Recognizing half of a character and half of a word

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I have a student whose given name is Zǐhàn 子菡.  The first character means "child; son; offspring; seed; small thing", plus lots of other things, for which see here.  The second character is much more problematic, since it doesn't mean anything by itself, but only in combination, as in the disyllabic word hàndàn 菡萏 (literary term for "lotus flower, especially one that has not blossomed")


(Zhengzhang): /*ɡuːmʔ  l'oːmʔ/


As is my habit with my many students from other countries, I asked 子菡 if — following what is indicated in dictionaries — I were pronouncing her name correctly:  Zǐhàn.  She acknowledged that Zǐhàn is indeed the canonical pronunciation as given in lexicographical sources, but that people — including she herself — actually pronounce her name as Zǐhán.  Oh, woe is me!  That sort of blew my mind away.  It's not enough to be scrupulously observant of canonical prescription for pronunciation, I must needs learn another, noncanonical, pronunciation for the 菡 of 子菡's given name.

So I asked 子菡 on what grounds, what basis, and for what reason are you and almost everyone else pronouncing your name as Zǐhán instead of Zǐhàn?  The explanation that she gave blew what was left of my mind away.

Well, says 子菡 (here I'm interpreting and elaborating), few people know the "correct", dictionary pronunciation of 菡, so they just guess — on the basis of the phonophore, which they independently know — that it is hán.

函, without the "grass" radical / semantophore, is pronounced hán and means "include; box; letter", a term that is fairly well known (unlike hàndàn 菡萏, which is known only to the literary minded).

函 occurs as a phonophore in the following Sinographs:

*kuːm, *ɡuːm
*ɡuːm, *ɡruːm
*ɡuːm, *ɡuːmʔ
*ɡuːm, *ɡuːmʔ
*ɡuːm (variant of 函)

The MSM (Modern Standard Mandarin) pronunciations of these six characters are respectively gān, hán, hán, hàn, hán, hàn.  If you guessed the MSM pronunciations of these six characters on the basis of their phonophore, you would be right half of the time.  This exemplifies the principle of "rèn zì rèn bànbiān 認字認半邊" ("to recognize a character by recognizing half of the character").  

Zǐhán estimated that this principle works about 80% of the time, which is roughly what John DeFrancis used to say about the phonetic carrying capacity of the phonophores of Chinese characters, although John's analysis was quite sophisticated and based on empirical evidence, such that he was able to distinguish degrees of phonetic carrying capacity of different Chinese characters.  Judging from our experience with 函, I think we need to go way below 50% accuracy for the ability of Sinographic phonophores to convey accurate phonetic information.  This is especially so since 圅 is actually a variant of 函, so we are really only dealing with five characters here, hence two out of five (函 and 涵), or 40%, or perhaps we should say even less, since 函 is itself and is not indicating any other character.

To cap it all off, Zǐhán told me there's another reason why people pronounce her name as Zǐhán rather than Zǐhàn, even if they are literarily or lexicographically learned enough to know that it should be pronounced Zǐhàn (she mentioned this to me at least twice, so it must be true), Zǐhán sounds more feminine than Zǐhàn!  Why, pray tell?  Because Zǐhàn makes one think of "dà nánzǐhàn 大男子漢" ("big man / guy; macho man") and similar expressions evincing masculinity.

Consequently, for all of the above reasons, it is better to pronounce 子菡 as Zǐhán rather than Zǐhàn, no matter what the dictionaries tell you.  And so it shall be:  子菡 is Zǐhán, not Zǐhàn.


Selected readings

"Ted Chiang uninvents Chinese characters" (5/13/16)
"Is Cantonese a language, or a personification of the devil?" (2/9/14)
"The concept of word in Sinitic" (10/3/18)
"When intonation overrides tone, part 5" (9/25/20)


  1. Victor Mair said,

    May 2, 2021 @ 9:09 am

    Zihan herself speaks:

    It feels a little funny to see the actual Chinese characters of my name all over there, because I do not usually get that chance. It would be all our woe if one day no one recognized that it should be pronounced with the fourth tone.

