Chinese is NOT picture writing! – History of Writing Systems #5 (Determinatives)

Chinese is NOT picture writing! – History of Writing Systems #5 (Determinatives)


So, you know how Chinese is just picture writing?
Errrt! There’s more to this story. Like all of the world’s earliest writing
systems, Chinese characters start out as symbols that stand for words. A rice paddy. A person.
A tree. These are logographs, and they let you depict specific language pieces – to write
what you mean. But instead of requiring different characters for every word, the handy rebus
principle lets you write other things that sound like the logograph – to write what you
say. Sure, you could use the rebus “sounds like”
principle to write any sound in your language. But please consider this symbol and answer
the question that follows. Does it mean ‘son’, ‘soon’, ’sun’ or ‘sown’? Oh my,
did rebus writing get you into a bit of trouble here? When we see this character, we could read
it as a plain old logograph, according to its meaning, or any of these rebus ways, following
its pronunciation. Which one should you choose? Think a bit outside of the jade box here,
and take the lead of this Han scribe. His solution is elegant: don’t choose one. Use
both systems together! What’s that behind is back? Is that a…
oh, yeah! “Major Moments in the History of Writing”!
So, here’s the logograph for “horse”. But it also sounds the same as the word for
“ant”, so the rebus principle lets us write them both with the same glyph. Confusing?
Not if you add the logograph for “insect” next to the sound-alike character! This says
it’s pronounced like “horse”, which it is, but that its meaning has something
to do with “insect”. You don’t read the extra character – it’s a meaning hint,
determining how to read the sound character, so it’s called a determinative. One more Mandarin example. This logograph
means “moon”, which happens to be pronounced “yuè”. Using rebus writing, “yuè”
also means “amputate your feet”. Incidentally, the word “key” is pronounced the same
way. Same problem. But nothing a couple determinatives can’t fix! Add the determinative for “metal”
to this character. Add “knife” to that one. And let’s leave the moon be, because
that’s already what it means. Here again, the “sounds like” reading
of a character gives you its phonetic component. This extra logograph clues you into its meaning
– its semantic component. Together, they form a unit – a whole character with a clear meaning
and a clear pronunciation. Determinatives are very common in Chinese characters, natively
called Han characters. In fact, since they hint at the character’s root meaning – its
radix – Han determinatives get called radicals. Bring back the character “sun”. It can
be pronounced many ways, true. But add a determinative, a silent helper character, and you can quickly
narrow down its meaning. These extra determinatives avoid ambiguous readings. Which one is the
“sun” in the sky? Which is a father’s “son”? Which one means “soon”? Too
easy. There’s something else to learn from this
quiet scribe. He’s using radicals to clean up some ambiguity, but even he knows that
context matters. He won’t spell everything out for you every time. Sometimes this character
means “for”, as in “this is for you”, other times it’s the verb “supply”.
He’s balancing this tension in the history of writing between what’s easy on the reader,
who needs more information to interpret the words, versus what’s easy on the writer,
who typically knows what he means when he’s writing it. Plus, hand cramps. The choice of leaving in or leaving out helpful
information isn’t simply about clarity and laziness. It’s aesthetic. Throughout the
history of Chinese calligraphy, from oracle bones to the rough cursive script, stylistic
choices are made, not just semantic and phonetic choices. Seeing through the calligrapher’s
eyes, you can find in the history of writing not only a vision of what words and sounds
look like, but where words and sounds go and where they stop. When it comes to aesthetic choices and Han
characters, none is more fundamental than the decision to arrange character components
in blocks. Bonus note: this is definitely not the only time in history that writing
gets organized in blocks. So this radical sits on top of this phonetic
component in a block, making up one whole character – the character for “flower”.
The ideograph man plus tree, a man leaning against a tree, has two components sitting
side by side in a block, and they’re the character for “rest”. And here’s one
tree in its own block, two trees meaning “woods” and three trees for “forest”. Aesthetics aside, what would happen if we
took this “sounds like“ principle a step further and make writing about the sounds?
Isn’t that a better solution to our “soon”, “son”, “sown”, “sun” problem,
and one that doesn’t make us memorize tons of characters?

100 thoughts on “Chinese is NOT picture writing! – History of Writing Systems #5 (Determinatives)

  • December 23, 2017 at 11:36 am
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    It's wrong that if u study kanji with the ripped off ver created by the PRC
    Here's why , in the video u explained the word 月which pronounced yue and yüt differently in both Cantonese and Mandarin
    Then u said the word for key is 钥 which is a ripped off ver. The true one is 鑰 which do not contain 月

    Also it's pronounced yøk in Cantonese and yue in Mandarin
    Don't use the ripped off ver to explain kanji cuz it's not the full ver.
    Different Sinitic language pronounce words differently , or even language that is not in the Sino Tibetan family

    PS if u see word like 臉 肌, it's the meat not moon

    Reply
  • January 3, 2018 at 10:19 am
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    as a native madanrin speaker, im gonna be honest and confess that i cannot read cursive characters

    Reply
  • January 7, 2018 at 5:09 pm
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    The Chinese writing system is indeed profound. But the problem in speaking Chinese is that too many different characters have the same pronounciation. It's very impractical and I hate it very much.

    Reply
  • January 9, 2018 at 5:01 pm
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    Chinas alphabet is actually dictionary.

    Reply
  • January 13, 2018 at 10:28 pm
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    The I understand why, When we read some ancient Chinese books, our ancestry often randomly chose a character with the same pronunciation……通假字

    Reply
  • January 28, 2018 at 6:14 am
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    2:35 They used a Kanji list

    Reply
  • January 30, 2018 at 7:43 pm
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    Chinese has a meaning-dense vocabulary and a picture paints a thousand words. Go figure.

    Reply
  • February 2, 2018 at 5:38 pm
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    theres no better way to keep your people under control than to leave them mostly illiterate. Just make learning to read and write very difficult, like use complicated characters that take years to learn rather than a simple alphabet that could be learned in days.

    Reply
  • February 5, 2018 at 1:12 pm
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    I know I Hong Kong

    Reply
  • February 7, 2018 at 5:46 am
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    This video doesn’t really make sense for me, I speak Traditional Mandarin. And no one said it’s completely pictures, there are parts (部首) that has its meaning, yes, sometimes they use the other word to help you guess how to pronounce it, like in the video 螞. I don’t know, if I don’t make sense, blame the video, it’s messing up my brain for my own language.

    Reply
  • February 11, 2018 at 11:52 am
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    Can any Chinese folks tell me how much time would it take to learn Chinese words enough to read let's say a newspaper ? How many characters do you learn in school ? All of them ?

    Reply
  • February 27, 2018 at 12:20 pm
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    Spelling doesn't work as effectively for Chinese.
    Take for example: tian1shi3la1da4shi3
    Did I write:
    1) angel poops big poop 天使拉大屎
    2) angel poops ambassador 天使拉大使
    3) angel poops big pig 天使拉大豕
    4) sky poop poops big poop 天屎拉大屎
    5) sky poop poops ambassador 天屎拉大使
    6) sky poop poops big pig 天屎拉大豕
    7) sky pig poops big poop 天豕拉大屎
    8) sky pig poops ambassador 天豕拉大使
    9) sky pig poops big pig 天豕拉大豕

    In speech there is inflection and context to convey the meaning that is if you were actually saying anything but 1 and maybe 2. But in writing it could be any of these perhaps used as a play on words that would be lost using only an alphabet.

    Reply
  • March 1, 2018 at 11:15 pm
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    Interestingly 月 (Moon) also means "Month"

    Im sure you can guess why

    Reply
  • March 15, 2018 at 7:22 pm
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    BEGON THOT

    Reply
  • March 16, 2018 at 4:05 pm
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    so instead of writing "一二三", i'd have to write "one two three"
    instead of writing "一月二月三月", i'd have to write "January February March"
    see how stupid English is?
    each Chinese character has his meaning, and has a single sound. we can combine existed characters to express new things, English also can do this, but that new word become too long, and also use more time to speak it. so English must invent a new word to represent it. so the connection between words is lost. and in a long term, the English vocabulary become bigger and bigger. on the other hand, new Chinese character is invented only when new chemical element found.
    sorry for my English, not my mother language.

    Reply
  • March 27, 2018 at 10:26 am
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    0:54 Uuuuuh, noooooo??? 😕 Her voice threw me off as soon as I heard it, but here she honestly sounds belittling.
    1:13 And she doesn't fully pronounce the word! Yeesh!

    Reply
  • April 2, 2018 at 1:09 pm
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    Chinese vocabulary
    車car,牛車ox cart,馬車carriage,火車train,汽車car,貨車truck,單車bicycle ……

    Reply
  • April 5, 2018 at 2:32 pm
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    The simple Japanese characters are all derived from Chinese Calligraphy such us CaoShu…

    Reply
  • April 10, 2018 at 2:07 am
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    when she says "organized writing in blocks," i immediately think of hangul. honestly, hangul is such a smart invention. it makes writing easier while minimalising the characters to memorise.

    Reply
  • April 10, 2018 at 12:25 pm
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    Curse me all you want, but you know that this is unnecessarily over complicated and just plain stupid.

    Call me racist all you want, doesn't make me one, in fact China is maybe the greatest nation at the moment and there is nothing stopping them.

    Reply
  • April 13, 2018 at 8:25 am
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    Great job, but A more thorough investigation would enhance the overall argument.

    Reply
  • April 13, 2018 at 12:13 pm
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    Thot

    Reply
  • April 15, 2018 at 3:21 pm
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    This video would be much nicer if it was done in traditional Chinese. Simplified just isn't real Chinese in terms of its meaning and does not represent the natural development of Han characters. It's just a short hand that takes the meaning out of most of it. Granted, most of the characters are the same or fairly similar but because this is about the history of Han characters, the traditional version represents what has been used since that dynasty.

    Reply
  • April 15, 2018 at 11:57 pm
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    FYI the word "key" is pronounced "suo" in Mandarin

    Reply
  • April 16, 2018 at 2:54 am
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    I call them morphographs like pre-fixes and suffixes. The radicals and core sound logo graphs are mixed and matched to combine the meaning and sound match.

    Reply
  • April 16, 2018 at 8:25 pm
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    But they are not pronounced the same way they forgot tones.

    Reply
  • April 24, 2018 at 2:39 am
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    Chinese is a dying language. Too complicated and not scalable, like alphabetic languages such as English. English will be (and already is) the universal language.

    Reply
  • April 28, 2018 at 6:00 am
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    westerners : plan A has failed!! dont worrry we still have 25 more plans

    chinese : plan "yue" has failed! dont worry we still have 4.999 more plans

    Reply
  • April 28, 2018 at 12:01 pm
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    Chinese is nearly 100% picture writing actually to your surprise. You dont really know chinese,trust me!

    Reply
  • April 29, 2018 at 11:54 am
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    western propaganda

    Reply
  • April 29, 2018 at 11:39 pm
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    So basically half the stuff my teachers taught about our language is wrong?
    lmao smh

    Reply
  • May 1, 2018 at 8:20 am
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    0:53 Cunt

    Reply
  • May 1, 2018 at 10:08 pm
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    女 – woman
    姦 – noisy

    gotta love aesthetic

    Reply
  • May 1, 2018 at 10:32 pm
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    Chinese language is especially confusing in research report and scientific documents, bad language for science.

    Reply
  • May 2, 2018 at 1:31 am
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    I love your voice!

    Reply
  • May 2, 2018 at 3:20 pm
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    yue also means amputate your feat

    Reply
  • May 3, 2018 at 2:34 am
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    Unfortunately for you, a lot of your viewers are very well educated, astute and even scholarly! They will call you out every time, like in this case. Thank you for trying though. But for your future videos , you must carefully consider the historical development of the characters and not give explanations based on current face value.

    Reply
  • May 3, 2018 at 3:01 pm
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    刖 is a poor example. This character is a 会意字 and the "月" on the left is in fact the way to write 肉 when used on the side. traditionally it was written differently and is used in words like 脚,腰,肾…. body parts basically. So it actually means "cut body part" and therefore amputate.

    Reply
  • May 3, 2018 at 4:49 pm
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    4:39 木 (mu 4) means Wood , not Tree 树 (shu 4)
    林 (Lin 2) means Jungle (more woods )
    森 (sen 1) means Forest ( combination of jungles)
    and this combination applies to
    焱、犇、鑫、淼、众、森、惢、姦、晶、畾、掱、垚 and so on….

