Chinese Etymology


by Tienzen (Jeh-Tween) Gong

With China rising, the Chinese language is now listed as a strategic foreign language for our national security. Yet, it is very hard to keep students to stay in the program, especially for the advanced courses. This is because that Chinese language becomes very challenging, at least, in two points at that level.

  1. Although Chinese speaking language is not too hard to learn, the Chinese written words are seemingly stand-alone characters which must be memorized with a brutal effort.
  2. The pronunciation of every Chinese character must also be memorized with an irrational manner.

In the book, The Meeting of East and West -- an Inquiry Concerning World Understanding (The Macmillan Company, 1968 by Dr. F.S.C. Northrop), Dr. Northrop wrote, "The Easterner, on the other hand, uses bits of linguistic symbolism, largely denotative, and often purely ideographic in character, to point toward a component in the nature of things which only immediate experience and continued contemplation can convey. This shows itself especially in the symbols of the Chinese language, where each solitary, immediately experienced local particular tends to have its own symbol, this symbol also often having a directly observed form like that of the immediately seen item of direct experience which it denotes. For example , the symbol for man in Chinese is H , and the early symbol for house is . As a consequence, there was no alphabet. This automatically eliminates the logical whole-part relation between one symbol and another that occurs in the linguistic symbolism of the West in which all words are produced by merely putting together in different permutations the small number of symbols constituting the alphabet. (page 316).

"In many cases, however, the content of the sign itself, that is, the actual shape of the written symbol, is identical with the immediately sensed character of the factor in experience for which it stands. These traits make the ideas which these symbols convey particulars rather than logical universals, and largely denotative rather than connotative in character.

Certain consequences follow. Not only are the advantages of an alphabet lost, but also there tend to be as many symbols as there are simple and complex impressions. Consequently, the type of knowledge which a philosophy constructed by means of such a language can convey tends necessarily to be one given by a succession of concrete, immediately apprehendable examples and illustrations, the succession of these illustrations having no logical ordering or connection the one with the other. ...

... Moreover, even the common-sense examples are conveyed with aesthetic imagery, the emphasis being upon the immediately apprehended, sensuous impression itself more than upon the external common-sense object of which the aesthetic impression is the sign. Nowhere is there even the suggestion by the aesthetic imagery of a postulated scientific or a doctrinally formulated, theological object. All the indigenously Chinese philosophies, Taoism as well as Confucianism, support this verdict." (page 322, ibid).

Dr. Northrop was not simply discussing Chinese culture but was giving a verdict. His verdict has the following two points.

  1. About the Chinese written language (Chinese words): Denotative and solitary -- no logical ordering or connection the one with the other.
  2. The consequence of such a language: No chance of any kind to formulate scientific, philosophical and theological objects.

On July 13, 2007, I gave a presentation on Chinese Etymology at AP Annual Conference 2007 (CollegeBoard) in Las Vegas. In that presentation, I made two statements.

  1. Chinese written word system is an 100% root word system with only 220 root words, and it could be simpler than the high school geometry.
  2. The original meaning of every Chinese word can be read out loud from its face, and any high school student who did not know a single Chinese character could master the Chinese word system within six months.

I proved an etymology memory algebra. With only 220 root words (R), it generates 300 commonly used compound roots (also as sound modules, M). Thus, R + M = 220 + 300 = 520. With these 520, all 60,000 Chinese written words are generated. That is,

Etymology memory algebra is R + M = R x M

This textbook, Chinese Etymology, is the manifestation and the implementation of the above premise. It has three objectives.

  1. This is a self study book for someone who knows not a single Chinese written word, that is, the reader needs no tutor in order to study this textbook.
  2. This is a two hundred hour course which can be easily scheduled as a six month course. At the end of this 200 hours, the reader who knows not a single Chinese written word at the beginning should be able to read Chinese newspaper. Of course, there are two ways to read something.
    With 300 sound roots (modules), the pronunciation of 70% all Chinese written words can be read out loud, as most of them do carry a sound module as the sound tag.
  3. At the end of this course, a reader has acquired a foundation much, much stronger than native Chinese college graduates. For those who did not study this course, every new word is as new as the first word they ever learned. For the readers of this book, every new word can be decoded from its face right the way.

Are these three objectives realities? The first two are very much self-evident. After knowing all anatomical parts, it is very hard to imagine that someone is still unable to dissect an ideograph which is composed of those parts. After knowing all decoding rules, it is very hard to imagine that someone is still unable to read an already decoded message. For the third objective, a litmus test is provided at the end of this book as a way to verify my claim. The reader who finished this course should be able to answer them 80% correctly with the first try. He ought to answer them 100% correctly with an open-book test. For native Chinese college graduates who did not study this course, I am sure that 99.9999...% of them cannot answer one question correctly although they do know each and every those words. In fact, all these three objectives and claims are testable.

Thus, for someone who is interested in learning Chinese language, especially the written language, he has two options:

  1. He can study 6,000 Chinese characters individually, one at a time, as they are not related and connected neither logically nor phonetically. This is how the native Chinese people does. Living in a language environment, he still needs 7 to 8 school years to learn 3,000 characters which is the minimum for reading Chinese newspaper. He will need to study 16 years (college graduation) to know about 6,000 words while he is still unable to comprehend the Chinese Classic writings. Not knowing one word in a sentence, we normally can guess it. If there are three or more words unknown in a sentence, the chance to guess them becomes nil. Learning Chinese written words in this way, one has no ability to decode the meaning of an unknown word from its face. As native Chinese people have a lifetime to learn the language, this is a workable pathway for them. This pathway is to learn a language as a living habit, and most of native languages are learned in this manner.
  2. To learn a second language without a language environment is always a difficult task. However, if a language is a logic system with only a finite number of initial points (seeds or roots) and a finite number of logic rules, it can be learned as a knowledge (not a living habit) similar to learning geometry or chemistry. Chinese language (both verbal and written) has such a logic system. By only learning 220 root words, all (100%) Chinese written words can be decoded anatomically and syntactically. By only learning 300 sound roots (modules), the pronunciation of 70% of Chinese words can be known from their faces. With only 520 (220 + 300) ideographs to learn, one can master Chinese language (especially the written language) with a 200 hour course which can be easily scheduled as a six month course. Furthermore, by knowing the logic of the language system, every unknown word becomes a pick-up word, that is, it can be picked up as soon as it appeared as it can be easily decoded from its face.