Semantic-phonetic Characters

The overwhelming majority of 90.0% of Chinese characters instead fall into the category of 形聲字 semantic-phonetic characters.

These characters are made up of one 義符 semantic component and one 聲符 phonetic component, which respectively contribute to the meanings and sounds of the characters. For example, the character 媽([mā], mother) is composed of the semantic component 女([nǚ], female) and the phonetic component 馬([mǎ], horse) respectively, the characters 榕([róng], banyan) of 木([mù], tree) and 容[róng], 柴([chái], firewood) of 木([mù], tree) and 此[cǐ], 照([zhào], shine) of 灬(fire) and 昭[zhāo].

Semantic Components 義符

Clue to meaning. Components that constitute the meanings of the characters are called semantic components. For example, the characters 榕([róng], banyan), 根([gēn], root), 樹([shù], tree) and 柴([chái], firewood), sharing the same semantic component 木([mù], tree), are all associated with the meaning of “tree”. In other words, these characters are interconnected to each other in meaning and belong to the same semantic field of 木([mù], tree).

Free and bound. Some semantic components can occur alone as individual characters. We could call them free components, borrowing the concept of free morphemes in Linguistics. Examples are the 木([mù], tree) in 榕([róng], banyan) and the 女([nǚ], female) in 媽([mā], mother). Other semantic components can occur only with another component. We could say that they are bound components such as the 扌[hand] in 採([cǎi], pick) and the 氵[water] in 海([hǎi]), sea. But, different from bound morphemes, all bound components in Chinese are derived from characters. For example, the bound components 扌[hand] and 氵[water] originate from the characters 手([shǒu], hand) and 水([shuǐ], water) respectively. In other words, all bound components are just variant forms. By contrast, the bound morpheme “–s” and “–er” are not the variants of other English words.

Functioning position. Certain components can only function as a semantic component at their specific functioning position in a character. For example, when 木([mù], tree) is used as a semantic component, it should be located either on the left of those characters with a left-right configuration (e.g., the 木 in 榕([róng], banyan)), or at the bottom (e.g., the 木 in 柴([chái], firewood)) of a top-bottom configured character.

As another example, the component 鳥([niǎo], bird) can only function as a semantic component on the right such as in the characters 鴨([yā], duck), 鵝( [é], goose), 鴿([gē], pigeon) and 鴉([yā], crow). In these characters, the components on the left, namely, 甲[jiǎ], 我[wǒ], 合[hé] and 牙[yá], function as a phonetic component.

  Phonetic Components 聲符

Clue to sound. Components are called phonetic components when they contribute to the sounds of the characters. For example, all of the characters 嗎[ma], 媽[mā], 螞[mà] and 罵[mà] share the common phonetic component 馬[mǎ], and their sounds are close to each other.

  Free. Different from semantic components, phonetic components are all free components, i.e., they can occur as a standalone character with their own sounds and meanings, for example, the 馬([mǎ], horse)  in 媽([mā], mother), the 容([róng], easy) in 榕([róng], banyan), the 奇([qí], strange) in 騎([qí], ride) and the 此([cǐ], here) in 柴([chái], firewood). Note that some phonetic components were once characters in the past, which are however no longer used at present, for example, the 喿([zào], flock of birds singing) in 操([cāo], operate) and the 僉([qiān], as well) in 劍([jiàn], sword).

 Of one or more components. Of importance is that some phonetic components are themselves compound characters, which consist of two or even more components. For example, the character 淅([xī] the sound of raining) has the phonetic component 析[xī], which in turn consists of two components – 木 and 斤. As another example, the character 照([zhào], shine) has the phonetic component 昭[zhāo]. 昭([zhāo], make clear) as a character in turn has the phonetic component 召[zhāo]. 召 then consists of 刀 and 口. In this sense, the characters can be analyzed into a hierarchy, which is in fact in congruent with the historical development of the characters from their components

Such historical analysis of the characters is different from the conventional approach of categorizing the characters into certain typical configurations Under this view, the historical development of the characters is neglected and the characters are merely treated as a flat plane structure. As such, the previous characters 淅[xī] and 照[zhào] will just be considered as nothing more than having the same configuration with the characters 街[jiē] and 忘[wàng] as indicated below.