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