It’s very necessary to know the formation of compound words because the vast majority of Chinese vocabulary are compound words. There are three kinds of ways for the formation of compound words.
1. Roots and affixes combine to form compound words 派生词
This formation is the basic formation of compound words. Words formed by this method are also called 派生词 derivative words o derivatives. There are three combinations of roots and affixes.
prefix + root e.g. 阿姨 阿公 老王
root + suffix e.g. 石头 杏儿 胖子
root + infix + root 对得起 来不及
2. Reduplicated words 重叠词
The same root is reduplicated to form a compound word.
妈妈 mother, mā ma; 奶奶 grandmother, nǎi nai; 唧唧 chirp, jī jī; 绵绵 continuous/continuously, mián mián; 默默 quietly, mò mò
3. Roots and roots combine to form compounds 复合词
This formation of compound words is complex but also the most important word formation. These kinds of words are called 复合词.
1. Two similar, parallel, related, or opposite morphemes/characters form a compound word.
1.1 Two synonymous characters form a word with the same or a very similar meaning as either of the characters.
Noun: 语言 language, 道路 road, 思想 thought, 泥土 earth, 教授 teach, 波浪 waves, 海洋 the sea, 土地 land
Verb: 停止 stop, 斗争 fight, 研究 reserch, 选择 choose, 帮助 help, 裁判 referee, 批评 criticize, 生产 produce
Adjective: 美丽 beautiful, 温柔 tender, 鲜艳 brightly colored, 丰富 abundant, 优良 good
1.2 two characters with related or parallel meanings respectively form a word with different meaning.
骨 bone and 肉 meat form 骨肉 one’s blood-relation; 尺 a unit of length equal to one-third meter, 寸 a unit of length equal to one-third decimeter, 尺寸 size；风 wind, 浪 waves, 风浪 stormy waves
1.3 Two antonyms form a new word with different meaning.
长 long, 短 short, 长短 length; 横 horizontal, 竖 perpendicular, 横竖 anyway；往 come, 来 go, 往来 dealings
1.4 Two characters with related or opposite meanings but only one character determines the meaning.
国 country, 家 home, 国家 country; 质 quality, 量 quantity, 质量 quality; 忘 forget, 记 remember, 忘记 forget; 兄 elder brother, 弟 younger brother, 兄弟 brother
2. The first character modifies and limits the second one. The whole meaning of the compound word depends more on the second character than the first one.
2.1 The first character modifies the second one to form a noun.
新 new, 闻 story/hearsay, 新闻 news; 火 fire, 车 car, 火车 train; 广 wide, 场 space, 广场 square; 汉 the Han people, 语 language, 汉语 Chinese
2.2 The first character modifies the second one to form a verb.
微 slightly, 笑 laugh/smile, 微笑 smile; 朗 loud, 读 read, 朗读 read aloud; 热 hot, 爱 love, 热爱 love fervently; 狂 crazy, 欢 fun, 狂欢 have a spree; 空 air,投 drop, 空投 airdrop
2.3 The first character modifies the second one to form an adjective.
好 good, 听 listen, 好听 pleasant to hear; 难 difficult, 看 look, 难看 ugly； 美 beautiful, 观 look, 美观, beautiful; 耐 endure, 磨 rub, 耐磨 wear-resisting
2.4 The first character modifies the second one to form an adverb.
不 no, 论 discuss, 不论 no matter; 刚 just, 巧 occidental, 刚巧 by chance; 还 still, 是 is, 还是 still/nevertheless; 何 where/what/why, 止 only/just, 何止 not only
3. The first character is a verb and the second is the object of the verb.
3.1 A verb and its object form a new verb
播 spread, 音 sound, 播音 broadcast; 革dismiss/ remove/expel, 命 life, 革命 revolution; 伤 hurt, 心 heart, 伤心 break one’s heart; 放 put, 心 heart, 放心 to feel relieved
3.2 A verb and its object form a noun
管 manage, 家 home, 管家 housekeeper; 知 know, 己 oneself, 知己 confidant; 化 change, 身 body, 化身 embodiment; 理 manage, 事 work, 理事 director
3.3 A verb and its object form an adjective
过 spend/pass, 瘾 addiction/strong interest, 过瘾 satisfying; 开 open, 心 heart, 开心 happy; 合 suit, 法 law, 合法 legal; 动 move, 人 person, 动人 moving
4. The second character modifies the first one, forming a verb.
提 raise, 高 up, 提高 improve; 推push, 动 get moving, 推动 promote/drive; 削 cut, 弱 weak, 削弱 weaken; 压 press, 缩 shrink, 压缩 compress
5. A noun and its predicate form a new noun.
雪 snow, 崩 slide, 雪崩 snowslide; 地 earth, 震 quake, 地震 earthquake; 海 sea, 啸 roar, 海啸 tsunami; 口 mouth, 红 red, 口红 lipstick
6. A noun and its predicate form an adjective.
眼 eye, 红 red, 眼红 envious; 面 face, 熟 familiar, 面熟 look familiar; 性 temperament, 急 urgent, 性急 impatient; 心 heart, 虚 hollow, 心虚 lacking in self-confidence
7. A noun and its measure word form an abstract noun which can’t be modified by this measure word in turn.
华 flower, 朵 quantifier for a flower, 花朵 flowers; 书 a book, 本 a quantifier for books, 书本 books; 马 a horse, 匹 a quantifier for horses, 船 boat, 只 a quantifier for boats, 船只 vessels
8. A noun and its measure word form another noun which can be modified by another measure word.
饭 lunch/meal, 盒 box (can be used as a quantifier for 饭, e.g. 一盒饭), 盒饭 boxed lunch; 柴 wood, 堆 pile, 柴堆 woodpile; 水 water, 壶 kettle, 水壶 water bottle.
To sum up, Chinese compounds are very important in modern Chinese and they account for the majority of the Chinese words. So, compounds learning will make up most of your Chinese learning. Knowing well the formation of Chinese compounds will shorten your time of Chinese learning.