

    In regions that don't use the pinyin, the dictionaries will be as shivasprogeny has mentioned; first according to radical stroke count, then according to the stroke count of the character without the radical.
  5. emjay_uu New Member

    England , English
    Many thanks to all for these responses. It strikes me that both systems are needed! If you know how a character is pronounced, pinyin listings can be used to find the definition quickly. However, if you see a written character and have never heard it vocalised (and its pinyin equivalent is not written next to it), the radical and stokes system is needed to access the meaning.

    This ordering issue must also have arisen with lists of people's names, for example!

    Again many thanks.

    Best regards
  6. palomnik Senior Member

    Let me elaborate on the concept of "radicals."

    A system was developed over the centuries and perfected in the 1700's whereby all characters are classified based on a portion of the character which is at least putatively assumed to be related to its meaning. This part is called the "radical", and the number of radicals is set at 214. For the vast majority of characters this system works perfectly well, since most characters are made up of two parts: one related to its meaning, and a second part related to its pronunciation.

    For example, the word for "carp" (鯉, pronounced "li") is made up of two parts: one is the word for "fish" (魚), which is the radical, and the other part (里, pronounced "li") is the phonetic element, included only for pronunciation (里 by itself is a measurement of distance, equal to about 1/3 mile).

    This system works most of the time. Of course, the characters were created long before the system was invented, and some characters had to be forced into the system. How do you tell what part is the radical? Trial and error, with experience thrown in. You get the hang of it, although it takes a while.
  7. El escoces Senior Member

    Buenos Aires
    English - UK
    It sounds fascinating. Is there any way of being able to view the characters that you are using in your posts, which n my screen simply appear as empty squares?
  8. emjay_uu New Member

    England , English
    Thanks palomnik. I have to say that I thought the system was that the radical was embellished - i.e. additional strokes added to it, whereas if I understand your example correctly, the radical has been unaltered and a second character has been added alongside it to form the word carp.

    Even when it is known that the word is vocailised as "li", how does the speaker know which tone to apply? Are these learnt by rote?
    Last edited: May 27, 2008
  9. palomnik Senior Member

    Try right-clicking your mouse, select "Encoding", select "More" and pick one of the choices of Chinese choices - I suggest Chinese Traditional Big5, but I suspect the others will work as well.
  10. palomnik Senior Member

    Some radicals can change their form when they're combined with other elements to make a new character, but this derived form is usually simpler, not more embellished. For example, the character 臉 "lian2" means "face", and the radical is the portion on the left of the character. However, when that radical stands alone, it is written 肉, not 月 (which is another character - and actually another radical, but we don't need to get into that).

    To get back to the subject of systematic arrangement of characters, it's only fair to add that there are some other systems that can be used. Samanthalee mentions the pinyin system, which is great if you already know how to pronounce the character, but not much use if you don't. There are also dictionaries that arrange characters by the type and number of brush strokes used to write the character, which has the advantage of being basically simpler than the radical system, but it can get complicated in actual practice.

    As for the phonetic portion of the character, remember that the characters were invented, in most cases, a couple of thousand years ago, and the pronunciation of the characters has changed, so the phonetic element frequently is just a general indication of what the pronunciation might be - kind of like English spelling! As for the tone, it's quite possible that when the character was invented there were no tones in Chinese (nobody knows for sure), so the phonetic element is no indication of tones at all.
    Last edited: May 27, 2008
  11. El escoces Senior Member

    Buenos Aires
    English - UK
    Thanks palomnik, I'll give that a go.

    Rest of the thread - very interesting indeed, thanks.
  12. Zulis Member

    Hong Kong
    Hong Kong - Cantonese, English
    +1, I could not agree more.

    Careful though, for the radical system, you may have diffculty identifying the radical in simplified Chinese, simply because simplified forms emerged in the last few decades, and sopme maybe over-simplifed, eg 隻/只. If you are learning the traditional Chinese, then it should be fine just memorizing the radical shape changes as appear in words.

    Finding a word by counting the strokes can be tricky sometimes, because you have to know the correct stroke sequence first (it's easy to learn). My mom often can't find words using this method. She always got the strokes wrong..heh

    For more info you can check the wiki page here
    Last edited: May 27, 2008
  13. yuechu Senior Member

    Canada, English
    I have many Chinese files on my computer... does anybody know in which order they are arranged in Windows?
    Is there any easy way of locating a Chinese file in a directory? (using a system?) I have a feeling it is not the usual radical system used in dictionaries..
  14. viajero_canjeado Senior Member

    English - Southeastern USA
    The separation of tones is paramount: saying li in the four different tones necessarily results in four different words (or at least four different meanings, in the event of a 破音字 such as 空), the same way "record" with emphasis on the first syllable is not to be mistaken for "record" with emphasis on the second syllable. One is a verb and the other's a noun. Of course, in Chinese the scope and importance of this phenomenon is magnified several degrees, but this is just to give you an idea of the not-mix-up-ability of tones in a way you can relate to.

    As for learning them by "rote" memorization, I think that's the process that non-natives typically go through, to an extent, and different for each individual. For native speakers, it's how they hear it from childhood, so mispronouncing tones would sound both odd to the speaker and possibly cause listeners to laugh or misunderstand. From my experience it doesn't happen often, at least with the commonly-used and conversational words. (Of course, it happens often with non-natives, and thankfully native speakers tend to be more gracious towards us.) Anyway, after a while of hearing and saying the words a certain way you become accustomed to their rhythm, so to say 你好 or 可以 or 倫理 in anything other than the 2nd-3rd tone sequence would feel awkward, both to my mind and my vocal cords, I suspect.

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