The relation between a character, a word and a phrase in Chinese

The relation between a character, a word and a phrase in Chinese

In Chinese, a character is the smallest morpheme. A character is not necessarily a word. Likewise, a word is not necessarily a character. A word can’t be explained literally. So, what’s the relationship between a character, a word and a phrase?




A character ≠ a word

A character is the smallest morpheme in Chinese, and some single characters can act as single-morpheme words, such as 打, 看, 足, 水,门,香, and so on. However, not all the single characters can be used as single-morpheme words, for example, 猩, 琵, 琶, 徘, 徊, etc none of them can be used alone as a word.

A word ≠ a character

A word is not necessarily a character. In the Chinese language, a word can be a single character, two characters, three or more. For example, 是 is single character verb; 学习 is a two-character verb; 神经病 is a three-character noun; 丧心病狂 is a four-character adjective, and so on.

A word ≠ a phrase

A word is different from a phrase. In Mandarin Chinese, a word has its stable meaning and can’t be interpreted simply by the characters which a word contains.

黑板 blackboard is not equal to 黑色的板 a black board

白菜 Chinese cabbage is not equal to 白色的菜/白的菜 white vegetable

骨肉 flesh and blood or kindred is not equal to 骨和肉 bone and meat

绿帽子 cuckold is not equal to 绿色的帽子 a green hat

See also:

Word formation in Chinese

Formation of binding words in Chinese

Formation of Compound words

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