    Reply
  • May 3, 2018 at 9:34 pm
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    lol

    Reply
  • May 5, 2018 at 5:46 am
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    月 is not a good example,because in chines character,what it mean is not lunar,its sacrifice meat(also mean 肉,in fact,月in character is came from 祭,the up-left part of sacrifice,and 祭 has three part ,the up-right part means ‘handle’,the down side part means ‘sacrifice table’,combine all the component means ‘handle a sacrifice meat to a table’),so if a character with 月,it mean something with meat,like intenal organ 肺lung 肠gut 胃stomach,or muscle(肌)like 脚feet 腿leg。in other word,the 月is not a good example to demonstrate how to use a sound part or meaning part

    Reply
  • May 5, 2018 at 11:11 am
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    Stupid language

    Reply
  • May 8, 2018 at 11:50 pm
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    Actually Chinese is the easiest language to learn if someone determines to learn.

    Reply
  • May 9, 2018 at 12:36 am
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    Many of these are very bad examples, and very different from the way they teach characters in Chinese schools in China. This video should be deleted to prevent misinformation.

    Reply
  • May 21, 2018 at 2:51 pm
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    2:44
    the character '钥' is not based on the character ‘月’. Rather, it is a simplified character of '鑰' as the Chinese literature system was completely revamped during 1956. it is also never pronounced as 'yuè' in Cantonese(traditional) and rarely in Putonghua, as they are usually pronounced 'Joek6' and ' yào' respectively. About ‘鑰’,it derives from the phrase '龠', a type of musical instrument which has the same pronunciation. the metal/gold(金) radical gives it the meaning of lock.

    3:19
    about the ‘給’ character, context is key. this is why it is important to learn phrases as well characters. for example, ‘這個給你’ means 'I give you this' or 'this is for you' where it means 'give' or 'for'. on the other hand, "軍糧補給" means
    'military rations supplies' where it means supply. It doesn't make sense to say 'This is supply you' when you give someone a single thing, nor 'military rations for you' when we had an entire convoy full of MREs

    at the end of the day, despite being a block character language, the language itself is comprised of phrases, which gives context to the reader to decide what the character itself means. This is why chinese is harder to pick up. imagine english with a practically infinite alphabet each with a different meaning, yet they only make sense when you make a word out of the alphabet

    Reply
  • May 27, 2018 at 6:24 pm
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    You make lots of good videos but there are too many problems to list with this one. That or all my teachers taught us the wrong things about our language. Maybe you are right and all the Chinese teachers are wrong? hmm

    Reply
  • May 29, 2018 at 3:38 pm
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    我就知道,像这样关于中文语言的视频评论区里,肯定会有不少台湾人谈论简体字如何如何差和繁体字如何如何好。
    有这等时间不如多学学其他有点用处的,例如茴香豆的茴字另外的三种写法。

    Reply
  • May 31, 2018 at 12:17 pm
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    Look at all the Chinese trolls thinking this video is criticism their script. So pathetic

    Reply
  • June 4, 2018 at 3:17 pm
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    The claim in the title is definitely false – there are a number of ways Chinese characters are formed, one of it is the pictograms method ie 象形字
    The method mentioned in the video is called 形聲字,and there are many more methods eg 會意字 指事字 etc

    Reply
  • June 15, 2018 at 2:24 am
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    Honestly, these videos are cringy as feck, but they're interesting so I'm not going to stop watching any time soon.

    Reply
  • June 18, 2018 at 12:18 pm
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    Better solution? No, because I don’t equate easier with better. It still is beautiful and rich and honestly very interesting, but bruh was it necessary to ask a loaded question about a language you don’t speak natively? Harder to learn, simple or complex, I don’t care, no language, neither English nor Chinese, is better than the other one. They just are.

    Reply
  • June 18, 2018 at 12:32 pm
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    Yuè is intended.

    Reply
  • June 18, 2018 at 12:51 pm
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    Hahaha have fun learning that mate

    Reply
  • June 20, 2018 at 1:19 pm
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    全世界唯一的表意文字

    Reply
  • June 22, 2018 at 1:53 am
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    for example, 鐵 鋼 鈷 銅 鎂 鋁 鋰 鈹 鈉 錳,with 金,we can tell they are all metals.

    Reply
  • July 8, 2018 at 7:15 am
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    神嗎鬼!!!!!!

    Reply
  • July 8, 2018 at 10:07 pm
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    What a Eurocentric video!

    Reply
  • July 16, 2018 at 5:11 am
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    甲骨文才是正统字!!!

    Reply
  • July 16, 2018 at 5:11 am
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    甲骨文才是正统字!!!

    Reply
  • July 20, 2018 at 12:06 am
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    So those poor Chinese can't make any written puns because homophones are spelled differently?
    How tragic!

    Reply
  • July 21, 2018 at 4:07 pm
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    Great writing in this series. No pun intended! I'm wondering why you need that weird intro in the beginning

    Reply
  • July 26, 2018 at 9:12 pm
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    Ancient Egyptians with their actual pictograms and similar writing system: "Wow thats so cool and mystical!"
    Japanese with literally the same Chinese characters on top of two other inefficient alphabet systems: "Wow thats so cool and unique!"
    Chinese with a functional modern language that just uses characters instead of an alphabet: "Thats so primitive and stupid (because its not like a western language)"

    Reply
  • July 30, 2018 at 8:37 pm
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    0:54 If we taught all of our students to read like this, then 日 (for the sake of this argument, pronounce it "sun") could mean any of those things, but it would be easy to tell based on context, just like we can tell when it's spoken.

    I took my 日 to the ball game.
    Light from the 日 takes 8 minutes to get to Earth.
    I'll be there 日.
    The Lord hath 日 the seeds of salvation.

    In Chinese, the character 式 (shì, a moral principle / law) sounds exactly like its radical counterpart 試 (shì, a test), so had we decided not to use radicals, one could still infer from context what the meaning was.

    Confucianism states that we must employ good shì in order to have a long and happy life.
    How did you do on your Chinese shì? I got an A.

    I feel like radicals weren't based on necessity, but rather added as a stylistic feature.

    Reply
  • August 14, 2018 at 12:50 pm
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    Your pronounciation is SOOO accuarate i am SOOOO impressed

    Reply
  • August 22, 2018 at 5:17 am
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    If you cannot remember Chinese characters, don't learn Chinese. No one force you to. Chinese book can last thousand years, still, pass on the meaning. I don't see another sound-based language​ can do that.

    Reply
  • September 1, 2018 at 2:24 pm
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    well to be fair, as an inferior language, chinese has kept back people for millenia, since people spend more time trying to remember all the meanings and different context-related syntaxes… languages like english are generally better due to a simplistic(although also not a perfect phonetic system) system with a big vocabulary… even chinese people barely understand written chinese and the different grammar rules, but even the dregs of society understand english… it's a more dumbed-down language. Now ideally we change english to make it identical to the phonetic pronounciations of the words, but baby steps… we'll get there one day

    Reply
  • September 9, 2018 at 1:36 pm
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    Where's the picture at 2:36 from?

    Reply
  • September 25, 2018 at 1:14 am
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    Hey as long as those asian langauges makes asians smarter, Im up for it

    Reply
  • September 29, 2018 at 5:39 pm
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    characters are beautiful but utterly impractical. It takes years of hard studying to master them, something possible only for the rich or for skilled craftsmen (the scribes) who make of writing a real job. I wonder how they will survive the next generations.

    Reply
  • October 1, 2018 at 9:08 pm
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    I have long known that Mandarin and Cantonese, though sounding completely different, are written in very similar and mutually intelligible ways. This puzzled me for years, until I read about the romanization scheme which produced Hanyu Pinyi and it suddenly dawned on me that the best analogy for someone like me is that the Chinese lettering system is like our now universal Hindu/Arabic numbering system.

    The numbers "249" have the same meaning in every language, no matter what sounds are used to enunciate them. The idea of "249" is fixed, whether you say "Doscientos cuarenta y nueve" or "Zweihundert neon und viertzig."

    This helped me to get more of a handle on the Chinese "logograph" system, where a character indicates a concept, (like our numbers) not a sound. And why students in China learn to read their own language with the help of the Latin alphabet now rather than having to have a live teacher for every character, thus increasing literacy.

    Reply
  • October 27, 2018 at 6:37 pm
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    So it's basically picture writing.

    Reply
  • November 4, 2018 at 3:27 pm
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    shouldnt use simplified chinese to explain the characters.

    Reply
  • November 5, 2018 at 8:48 pm
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    your suggestion to alleviate the "trouble" of having to memorise "too many" chinese characters is to alter them? are you learning the language or is the language learning you? what an arrogant bitch.