  2. Levantine said,

    May 2, 2021 @ 10:26 am

    Interesting post! Sorry for the off-topic response, but “if . . . I were pronouncing her name correctly” caught my attention. Shouldn’t it be “if I was” in this instance?

  3. Victor Mair said,

    May 2, 2021 @ 10:39 am

    "If I was / were" — I wrote it both ways, wavered for a long time. Because the post is innately so interesting, I thought that nobody would make a fuss over it no matter which way I went. Ended up going with "were' because it sounded better, given all the factors at play

    I know the rules of the subjunctive, but this instance is complicated by the interposed phrase, which takes into account the auditor's subjective attitude to how I might or might not be pronouncing her name according to her standards.

    "if I was" — 893,000,000 ghits

    "if I were" — 92,500,000 ghits

  4. David Marjanović said,

    May 2, 2021 @ 10:56 am

    So now I've learned the etymology of the ethnonym 漢! Or have I confused two similar characters?

    "If I was / were" — I wrote it both ways, wavered for a long time.

    If you want a purely etymological perspective on this, I can offer one from my native German, which keeps this distinction (one way or another) for all verbs: "were" would in this case be more like "would be", more or less implying you already thought it wasn't correct.

  5. Levantine said,

    May 2, 2021 @ 11:31 am

    The number of Google hits isn't really relevant to my point. It's well know that "If I were" is overused anyway by those hypercorrecting.

  6. Levantine said,

    May 2, 2021 @ 11:33 am

    And to be clear, I wasn't making a fuss, simply raising what I considered an interesting (though admittedly tangential) question in a forum dedicated to linguistics.

  7. Victor Mair said,

    May 2, 2021 @ 11:39 am

    From TzeHuey Chiou-Peng:

    While growing up in Taiwan, kids and adults alike “read” half-recognizable characters following this unofficial rule: “有邊唸邊,無邊唸中間“ ("If it has a side component, read the side component; if it doesn't have a side component, read the part in the middle") and very often the assumed sound can turn out to be correct although that does not necessarily mean the meaning of a word is being recognized.

    Now I have learned not to take things for granted.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    May 2, 2021 @ 12:37 pm

    I was definitely not hypercorrecting, and was very careful and cautious about what I was writing, taking all aspects of the situation into consideration. Otherwise, why would I spend five minutes deliberating on the matter? As I said, I know the rules of the subjunctive. David Marjanović made a useful and helpful point about the problem in this particular instance. In appreciation, I will reply to his question about 漢, after I take care of some other pressing matters.

  9. Levantine said,

    May 2, 2021 @ 12:53 pm

    I believe that “was” is the grammatically standard choice here, but the conversation isn’t going as I’d expected (I certainly meant no offence), and so I’ll see myself out.

  10. other one spoon said,

    May 2, 2021 @ 2:31 pm

    I have another tangential question, if I may, based on the part about Prof. Mair knowing the "correct", dictionary pronunciation of a Chinese character that large numbers of native speakers wouldn't know.

    For someone like you, a non-Chinese (whether defined by ethnicity, nationality, first language or what have you), what is your typical process for learning an obscure character like this?

    For example, the first time you come across it in a literary text, do you take the time to memorize it then and there; or do you end up reading enough texts that use expressions like hàndàn 菡萏 that you naturally start to remember it after looking it up a few times in the dictionary? Do you have to practice writing it out a hundred times in order for it to stick?

    Asking as a beginner learner of Mandarin who sometimes despairs of ever gaining familiarity with the two or three thousand characters needed for basic fluency, yet who also still dreams of someday achieving the enviable level of knowledge exhibited by scholars like yourself.

  11. Victor Mair said,

    May 2, 2021 @ 4:16 pm

    @other one spoon

    Excellent question.

