Chinese Etymology

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Chinese Etymology

Richard Sears
9015 Ten Mile Rd. #54
Knoxville TN. 37923 USA

 What you see here is the result of the past 20 years of my efforts
to make Chinese character etymology information available online.
Please donate so I can keep this information on line and updated.
All information is free and without advertisements.
(Thank you)





Mandarin Language and Script

Mandarin originally refers to the language spoken by Chinese officials who were mainly from Beijing. This language was called Guan-Yu 官語 Official-Language. The Sanskrit word Mandari comes through Portuguese and means commander related to English Mand-ate The early Portuguese referred to these people and their language as Mandarin. The BeiJingHua 北京話 Beijing-Talk Spoken in Beijing PuTongHua 普通話 Common Talk spoken in Canton, the HuaYu 華語 Chinese Language spoken in South East Asia and the GuoYu 國語 National Language spoken in Taipei are the same language with only very minor differences.

PuTongHua is spoken by almost all Chinese although 80% of them will speak some other dialect at home. When speaking of Chinese Dialects we usually mean different languages. Often although the dialects will be closely related, If you have not had experience with it, you will understand almost nothing.

Modern written Chinese is a direct rendition of spoken Mandarin. In English we always refer to it as Chinese.In Chinese it is usually called HanYu 漢語 Chinese Language This is Mandarin as defined in the dictionary. Almost No one speaks exactly like the Dictionary. But most well educated Chinese have studied tones, and pinying and can pronounce correctly if reading from the dictionary. See Cantonese, Taiwanese.

Taiwanese Language and Script

Taiwanese is an important language as far as Chinese Etymology is concerned and as far as China is concerned.

In Chinese it is referred to technically as MinNanHua 閩南話 Southern Min Language It is spoken in Southern FuJian 福建 province and in Taiwan. It is often referred to as TaiWanHua 台灣話 Taiwanese Language or XiaMenHua 厦門話 Amoy Language. Amoy (XiaMen) is the main Chinese coastal city in FuJian where this language is spoken. It is also called TaiYu 台語 Taiwanese. It is not understandable by Mandarin speakers who have never been exposed to it. I estimates that about 80% of Taiwanese has the same etymology as Mandarin, but with very significant phonetic shifts. Written Mandarin can be read in Taiwanese, but it is a very stilted and does not reflect the grammatical structure of real spoken Taiwanese. Unlike Cantonese, Taiwanese in most cases did not invent new characters. When there is a Taiwanese word which has no Mandarin equivalent, they usually took Mandarin characters which when pronounced in Taiwanese would sounded like the Taiwanese word in question. Some characters will be used in places with the usual Mandarin meaning and other characters will be used for the sound. The average Mandarin will not understand written Taiwanese. MinBeiHua 閩北話 Northern Min Language is the other dialect spoken in FuJian, and is quite different from MinNan. FuZhouHua 福州話 is spoken in FuZhou and is also very different. Many of the Chinese emigrants to South East Asia came from ChaoZhou in southern Fukin and speak a language called ChaoJouHua 潮州話 CaoJou is similar to and for the most part understandable by Taiwanese.

Taiwanese is important etymologically because when we compare the pronunciation of character phonetics in Taiwanese we sometimes find that they are closer than in Mandarin.

Taiwanese has 7 tones. The teaching materials say 8, but this is so that the saying of all the tones will sound more fluent. There are 2337 unique syllabic utterances in Taiwanese. The database of syllabic utterances was done by Sharry Wu

Book References:

台灣話大詞典 閩南話漳泉二腔系部份 by ChenShou 陳修 主編
Probably the most extensive Taiwanese to Chinese dictionary
used for my Taiwanese syllabic database.

Cantonese Language and Characters

GuangDongHua (GongDongWa) 廣東話 Cantonese is the most common dialect spoken by over-seas Chinese. Its formal name is YueYu (YutYu) 粤語 It is in fact a different language from Manderin, although closely related to it. A person who has grown up in BeiJing and has never heard Cantonese, would understand almost nothing. About 80% of Cantonese words have the same root as Mandarin although the pronunciation may be shifted quite drastically. The other 20 percent is strictly Cantonese and has no Mandarin equivalent. These words are called JukJi Cantonese is spoken in GuangDong province, HongKong, Macao and all around the world. The TaiShanHua (HoiSanWa) 台山話 TaiShan dialect of Cantonese is spoken in SanFrancisco the largest collection of JukJi is a set of about 4500 characters published by the city government of HongKong, The average Cantonese probably only uses a few hundred. These characters can not be found in a HanYuDaZiDian dictionary.

Book References:

A Practical Cantonese-English Dictionary 實用粤英詞典 by Sidney Lao 劉緆祥
The Cantonese to English dictionary which I used for my Cantonese syllabic database.

Shanghaiese Language and Script

Japanese Language and Script

The Chinese word HanZi 漢字 means “Chinese Character”. When borrowed by the Japanese the pronunciation became KanJi. 漢字 The Japanese borrowed the Chinese writing system starting in the Tang dynasty about 1400 years ago. Japanese grammar is quite different from Chinese. Japanese is a Ural Altaic language more closely related to Turkish than to Chinese, The Chinese writing did not fit well with Japanese. As a result, several things happened. (1) They borrowed the Chinese characters and used them to represent Japanese words and gave them the Japanese pronunciations called Kunyomi 訓読, (2) In many cases they borrowed the Chinese pronunciation too in this case they used the Onyomi 音読 pronunciation which corresponds to the original Chinese pronunciation. (3) Some Chinese characters were used as phonetics for Japanese words. Originally these phonetics were used mainly by women and other semi literate Japanese. Ultimately the cursive form of these phonetics developed into two precise phonetic alphabets. One called Hiragana ひらがな which is used to write the Japanese words which have no Chinese or other foreign etymology. The Kai forms of these phonetics developed into a precise phonetic alphabet called Katakana カタカナ which was used to write the words in Japanese which are derived from languages other than Japanese or Chinese, mostly English. (4) Since the kanji was borrowed so long ago, in many cases the written form has changed somewhat, the meaning has changed, sometimes a lot. One example is the 読 in Onyomi which in Chinese is 讀 (5) In modern Japanese there has been a move to reduce the number of Chinese characters to around 2200 and some of those characters are rare or non existent in modern Chinese. As a rough eye ball estimate, I would say 80% of kanji is pronounced similar to and has a similar meaning to the Chinese.

Korean Language and Script

Korean is also Ural Altaic and originally borrowed Chinese characters like the Japanese. Korean never derived special Hiragana and Katakana type alphabets. Instead in 1426 King SeJong 世宗 invented an alphabet for initial central and final sounds of the Korean syllables. The letters of this alphabet are called Hangul 한글 and do not appear to have any connection to Chinese characters. The way these letters are stacked into square boxes that correspond to syllabic utterances and in Korean was obviously influenced by Chinese. These spellings were used for several hundred years for syllables of strictly Korean origin and syllables of Chinese etymology were written in Chinese called Hanja 漢字. In the past 30 years Korean news papers at least have gone completely Hangul.

VietnameseLanguage and Script

Vietnamese has a similar grammatical and morphological structure to Chinese but percentage wise very few syllables are etymologically related to Chinese. The Vietnamese took an approach similar to the Cantonese starting in about the 10th century, but they had to design a large number of new characters. These characters are called ChuNom. When you see old Vietnamese written it is obviously derived from Chinese type characters, but a Chinese literate person will understand almost none of the characters.

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Copyright (c) 2003, 2008, 2011 Richard Sears