The Chinese radical for words

(yán) is the radical that means words, speech or language. Do you recognize the character for mouth in this word? 语言 (yǔyán) is the word for “language” or “lingo”, whereas 言语 (yányǔ) refers to “parlance” or what a person utters.

We know that 丈夫 (zhàngfu) means a husband. On the other hand, 大丈夫 (dàzhàngfu) refers to a real man (as opposed to a coward) who can shoulder responsibilities, a man of character, an everyday hero, or a tough guy. Below is a well-known Chinese idiom. I added the commas to make it easier to interpret.

Dàzhàngfu yī yán jì chū sìmǎ nàn zhuī.
For a man of character, once a word is uttered, even a team of four horses will find it difficult to retrieve it. (A promise is a promise.)

In classical chinese, (yán) is also used as the verb “to speak”. Nowadays, we use (shuō) or (jiǎng) for “to say” or “to speak”. Both of these words take (yán) as the root. This may not be obvious to you, and I don’t blame you. In simplified Chinese font, the root (yán) has been reduced to a simple shorthand symbol.

(huà) refers to spoken words. The right side of this character shows (shé), which, not surprisingly, is the character for the tongue. 中国话 (Zhōngguó huà) is the Chinese language, and 美国话 (Měiguó huà) is American English.

说话 (shuōhuà) and 讲话 (jiǎnghuà) both mean “to say” or “to speak”. For example,

Tā hěn huì shuōhuà.
She speaks well. (She knows how to say the right words.)

Tā zěnme bù jiǎnghuà le?
How come she’s not talking anymore? (She’s probably annoyed.)

Let’s look at a few other words that take on the radical (yán).

Pēng, pēng.
Knock, knock.

Shéi ya?
Who is it?

Shì wǒ.
It’s me.

Qǐng jìn.
Come in, please.

Xiè xiè.
Thank you.

访 (fǎng) is to visit someone. This word is rarely used stand-alone. For example,

Míngtiān wǒ qù bàifǎng nǐ.
Tomorrow I’ll go pay a visit to you.

(wèn) is the verb “to ask”. Therefore, 访问 is to interview someone.
(jì) is to count or calculate. It also means a gauge. 计算机 (jìsuànjī) is a calculator. (shè) is to set up, to establish or to assume. 设计 (shèjì) means to design, or a design.

You’ve already learned that 可以 (kěyǐ)means permissible. 许可 means permission. (zhèng) as a verb means to prove or verify. As a noun, it means a certificate or an evidence. This word is normally used in combination with other characters. For example, 证书 (zhèngshū) is a certificate, and 许可证 is a permit.

When you can’t hear well or don’t understand what’s being said by a familiar person, you could ask:

Nǐ shuō shénme?
What did you say?

To be polite, you would say,
Qǐng wèn, nín shuō shénme?.
Please, what did you say? (Pardon?)

When someone’s words bother you or sound preposterous, you may be inclined to say, “What nonsense are you saying!”

Nǐ shuō de shénme huà!
What kind of words are you saying!

Here is a fun song that features the above line.

Click on the Show More link on that page to see the complete lyrics intraditional Chinese characters.

For the lyrics in simplified Chinese characters, click on this link.

Homework for this week: Look up a few other words that use the (yán) radical and try to use them in sentences.


5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Sara
    Aug 16, 2011 @ 07:40:01

    Thank you for writing this blog! I think that blog posts like this about the language are both interesting and useful for a learning like me. When I study new characters I’ve noticed that the best way to remember them is to break them in pieces and see from which parts their are made of. Also what other characters use the same radical or how the character is used in different words.


  2. likeabridge
    Aug 17, 2011 @ 10:16:17

    Thank you for your helpful comment. I agree that if you were not born into a language, you can learn it more easily when you can see the underlying logic and make some sense of it.


  3. Hugh Grigg
    Oct 22, 2011 @ 22:38:29

    Isn’t 言语 more equivalent to “speech” in English and 语言 is a closer equivalent to “language”?


    • likeabridge
      Oct 23, 2011 @ 03:52:26

      You are right. I have modified this post.

      Although 言语 (yányu) and 语言 (yǔyán) both translate to “language” in English, there is a distinction to be made. For example, you are referring to 言语 (yányu) when you say, “I don’t like the language he used.” When you talk about the Chinese language, then you are referring to 语言 (yǔyán).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: