Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Chinese Dictionaries and Technical Communication (Part 2 of 3)

In this, Part 2 of my 3 part post (the first part appeared here), I will present some basics of the organization of individual Hanzi (Chinese characters). Then I will introduce the organization of Chinese dictionaries (I had the order backwards at the end of Part 1, where I said that first I'd talk about Chinese dictionaries, then the Hanzi).              

The beginning of Part 3 will complete my presentation on Chinese dictionaries. The larger part of Part 3 will discuss aspects of both Technical Communication and the use of information.

An English dictionary usually just indexes all entries by the 26 letters of the alphabet. The situation with Chinese, though, is not that simple, because written Chinese is not a phonetic script. Our Roman alphabet, Korean (Hangul), much of Japanese, and many other writing systems are phonetic scripts.

So how do you index the individual Hanzi in a dictionary?

Nowadays there are 'pronouncing' Chinese dictionaries, in addition to the more traditional variety.

This helps but it is not a 100 percent solution.

With written Chinese, sound – pronunciation – is the main way for adult learners to 'index' Hanzi internally (in one's own mind).

If one knew how each and every character is supposed to be pronounced, then he or she could look up by sound, all of the time, but many Hanzi do not even give you a hint as to the standard pronunciation.

There are some few expert people, in China, Taiwan and Asia mostly, and some Chinese language experts elsewhere, who might be able to do this almost 100 percent of the time but even they will find the three other methods to be easier and more of a sure thing.

These other (three) methods are looking up a character by [a] stroke count, by [b] stroke order, or [c] by radical.

First – the Organization of Chinese characters
Hanzi are made up of parts and radicals. Let's just talk about radicals here.

There are 214 radicals and each of the thousands of Hanzi is indexed by the main radical that it is built up around.

Stroke order and stroke count: When a child is learning how to write Chinese, he or she learns a certain standard method of writing the strokes in order to assemble the character in mind. During the learning process he or she will learn how those strokes are normally counted, for each individual Hanzi.

But what if you are a foreigner just learning? What if you are an adult who has to use some Chinese materials in your work? Thanks to the hard work of experts over the years, very good instructional materials and other documentation is available.

Back to the topic: a Chinese dictionary will index Hanzi by [a] stroke count, [b] stroke order, [c] radical, and [d] pronunciation.

Second - What a Chinese Dictionary looks like, Part 2
As I said before, it looks like a book that has many indexes. But nowadays many dictionaries of Hanzi are 'pronouncing' dictionaries and they do indeed index by the sound of the individual words.

Yet, many of these pronouncing dictionaries will also have ways for one to 'get at' information by using the traditional stroke order, stroke count, and radical methods.

 But – and this is important – a word is not necessarily always going to be the same as a character. I also do translation and I find that there are on average about 1.6 Hanzi to a Chinese word.

You could say that a Chinese character represents what we might call a 'word stem.'

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, consulting, translation, and some work with MadCap Flare and Lingo. His Web site is communication.openhill.com. He is currently available.

Jim's language pairs for translation are Chinese, German, and Spanish to English. He will consider work in the other direction.

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