Thursday, September 20, 2012

Chinese Dictionaries and Technical Communication (Part 1 of 3)

Chinese character background
My aim in this three part blog post is to present to you, professionals in technical communication, some of the basics of the organization of Chinese dictionaries. An English dictionary usually just indexes all entries by the 26 letters of the alphabet. The situation with Chinese, though, is not that simple.

All of this will be presented in greater detail in Parts 2 and 3.

Written Chinese – the orthography of Chinese – is not spelled – it is not a phonetic script. Our Roman alphabet (used by most European languages too) is a phonetic script, as are parts of written Japanese and all of Korean. And, Arabic, Dari, Persian and Devangari are, or have, phonetic scripts.

And now for something completely different: the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. How do you pronounce one of these? You have to know the system but the system has precious little to do with the actual glyphs. How does one learn the system? Well, by referring to what we technical communicators know as 'the documentation.'

Again, something completely different: Japanese is of course not Chinese, but its writing system is much closer to how it sounds and so is a bit easier to handle (by a foreigner who is learning it, for example).

Written Japanese consists of hiragana, katakana, and Kanji. Hiragana and katakana are phonetic systems but the Kanji (these are similar to the Chinese characters) must be memorized by rote. There are about 2000 Kanji that are in use in everyday life.

Back to the topic: Chinese dictionaries and other items of documentation are really important to users of Chinese. And, in this online age, online references and documentation are very useful to them too.

Chinese is important in the world of commerce yet how you look up individual characters in the dictionary (and online too), albeit there is a well developed, long-accepted and good system for this, is kind of roundabout.

The glyphs or pictograms that are the Chinese characters are fun to learn but there are many of them. There are about 3000 that are used in daily life. For a foreigner to feel as though he or she has made the first step, the first level is about 700.

What a Chinese Dictionary looks like

A book that has many indexes. Individual Hanzi (Chinese characters) will be indexed by stroke order [1], stroke count [2], radical [3], and also pronunciation [4]. Yes, pronunciation – how you are supposed to say a character in Mandarin – is usually there too.

Finally, English spelling

Lest you consider Chinese to be just too complex a thing, remember that [1] it is not too complex for billions of Chinese, who have grown up with it for generations, and [2] our own English spelling system itself is not all that easy a system to learn.

English and its spelling is frought with many little exceptions and hellbending rules. Most other languages are quite regular in their spelling. Even Chinese is regular (easy, logical, having few exceptions) in how it is spelled phonetically.

As many a writer has done, as a youngster I did pretty well learning the spelling system of English – but looking back on the experience, I must admit that all of those spelling rules that I internalized so well does represent a really large body of knowledge.

In my opinion the situation with Chinese characters is about the same. I learned Chinese as a foreigner, in college here in the US. I would not have been presented with nor would I have mastered all of the little intricacies, exceptions to rules, and details that the entire system has grown to possess over the centuries.

But those who grow up learning this system must deal successfully with a large body of knowledge.

Parts 2 and 3 will discuss

  • The different parts of a Chinese dictionary
  • The different parts of a Chinese character
  • Chinese dictionaries and the presentation and ease-of-use of reference information

Jim Jones, award-winning Senior Member of STC, is a Linguistics degree candidate at the University of Chicago.

Jim does freelance editing and technical editing, communication consulting, translation, and some work with MadCap Flare and Lingo. His Web site is He is currently available. He can be reached at

Jim is currently editing a memoir for a NASA physician, and he edited a book for retired technical editor Jean Weber (of

Jim also does cartooning and illustration, and Mandarin coaching and tutoring. 

Jim's Mandarin pronunciation is highly regarded. Hear a clip of Jim delivering a short Mandarin tongue twister, via the link on his Twitter page. He is also available for recordings and voiceovers for things such as software tutorials. His accent is a very standard mild Beijing.

1 comment:

  1. When turnkey rental business is strong, we sometimes forget about being frugal, but we all remember the “bad days” of the appraisal recession in the mid-1990s. rental properties


STC Chicago Announcements

STC Chicago

STC Blog

Society for Technical Communication