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Is it really true that all Chinese words have one syllable?


I'm sure a lot of people have heard it before: the statement "All Chinese words are one syllable (or character)." And because someone is going to ask, no, this is not just a Western thought - my Mandarin teacher (who is from Taiwan) also said this to me.

Personally, I find the whole argument pointless because defining what a word is in a language without spaces is... difficult to say the least. However, as with all pointless arguments, it's got to be debated on the internet.

So, to what degree is this statement true?

Why should this post be closed?


1 answer


Mandarin is represented in characters. Each character is a single syllable. A guide can be found here showing the pronunciations as romanized in Pinyin (alternative romanization patterns exist but are rarely used today).

If a "word" is defined as a single character, then yes, all words are a single syllable. This is likely the interpretation your instructor intended. However, if a word is defined as a unique concept (whichwehappentoseparatewithspacesforconveniencebuthavehistoricallybeenruntogetherwithoutlosingtheirinherentmeaningandindividuality) then there are many words that are composed of multiple characters and therefore multiple syllables. There are only about 2000-3000 characters in use, but of course there are many many more "words" available.

The word for bus is a decent example of this. It is a four character compound word: 公共汽车.

  • 公 gōng (public)
  • 共 gòng (public, common)
  • 汽 qì (steam or vapor)
  • 车 chē (vehicle)

Each of these characters has its own meaning. There are additional combinations: A 汽车 is a car. 公共 applies to things generally publicly operated. And a 公共汽车 is a public bus. No one conceptually thinks "publicly sponsored community use steam powered vehicle."

The same is true for pretty much every compound word: a bicycle is a 自行车 (personal vehicle), accent is 口音 (mouth sound), etc.


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