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Compound words, more of a puzzle than a problem

So far we’ve looked at speaking Chinese, and the basics of forming characters (which are complete words themselves), so today we’re wrapping up the series and looking at compound words.

Compound words are formed by putting two characters together to create a single, new meaning. For example 中国zhongguo (China) separately they mean “middle” and “kingdom,” but by putting them together they take on a new meaning. We can take it a step further and say 中国人zhongguoren(Chinese person), or 中国菜zhongguocai (Chinese food). Now the vocabulary is growing, for 7 words we’ve had to learn 4  characters. Now I can teach you one more character 美mei(beautiful), but we can make 美国meiguo(America), 美国人meiguoren(American person), and 美国菜meiguocai(American food). So now we are at 5 characters, but 11 words.

This is to say that for each character you learn how to write, your vocabulary can grow much quicker. The 750 most common Chinese characters, make a vocabulary of over 1,300 words.

Another fun aspect of compound words is that you can often guess the new meaning if you know the parts. The following list has eight words broken into their literal parts from Chinese, see if you can match them with the proper translation.

Easy, right?

So characters like 科ke(science) and 电dian(electricity) can help you start to guess the meaning of more and more vocabulary.

The new word is thought of as a single unit, just like in English when we hear television we think TV, we don’t think Tele- distant, vision- sight. I just find it a useful way of remembering vocabulary.

A final bonus to Chinese is that unlike English, Chinese doesn’t have a “science” vocabulary. We say “Cardio” when we mean “heart” in Chinese they just have “心xin”. So even though I have never studied medical Chinese, I can almost always guess the meaning.

So let’s review what we’ve learned over these past few days. 1. Tones for the most part don’t matter 2. Pronunciation of every word can be learned in a few hours  3. Chinese grammar is easy 4. A few characters are pictures 5. Most characters are made of a radical (for meaning) and another part (for pronunciation) 6. Compound words help your vocabulary grow quickly 7. Often you can guess the meaning of compound words.

Now go impress your friends with your new-found knowledge of a language you may have known nothing about three days ago.

If you enjoyed this series I hope you will pass this site ( on to a friend.

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Electric voice

Electric brain

Hand machine

Cold box

Net page

Heart chest hand art

Bone science

Inside science



  1. Sara says:

    I’ve made a terrible mistake and forgot to subscibe to your feed and I also mistakenly remembered that I did subscribe. So all the time I’ve been thinking that you haven’t wrote anything, but in fact there are lots of new stuff here. Better late than never 🙂

    What you described in this post is a part of Chinese language I really like. It makes it easier to guess the meaning of a word by just knowing the characters from different context. One time I there was a word saliva in my textbook and I didn’t understand the English meaning. But then I looked the Chinese word 口水 and it all made sense. Of course, 口 mouth and 水 water.

  2. Someone thinks this story is fantastic…

    This story was submitted to Hao Hao Report – a collection of China’s best stories and blog posts. If you like this story, be sure to go vote for it….

  3. […] you may also want to read my posts on the topic: It’s Easy to learn Chinese – Really, Why 10,000 characters is easier than it seems, and Compound words, more of a puzzle than a […]

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