    First of all, I always look up a character or word that I do not know. I try very hard to remember the sound, meaning, and shape of the character / word in question. It is often difficult, sometimes excruciatingly so, to look up characters in Chinese dictionaries (see Victor H. Mair, "The Need for an Alphabetically Arranged General Usage Dictionary of Mandarin Chinese: A Review Article of Some Recent Dictionaries and Current Lexicographical Projects", Sino-Platonic Papers, 1 (February, 1986), 1-31. Few Chinese native speakers develop the requisite skills or possess the persistence to look up characters the way Western Sinologists do, so they just gloss over the characters / words they don't know (see the OP and the comment by TzeHuey Chiou-Peng above).

    If you develop the custom of always gritting your teeth and looking up every word / character you don't know, it gradually becomes second nature and not so overwhelming as the first several thousand times you do it. On the other hand, one of my tasks in life has been to create lexicographical tools that diminish the burden of looking up lexical items (e.g., the ABC dictionary series at the University of Hawai'i Press, the alphabetical index to the Hànyǔ dà cídiǎn 漢語大詞典 (Unabridged dictionary of Sinitic, etc.).

    My wife, who had two M.A.'s in premodern Chinese literature, always asked me to look up words in Chinese dictionaries for her; ditto for my Chinese colleagues in China, among whom are some of the top scholars in the Sinosphere.

  12. Victor Mair said,

    May 2, 2021 @ 4:22 pm

    A very short, simple note on the derivation of the name "Han 漢".

    As you can see from the thee dots water semantophore on the left, it was the name of a river. The people who founded the Han (206 BC-220 AD) took the name of the river for their dynasty. It was a powerful dynasty, one that established the basic bureaucratic foundations of the Chinese political system that lasted for two millennia, until the collapse of the Manchu Qing empire in 1912.

    Because the Han dynasty was militarily powerful, other countries referred to its citizens as "Hànrén 漢人" ("Han people"), its language as "Hànyǔ 漢語" ("Hannic [i.e., Sinitic]"), and so forth. Believe it or not, after the fall of the Han Dynasty in 220 AD and the advent of non-Sinitic ruling houses from the north and northwest, people of the latter dynasties referred to the Han population by the pejorative "Hàner 漢兒" ("Hankins").

    After the demise of those north(west)ern dynasties, the name Han once again took on the meaning of "estimable Han person", "powerful / tough guy / bloke", "macho man", and the like.

    From the river name to the dynasty to the diminutive-pejorative slur to the tough guy and the heroic hǎohàn 好漢, it's all the same name. It's just that the connotations varied with the times, sometimes radically.

  13. AntC said,

    May 2, 2021 @ 5:42 pm

    I rather think Proper Names preserve all sorts of archaic pronunciations or spellings that come adrift from language evolution. Featherstonhaugh pronounced 'Fanshaw'; Chalmondley pronounced 'Chumley'.

    In general with Chinese names, does an unexpected pronunciation/character indicate the name originated from a non-Sinitic language? Or at least from a non-Mandarin topolect?

  14. Neil said,

    May 2, 2021 @ 5:56 pm

    @Levantine- don’t feel bad. The ‘were’ really stood out for me as well. Especially as I was sure the standard correct usage should have been ‘was’ — but given the author’s erudition and stature, i reread it six times, assuming I can’t possibly be right. Thank you for asking the question.

  15. Jan said,

    May 2, 2021 @ 8:59 pm

    Pronunciation of names is a tricky minefield, even for alphabetic ones. I called on a student whose last name was Hebert–which I pronounced, as A-bare. I was corrected to Heeburt. In Louisiana, it would generally be the opposite. So,having made similar gaffes over the years, I now always send an email in advance of the first class, asking (among other things) how is your name pronounced? (Also, preferred gender pronouns, preferred salutation prefix, etc.)

  16. Mark S. said,

    May 2, 2021 @ 10:03 pm

    For some of John DeFrancis's remarks on the functions, frequencies, and usefulness of semantic and phonetic elements of Chinese characters, see the chapter on Chinese from his book Visible Speech: The Diverse Oneness of Writing Systems.

