Chapter 2:Chinese Syllable, meaning, and word (1)

Updated:Sat, Oct 20, 2012 23:14 PM     Related:Chinese syllables

One of the features of Chinese is that each syllable is associated with a meaning. The most common length of Mandarin words is two syllables, and a number of common word formation strategies exist which help to create and maintain the two syllable word.


1. The special status of the Mandarin syllable

1.1 The syllable and meaning

One of the features of Chinese is that each syllable is associated with a meaning. For example, the Mandarin word for bus station/train station or bus stop/train stop is chēzhàn. The syllable chē means vehicle and the syllable zhàn means stand. Occurring together as a word, chēzhàn is very nearly the sum of its parts: vehicle stand.

Some words in English have the kind of structure that Mandarin has, but for most English words, syllables need not have independent meaning. For example, the English word lettuce consists of two syllables let and tuce. These individual syllables do not have meaning on their own, and it makes no sense to ask about the meaning of ‘let’ or of ‘tuce’ in the word lettuce. In contrast, with very few exceptions, the individual syllables of Mandarin words have identifiable meanings, and when learning new words, it makes good sense to note the meanings of the individual syllables.


1. In Chinese, a small number of syllables are not associated with a meaning. The most common is the noun suffix zǐ See 2.1.1.

2. A multi-syllable Mandarin word is not always simply the sum of its parts. For example, the word gùshì ‘story’ is composed of the syllables 故 gù ‘former, previous’ and 事 shì ‘situation, incident.’

1.2 The syllable and Chinese characters

In Chinese, the syllable is associated with a Chinese character as well as a meaning. When a syllable is associated with more than one meaning, it is generally the case that each meaning is written with a different character. For example, Mandarin has a number of meanings associated with the pronunciation zhàn. Each meaning is written with a different character:

zhàn dip in liquid (like a pen in ink)
zhàn occupy
zhàn fight
zhàn storehouse
zhàn to split; to burst open
zhàn to stand; a stop, a stand

Because of these differences, the status of the syllable is much more important in Chinese than in English. Conversely, the status of the word is less important in Chinese than in English.

2. Multi-syllable tendency in Mandarin words

Although Mandarin syllables have meanings, they often combine to form words. Here is a short list of Mandarin syllables and words that they form.

Syllable     Word    
Xue Study,study of      
shēng give birth to;grow 学生 xuésheng student
chū Produce,go out 出生 chūshēng to be born,birth
kǒu opening, mouth 出口 chūkōu Export,exit
bǎn Printing block/printing 出版 chubǎn publish 
xiào school 学校 xuéxiào school
zhǎng head, one in charge 校长 xiàozhǎng principal 
zhōng middle 中学 zhsngxué middle
piàn a slice, a part 图片 túpiàn picture 
earth 地图 dìtú map
shū book      
guān Place for activities 图书馆 túshūguǎn library
Fan Rice 饭馆 fànguǎn restaurant

2.1 Strategies that create and maintain the two syllable word

The most common length of Mandarin words is two syllables, and a number of common word formation strategies exist which help to create and maintain the two syllable word.

2.1.1 The suffix 子 zi

One syllable words may be turned into two syllable words by the addition of the suffix 子 zí. This suffix adds little or no meaning to the word. It usually occurs in neutral tone (zi).

Some nouns occur in contemporary Mandarin only with the zi suffix, for example 孩子 háizi ‘child,’房子 fángzi ‘house,’ 屋子 wūzi ‘room,’ 本子 běnzi ‘notebook,’ 袜子 wàzi ‘socks.’

Some words can occur with or without the suffix. These include 车 chē ,车子/ chēzi ‘car,’ 鞋 xié ,鞋子 xiézi ‘shoe(s),’ 盘,盘子 pánzi ‘plate(s),’票 piào,票子piàozi ‘ticket.’


In the Beijing dialect of Mandarin, the suffix 儿 (é)r is routinely added to words in many categories,especially to nouns and classifiers. 儿 r suffixation adds a retroflex (r) sound but no additional syllable to the word. If a word ends in a final consonant, the 儿 r suffix replaces the final consontant: fēn,fēr‘a portion,’ wán,wár ‘to play,’ diànyǐng,, diànyǐr ‘movie,’ etc. The suffix may also replace a vowel in the final: hái,hár ‘child.’

In this book, we write -r suffixed words in terms of their changed pronunciation. That is, we write wár and not wánr or wán’er.

2.1.2 Location suffixes

Location words may be suffixed with 头 tóu, miàn, 面 or 边biān to make them two syllable words: 下头 xiàtou ‘below,’ 外面 wàimian ‘outside,’左边zuǒbiān ‘left side,’ etc.

In Mandarin spoken in southern China and Taiwan, the specifiers 这 zhè,那 nà,

nèi and 哪 nǎ, něi are suffixed with 里 when they are used as location words:这里 zhèlǐ ‘here,’那里 nàlǐ ‘there,’ and 哪里 nálǐ? ‘where?’

2.1.3 Abbreviation

Words and phrases that are longer than two syllables are often abbreviated to two syllables. The two syllables that form the new, abbreviated word are typically the first syllable of each of the words in the phrase or the first two syllables of the first word in the phrase, though other combinations occur.

超级市场 chāojí  shìchǎng supermarket 超市 chāoshi
公共汽车 gōnggòng  qìchē public bus 公汽 gōngqì
飞机场 fēijrchǎng airport 机场 jīchǎng




Share the Chinese Learning

Past coverage about: Chinese syllables   Syllable   Mandarin syllable,Chinese words  

  • No articles are found.
comments powered by Disqus

Follow Us

Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Google+

HugChina is a very popular English-language website about China, covering China stories, China pictures, China Facts, Learn Chinese, Sexy China, Chinese beauties, food, medicine, China forum, etc.