One of the easiest Chinese characters to recognize is the word that stands for “mouth”, or 口 (kǒu). If you look at all the Chinese characters that you know, you can probably spot this radical in a couple of them. Why, the word for “China” is 中国 (Zhōngguó). 中 (zhōng) means “middle”, and you would write it by putting a vertical stroke across the middle of the word 口 (kǒu). In this case, the aspect ratio of the character is modified somewhat to make room for the extra stroke.
The simplest way of using 口 (kǒu) as a radical is to add it on the left side of an existing character. You already know the interrogative marks 吗 (ma), 呢 (ne) and 吧 (ba). You have also come across the interjection 呀 (ya). Actually, 吧 (ba) and 呢 are also used at the end of exclamatory sentences. For example:
Tā chī le wǔ gè bāozi ne!
He ate 5 buns!
Suàn le ba!
Forget it! Never mind!
算 (suàn) means to count, to compute, to count as or to reckon. 算了吧﹗ could be interpreted as: “Consider it settled.” It can be expressed in a friendly, sarcastic, or angry way, depending on the tone used.
Below are the characters on the right side of these words:
马 (mǎ) is a horse.
尼 (ní) is a Buddhist nun.
巴 (bā) is to wait anxiously or to cling to someone.
牙 (yá) means a tooth, or teeth.
Notice how we’re just borrowing the approximate sounds of these characters to use for the composite characters that are formed. The good news is that there are many more such words that offer the bonus of letting you easily learn two different words at the same time. Following are a few examples.
拉 (lā) means to pull or tug. 啦 (lā) is used at the end of an exclamatory sentence to show excitement or to get attention.
可 (kě) means to approve, to be suitable, or to be permissible. It is also the important helping verb that stands for “can” or “may”. 呵 (hē) is the sound you make when you breathe out with your mouth open. It used to represent a loud laugh or a roar.
黑 (hēi) is the black color. It also means dark or shady. 嘿 (hēi) is just what it sounds like, “Hey!”
夷 (yí) means smooth or to wipe out. It is also a name of ancient tribes on the east side of China. Say 咦 (yí) at the beginning of a remark to express a mild surprise.
亨 (hēng) is a descriptive word indicating that things are going smoothly. On the other hand, 哼 (hng) translates to “humph”, which expresses displeasure. When someone starts a remark with this interjection, you will know that he or she is unhappy about something. When they are really mad, they will sound it in the 4th tone.
約 (yuē) is to restrict or to make an appointment, an agreement or a date. 哟 (yō) can be used at the end of an exclamatory sentence. It can also be used as an interjection, which usually has a teasing, sarcastic or confrontational undertone, such as in: “Well! You think you are the prettiest girl in town; don’t you?”
艾 (ài) is a medicinal plants used in moxibustion. You have most likely heard the interjection 哎呀 (āiyā), which ranges in meaning from “Well, …” to “Goodness!” to “Alas!”, depending on the tone in which it is uttered.
麻 (má) means flax, sesame, pockmarked, paralyzed or anaesthesia. 嘛 (ma) can be used at the end of the sentence when you are requesting a favor informally.
So, what’s the Chinese word for “eh”? My dictionary provides two options: 呃 (è), and 啊 (ā). The word 呃 (è) means a hiccup. When used for “Eh?”, say it in the 2nd tone. When used for “um”, say it in the 3rd tone. Similarly, 啊 (ā) can be used in a few different ways. When using 啊 (ā) as the interjection “Oh!”, say it in the 1st tone. When using 啊 (á) as “Eh? What?”, say it in the 2nd tone. 啊 (à) in the 4th tone represents “Ah!”, or “Eh!” It is also used at the end of a reminder or instruction, or a gentle command or reproach, as in: “Eh? See? Understand? OK?” Often 啊 (à) is added to serve as a pause in the sertence, or to accentuate the preceding word or clause.
The delightful children’s song, “Old McDonald Had a Farm”, features a number of human and animal sounds. The Mandarin version at the following link sings about the ducks and the sheep on the farm.
Wáng lǎo xiānsheng yǒu kuài dì.
Old Mr. Wang has a piece of land.
Tā zài tián biān yǎng xiǎo yā.
He raises ducklings at the side of the field.
养 (yǎng) is to raise a child or an animal, or to provide for, to nurture or to cultivate.
鸭 (yā) is a duck.
呱 (guā) is the quacking sound of a duck. By the way, 呱呱叫 (guāguājiào) is an expression that means “top-notch”.
羊 (yáng) is a sheep or a goat.
咩 (miē) is the sound of a sheep bleating.