Number of characters used to write Mandarin

jdc6490

New Member
American English
I have found the information out there regarding Chinese characters to be very confusing and misleading.

My question is, how many Chinese characters are there? Before you answer, make sure you understand the difference between a word and character. Many words are made up of multiple characters. For example, a word formed by using three unique characters does not make that word a fourth unique character. Three unique characters *together*, create one unique word. BIG DIFFERENCE. Plus, who cares how many words there are Chinese? One, it's impossible to know, and two, the goal is never to learn every single word. The goal is to learn the most common words that allow you to speak, read, and write with regards to topics that you are interested in.

Here is how I understand it.

Mandarin Chinese has approximately 400~ unique syllabes (Look at Pinyin chart for an example).

Each syllabe has 4 tones: 400 syllables x 4 tones = 1600 syllabic-tones

It is said there can also be a 5th tone, so: 400 syllables x 5 tones = 2000 syllabic-tones

Each syllabic-tone is represented by a unique character: 1600-2000 syllabic-tones = 1600-2000 unique characters.

This means that EVERY possible word in Mandarin Chinese is represented by one or a combination of the SAME 1600-2000 characters. In other words, there are ONLY 1600-2000 characters in Mandarin (give or take.) That is not to mention that some tones are rarely if ever used for some the syllables suggesting that you need to know even fewer than this.

Is this accurate?

If so, why do I keep reading (depending on source) about the 6,000, 40,000, or even 80,000 characters in Mandarin? These seem to be words, NOT characters. Big difference for the motivation of a learner in my opinion.

For example, even if there is 80,000 words in Mandarin, you may only need to know 3000-5000 of them to be a functionally productive speaker, reader, and writer. And if there are only 1600-2000 characters in Mandarin, this means that you have to combine individual characters to form words. If you already know the meaning of the individual characters, this is likely going to tell you a lot about the meaning of a word using that character. In other words, after you learn the 1600-2000 characters, learning new words is going to be easier because you already know the meanings of the pieces (characters) that make that word up. This makes learning Chinese sound much easier than what people make it out to be (impossible). In my opinion, knowledge of this is important for the motivation of the learner, which is directly related to adherence to language learning.

Please let me know if someone disgrees with my rational and thinks there are more than 2000 characters in Mandarin Chinese.
 
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  • stellari

    Senior Member
    Mandarin Chinese
    >> Each syllabic-tone is represented by a unique character:

    This is not true. Modern Mandarin has a tremendous amount of homophones, so the actual number of characters are actually many more times than there are syllables. There can be as many as ~40,000 characters or even more if you consider varieties, although only ~6,000 characters are used in 99.99999% cases.
     

    jokingbad

    Member
    Chinese
    what i have to say is that Chinese character has no relation with it's writing/combination. even if you get the common pattern how one character could be read, maybe not correct sometimes, it is still hard to know the real meaning of the word even for the chinese native.
    as you mentioned above "One, it's impossible to know, and two, the goal is never to learn every single word. The goal is to learn the most common words that allow you to speak, read, and write with regards to topics that you are interested in."
    you could make the statistical caculation based on your understanding, that is a very good thing. hope you could make much more progress of Chinese.
     

    strad

    Senior Member
    English (American)
    I have found the information out there regarding Chinese characters to be very confusing and misleading.

    Here is how I understand it.

    Mandarin Chinese has approximately 400~ unique syllabes (Look at Pinyin chart for an example).

    Each syllabe has 4 tones: 400 syllables x 4 tones = 1600 syllabic-tones

    It is said there can also be a 5th tone, so: 400 syllables x 5 tones = 2000 syllabic-tones

    Each syllabic-tone is represented by a unique character: 1600-2000 syllabic-tones = 1600-2000 unique characters.

    This means that EVERY possible word in Mandarin Chinese is represented by one or a combination of the SAME 1600-2000 characters. In other words, there are ONLY 1600-2000 characters in Mandarin (give or take.) That is not to mention that some tones are rarely if ever used for some the syllables suggesting that you need to know even fewer than this.

    Is this accurate?

    If so, why do I keep reading (depending on source) about the 6,000, 40,000, or even 80,000 characters in Mandarin? These seem to be words, NOT characters. Big difference for the motivation of a learner in my opinion.

    Don't confuse sound/phoneme with characters. 'C' and 'K' are clearly different characters even though they are pronounced exactly the same in the words 'cat' and 'kit'. 'Rite', 'right', and 'write' have the same sound, but are different words. Similarly 一, 衣, and 醫 are 3 different characters with three different meanings even though they all have the same sound in mandarin, yi1. Chinese has way more characters than it has sounds.

    For example, even if there is 80,000 words in Mandarin, you may only need to know 3000-5000 of them to be a functionally productive speaker, reader, and writer. And if there are only 1600-2000 characters in Mandarin, this means that you have to combine individual characters to form words. If you already know the meaning of the individual characters, this is likely going to tell you a lot about the meaning of a word using that character. In other words, after you learn the 1600-2000 characters, learning new words is going to be easier because you already know the meanings of the pieces (characters) that make that word up. This makes learning Chinese sound much easier than what people make it out to be (impossible). In my opinion, knowledge of this is important for the motivation of the learner, which is directly related to adherence to language learning.

    Please let me know if someone disgrees with my rational and thinks there are more than 2000 characters in Mandarin Chinese.

    The Unicode encoding spec includes approximately 75,000 Chinese characters (that includes Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese variants, as well as the traditional and simplified versions of the same character). An average Chinese dictionary will probably contain 15,000 characters, and according to most estimates you need to know about 3,000 to read a Chinese newspaper. Note that when I say character I mean exactly that. These characters can, of course, be combined to form an incredible amount of words.