    Reply
  • November 6, 2018 at 12:45 am
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    A M P U T A T E Y O U R F E E T

    Reply
  • November 6, 2018 at 11:19 pm
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    Wait, so what about kanji?

    Reply
  • November 17, 2018 at 8:08 am
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    Poor kids!

    Reply
  • November 20, 2018 at 2:38 pm
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    At 2:21, the comment is "add the determinitive for metal to this character" (amputate feet) add knife to that one (key)" You've got the determiner's switch around. リ is knife, and 金 is metal. The glyphs are fine, but the script is backwards.

    Reply
  • December 6, 2018 at 12:31 am
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    Obviously you tried to learn Chinese, but you are far away from understanding it. Your explanation is wrong and misleading.

    Reply
  • December 27, 2018 at 3:48 am
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    sometimes I feel like the Chinese writing system is like writing with emoji. it is really poetic.

    Reply
  • December 28, 2018 at 12:43 pm
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    Can you write what es, stands for

    Reply
  • January 29, 2019 at 12:43 am
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    此惡惡幾次前後日三次測試與企鵝情況叫做惡是在村上汽車與回饋吃哦一場球誒測試 我猜是 椅子

    Reply
  • February 2, 2019 at 6:22 am
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    whats dat in the end?
    How' bout you read some Chinese poetry before dropping such comments?

    Reply
  • February 15, 2019 at 7:25 am
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    Nurse walks in looks at doctor “what are you doing?” Doctor: “amputating his feet like it said in his Chart”
    Nurse: “that’s not what it said!! It said we have to get his key to his car when he wakes up!! Not amputate his feet for his car when he wakes up!!”

    Reply
  • February 22, 2019 at 5:21 am
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    Would you rather use:
    Pǔtōnghuà (普通话) or Gwong2 Dung1 Waa6-2 (廣東話)

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  • February 24, 2019 at 5:31 pm
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    to hard to learn for non-Chinese people

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  • March 3, 2019 at 8:57 am
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    I am a Chinese and this is an amazing video! However, the character that means key "钥" is pronunced as "yào" instead of "yuè" in pinyin (at least in modern Chinese. I'm not sure about the whole linguistic history in China.) Just like many other things, there are exceptions, though the silent determinant theory (don't know the official name for it) is mostly applicable. It is always amazing that Chinese students learning chemistry are able to determine whether an element is a metal or non-metal just by the naming of the elements (the characters for them). The determinant “金 (metal)" hints that "银 (silver)", "铜 (copper)", "铁 (iron)", and "铝 (aluminum)" are all metals, while the determinant “气 (air/gas)" hints that "氮 (nitrogen)", "氧 (oxygen)", and "氦 (helium)" are non-mentals and probably exists under STP in their gas state. Correct me if I'm wrong! 
    ***If you are really interested in how to write Chinese, just buy an official Chinese texbook for first graders in China!

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  • March 5, 2019 at 1:47 pm
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    Why on earth does "moon metal" mean "amputate feet"?!

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  • March 26, 2019 at 3:32 pm
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    google translate is the future unify language.

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  • April 5, 2019 at 2:32 pm
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    龘龘,饕餮,耋氎

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  • April 7, 2019 at 12:44 pm
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    學殘體字不如不學!

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  • April 9, 2019 at 8:13 pm
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    Wow. Chinese is advanced cave painting.

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  • April 19, 2019 at 6:02 pm
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    谐谑!

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  • April 22, 2019 at 3:05 am
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    Perhaps you guys should use Traditional Chinese letters next time. Does a much better job at giving the right picture of how Chinese letters came to be.

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  • May 5, 2019 at 4:50 am
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    how would the keyboards work?
    their is 10 000 characters right?

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  • May 6, 2019 at 9:21 am
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    the benefit of chinese character is to name your ID easier

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  • June 28, 2019 at 10:10 pm
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    there are some mistakes…well that explains why when i tried to use the google translator nothing happened….

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  • July 4, 2019 at 12:40 pm
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    This is why Japanese is so fucked

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  • July 9, 2019 at 4:09 am
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    Oh my. Someone could think that I want to amputate my feet instead of wanting to look at the moon

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  • August 23, 2019 at 9:45 am
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    So chinese is still picture writing.

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  • September 16, 2019 at 12:21 pm
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    Wish who made chinese dies in fucking hell

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