  17. R. Fenwick said,

    May 2, 2021 @ 10:35 pm

    I rather think Proper Names preserve all sorts of archaic pronunciations or spellings that come adrift from language evolution.

    This was my first thought as well, especially since my Northumbrian surname is one subject to just such confusion. My friends and colleagues from northern Great Britain have invariably used the more usual Northumbrian pronunciation [ˈfɛ.nɪk], but my family pronounces my surname [ˈfɛn.wɪk], quite possibly the result of a more recent bowing to spelling pronunciation.

  18. Chris Button said,

    May 3, 2021 @ 12:46 pm

    Fenwick, like Chiswick.

  19. Philip Taylor said,

    May 3, 2021 @ 1:07 pm

    … and not entirely dissimilar to Hawick (/ˈhɔː ɪk/).

  20. Chas Belov said,

    May 3, 2021 @ 4:20 pm

    Interesting about 漢 having a macho sense. I'm wondering about regional differences in name preferences.

    When I was choosing a Chinese name, a Singaporean friend rejected 強, a random translation for Charles Andrew. I had found as being awkward, yet in Taiwan there is the well-known singer/actor 林強. The friend suggested 力男. A friend from China felt that was unrefined, and recommended 力漢, which I ultimately chose. I asked my Singaporean friend about that, and he responded he preferred 男 to 漢 *because* it was more macho. (My full chosen Chinese name is 白力漢.)

    I've encountered regional differences with other character preferences as well. 勿 (do not) is fairly common in San Francisco on prohibition signs, but when I wrote it in Singapore my Singaporean friend said it would not be easily recognized.

  21. R. Fenwick said,

    May 3, 2021 @ 10:59 pm

    @Chris Button: Fenwick, like Chiswick.

    Also Beswick and Southwick, not to mention the various –wich forms like Norwich and Greenwich. Honestly, at this point I'm not at all fussed whether it gets pronounced as Fenwick like Chiswick or Fenwick like Gatwick. :)

    @Philip Taylor: … and not entirely dissimilar to Hawick

    What one might call waw-dropping (by analogy to yod-dropping) may not play a part here. English [hɔːɪk] may rather represent the expected regular Scots development of the presumed Anglo-Saxon precursor *hagawic "hedge-settlement". This would have developed through a series of regular sound changes from [xaɣawɪk] to early Northumbrian Middle English [hawawɪk] to Early Scots [hauauɪk] to Middle Scots [hɑːɑːɪk] → [hɑːɪk] by haplology → Border Scots Haaick [hɒːɪk].

  22. Vanya said,

    May 4, 2021 @ 2:55 am

    @Levantine – you were right to point it out. It is no slur on Professor Mair. It is linguistically interesting that what seems obviously wrong to some of us native English speakers is perceived as a choice by others. Sad that some people are so hypersensitive. Of course Professor Mair has a point – if we assume an unstated „she felt“, i.e „I asked her if [she felt that] I were pronouncing it correctly“, than the subjunctive seems reasonable to me here.

  23. Levantine said,

    May 4, 2021 @ 9:53 am

    Vanya, thanks for your thoughts, and for emphasising something that should have been clear from my own posts: in no way was my observation a slur on Professor Mair. My own writing is peppered with such mistakes, which are far easier to spot when made by others.

    I disagree with your last sentence: the “were” seems wrong there too. Both your version and the original are essentially reporting that a yes/no question was asked of the student—“Am I pronouncing your name correctly?”—and therefore do not warrant the irrealis as far as I can see. Replacing “if” with “whether” shows that “was” is the appropriate choice and that “if” is the culprit here, having triggered a hypercorrection. There is an incontrovertible hypercorrection in the following sentence, where “including she herself” has been written rather than the standard (though admittedly less elegant-sounding) “including her herself”.

  24. Victor Mair said,

    May 4, 2021 @ 10:24 am


    Thank you for being a voice of reason and moderation.

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