Word formation in Chinese

word formation in Chinese

To learn the word formation in Chinese, it’s necessary to understand this concept, morpheme. A morpheme, the smallest grammatical unit in a language, is the smallest meaningful unit of a language. Morphemes divide into two types: roots and affixes.

A root is the main part in a word and shows its principal meaning,
e.g. 火车 train (火 and 车 both are roots), 电脑 computer (电 and 脑 both are roots). An affix is added to a root to express additional or supplementary meaning, e.g. 小王 (小 prefix, 王 root), 椅子 chair (椅 root, 子 suffix), 花儿 flower ( 花 root, 儿 suffix),过得去 passable (过 root, 得 infix, 去 root), 来不及 there’s no time (来 root, 不 infix, 及 root).

Affixes can be divided into prefixes, infixes and suffixes. Here are some common affixes in Chinese.

Prefix: 老, 小, 阿, 第
Infix: 得, 不

According to the word formation, Chinese words divide into

Single-morpheme words 单纯词

Monosyllable single-morpheme words 单音节单纯词:

A monosyllable single-morpheme word is actually a single character such as 吃, 书, 家, 笔, 电, 雨, 红, 跑, etc. Such words are the most basic and original words in Chinese. They are the basis of the whole Chinese language.

Multi-syllable single-morpheme words 多音节单纯词:

1. Binding words of two characters 连绵词

A binding word is composed of two characters and denotes a meaning that can’t be denoted by either of them alone. Each of the binding words is an unseparated unity and has one complete meaning, even though composed of two characters. Because a binding word is composed of two characters and has only one meaning, it is multi-syllable and single-morpheme. The characters in binding words are inseparable and always appear together except in special cases.

2. Borrowed words from foreign language 外来词

幽默 yōu mò, humor; 巧克力 qiǎo kè lì, chocolate; 沙发 shā fā, sofa; 引擎 yǐn qíng, engine; 巴士 bā shì, bus; 香波 xiāng bō, shampoo; 的士 dí shì, taxis; 基因 jī yīn, Gene; 汉堡 hàn bǎo, Hamburg; 克隆 kè lóng, clone; 扑克 pū kè, poker; 迪斯科 dí sī kē, disco; 模特 mó tè, model; 三明治 sān míng zhì, sandwich; 海洛因 hǎi luò yīn, heroin; 榴莲 liú lián, durian; 奥林匹克 ào lín pǐ kè, Olympic; 可口可乐 kě kǒu kě lè, Coca-Cola

3. Repetition of the same character 叠音词

Examples: 猩猩 xīng xing, chimpanzee;  蛐蛐 qū qu, cricket; 蝈蝈 guō guo, grasshopper

4. Onomatopoeic words 拟声词

嘎吱 gā zhī, creak; 咔嚓 kā chā, snap; 哗哗 huā huā, sound of gurgling and water flowing; 咕咚 gū dōng, thud/splash/plump

5. Multi-syllable interjections 感叹词

哎呀 āi yā, opps; 哎呦 āi yōu, opps

Compound words o compounds 合成词

A compound word is a word composed of two or more morphemes according to certain structure and semantic relation. This kind of formation is the most important word formation in modern Chinese.

See how Chinese compounds are formed.

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