I have not met any Chinese-speaking person who knows all of the 40,000 + Chinese characters. In fact, we get by fairly well by having just a few thousand Chinese words under our belt. And, like you, from time to time, we encounter a word that we have not learned before. What to do when you come across such a word while reading a document but are too lazy to look it up in a lexicon? Many of us would simply take a shot at it by employing a method known as 有边念边 (yǒu biān niàn biān). 边 (biān) means the side or edge of something, while 念 (niàn) in this phrase means to read. In other words, if the character contains a radical, then try sounding out the remaining part. As you will see from the following examples, this method actually works in very many cases.
The Chinese word for crickets is 蟋蟀. Remove the insect radical from the first character, and you would get 悉 (xī), which is the formal word for “entirely” or to “learn about something”. As for the second character, you already know that 率 is pronounced as “shuài” when it means “to lead”. Voilà! 蟋蟀 (xīshuài crickets).
青 (qīng) is a blue or green color. It also represents youth. 清 (qīng), which means clear, clarified, thoroughly, clear up or clean up, sounds exactly the same. 蜻蜓 (qīngtíng) is a dragonfly, and 鯖魚 (qīng yú) is a mackerel.
In some cases, the tone is different. For example, 晴 (qíng clear, sunny) is in the second tone and 請 (qǐng to request or to invite, please) is in the third tone.
Xīshuài hé qīngtíng dōushì kūnchóng.
Crickets and dragongflies are all insects.
羊 (yáng) is a goat or a sheep.
洋 (yáng) means vast, foreign, or an ocean.
佯 (yáng) means to pretend.
氧气 (yǎngqì) is oxygen
养 (yǎng) means to cultivate, to nourish or to provide for.
样 (yàng) means appearance, shape or pattern.
分 (fēn) is polyphonic. In the first tone, it means to divide, to differentiate or to distribute. It also means a grade point. In the fourth tone, it could refer to components – 成分 (chéngfèn) or one’s duty – 本分 (běnfèn).
Tā fēnpèi le qīngsōng de gōngzuò gěi wǒ.
He assigned an easy job to me.
芬芳 (fēnfāng) means a sweet smell, or sweet-smelling.
气氛 (qìfēn) is the ambiance.
粉 (fěn) is a powder, or noodles made from starch. It is also used to characterize a pale color. So, 粉红色 (fěnhóngsè) is a pink color.
份 (fèn) is a share or a portion.
气忿 (qì fèn) means indignation, or to be angry. It is akin to the word 气愤 (qìfèn anger, being angry). See? If you use the wrong tones for 气氛 (qìfēn), it might be interpreted as resentment or vehement anger.
As an exercise, find a few words that comprise 方 (fāng square or rectangular, honest, locality) and are pronounced similarly.
Keep in mind, though, that this method does not always work. As you may recall from a number of my previous blog posts, 东 (dōng) refers to the east direction. However, Mr. Chen, or 陈先生 (Chén Xiānsheng), may get a good laugh if you address him as Mr. Dong.