    I don't think that knowing the meaning of individual characters will be a big help in recognizing new words, but it probably aids in remembering newly learned words. For example knowing that 電 means 'electricity' and that 腦 means 'brain' probably wouldn't help some recognize that 電腦 means 'computer', but is helpful in remembering that combination of characters when you see it again.
     
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    Lugubert

    Senior Member
    Don't confuse sound/phoneme with characters. 'C' and 'K' are clearly different characters even though they are pronounced exactly the same in the words 'cat' and 'kit'. 'Rite', 'right', and 'write' have the same sound, but are different words. Similarly 一, 衣, and 醫 are 3 different characters with three different meanings even though they all have the same sound in mandarin, yi1. Chinese has way more characters than it has sounds.
    jdc said:
    For example, even if there is 80,000 words in Mandarin,[...]

    The Unicode encoding spec includes approximately 75,000 Chinese characters (that includes Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese variants, as well as the traditional and simplified versions of the same character). An average Chinese dictionary will probably contain 15,000 characters, and according to most estimates you need to know about 3,000 to read a Chinese newspaper. Note that when I say character I mean exactly that. These characters can, of course, be combined to form an incredible amount of words.


    I don't think that knowing the meaning of individual characters will be a big help in recognizing new words, but it probably aids in remembering newly learned words. For example knowing that 電 means 'electricity' and that 腦 means 'brain' probably wouldn't help some recognize that 電腦 means 'computer', but is helpful in remembering that combination of characters when you see it again.

    I added some italics. Very early in first university semester Chinese in Sweden, our teacher gave us a sheet with several words made up by the few characters we had learned. It was great fun to see how many there were, how many we could guess the meaning of, and several surprises.

    I know the problems with defining a "word" - in any language, and I think it's possible that Chinese has more problems than most languages in that respect. Number of characters estimates are all over the place, but do any of you know of an estimation/guess/opinion regarding how many words you need to be acceptably fluent and/or to read a newspaper etc.?
     

    mateochino

    New Member
    English & Mandarin
    Please let me know if someone disgrees with my rational and thinks there are more than 2000 characters in Mandarin Chinese.
    There are way more than 2000 characters. If you were to scour every source and go through every book ever written you would find upwards of 100,000 characters. However, in everyday use there are around 3000 characters that form millions of "words" that will get you through every possible conversation.
    Number of characters estimates are all over the place, but do any of you know of an estimation/guess/opinion regarding how many words you need to be acceptably fluent and/or to read a newspaper etc.?
    First of all let me say that I once tried learning Swedish and to this day I have not failed harder at anything. Kudos for taking Chinese.

    To answer your question, 3000 characters is a pretty good number to be very fluent. As you pointed out, the word "word" is difficult to define in Chinese. When the Chinese read, they don't think of "computer" when they see "電腦," they just see "electric brain" which translates to the word "computer."
     
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    retrogradedwithwind

    Senior Member
    Chinese
    I like talking about this topic, and it is interesting.

    Characters:nobody knows how many characters there are in Chinese. I think it is countless.

    http://www.zdic.net/z/1e/zy/725B.htm I looked 牛 up just now in an online dicionary.
    http://www.zdic.net/z/28/zy/9A6C.htm This is 马.
    http://www.zdic.net/z/17/zy/56DE.htm

    You can see how many varieties of 回 out there.

    And you can see how calligraphists write 回 here:
    http://sf.zdic.net/shufa/0816/a54af16b544ea595cb0431e3a7ee71f8.html#ks

    If you consider all this, you will know how difficult to calculate the sum of all characters. BUT I never come across any of them but 回 in my daily reading, for the traditional and simplified versions are same. Often the two versions of a character are different, but it is not necessary to remember both the two versions, and it is easy for natives to recognise another version if they master one. For foreign learners to momerize either not both is easier.

    Let me backtrack to the original topic.
    http://www.zdic.net/appendix/f19.htm
    This is a short essay about the number of charaters.
    1994年冷玉龙等的《中华字海》,收字数更是惊人,多达85000字。
    In 1994 Leng Yulong and his colleagues compiled a dictionary, including an amazing number of characters up to 85000. But I don't believe it a complete compilation.

    As for everyday vocabulary,a primary school student is required to master 3000 characters, and a middle school student ( with education of 9 years) 3500, a high school student (12 years) 6600. I think 3000 is enough to communicate for daily life, right? The so-called everyday characters are 3500 in total.Certainly the more the better.
    I don't know the number of characters I can recognise, but it can't exceed 10000.

    Finishing talking about characters, I will say "word". A piece of news says:
    近日,商务印书馆出版的《现代汉语常用词表》(草案)面世,头一回全面披露常用词语家底:当今社会,经常使用的词共有56008个。
    这56008个常用词中,包括单音节词3181个,双音节词40351个,三音节词语6459个,四音节词语5855个,五音节和五音节以上词语162个。Recently( note, 2009) A dictionary of everyday words in modern Chinese published(2008) by The Commercial Press has showed that the words that is uesd usually total 56008 in modern society, of which there are 3181 one-syllable words(i.e. characters), 40351 two-syllable words, 6459 three-syllable, 5855 four syllable and 162 five- or more-than-five-syllable.

    Too many? maybe. A lot of them can be understood by associating and guessing, like 联合=联=合 or 联合=联+合。 A lot of them are so-called advanced words, with many synonyms with easy characters, like 掉以轻心=粗心=轻心(but 轻心 is not that usual). Many of them occur less often than others though they all everyday words.

    come here to read or download it:
    http://pan.baidu.com/share/link?shareid=3119586967&uk=69475065
     
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