Radical (Chinese character)

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This disambiguation page differentiates the various historical uses of the term radical in the context of Chinese characters. For the most common meaning of the term, the extracted parts of characters under which they are indexed in dictionaries, (Chinese: 部首 bùshǒu), go to section headers of a Chinese dictionary.
The Chinese character 採 cǎi, meaning ‘to pick’, with its ‘root’, the original, semantic (meaning-bearing) graph on the right, colored red; and its later-added, redundant semantic determinative (which also happens to serve as its dictionary classifier, or section header (部首 bùshǒu) on the left in black. Both portions have been called the ‘radical’ (although nowadays generally the left side), leading to confusion.

While the term radical is nowadays most commonly used to refer to the section headers of a Chinese dictionary (部首 bùshǒu), also known as index keys or classifiers, under which characters are indexed in dictionaries from Shuōwén Jiézì down to modern ones, the term radical has been strenuously objected to by some[1], due to widespread confusion over the implications of its coinage[2] as well as misunderstandings[3][4] stemming from contradictions between its various historical uses, which for disambiguation purposes are listed as follows:

  • 1) The semantic root (original portion, bearing meaning). The word radical is coined with this meaning, from Latin radix, meaning "root". As Wieger (1927, p.14) explains:
“The inflected words of European languages are decomposed into radical and termination. The radical gives the meaning; the termination indicates case, time, mood. The first sinologists applied those grammatical terms belonging to inflected languages, to the Chinese language which is not an inflected one.”
For example, 采 cǎi ‘to pick, pluck’ is an associative compound[5] comprising two elements or components, a hand 爫 (zhǎo or zhuǎ) picking items[6] from a tree 木 (mù); that is, it is originally a two-part graph. Later, a redundant hand 扌 (shǒu) element was added in the traditional or complex form of the graph (the simplified version used in the PRC drops this extra element). The compound then comprised a later-added semantic determinative, 扌, plus what is now often termed an etymon (the original part, or ‘root’), 采. According to the coinage of radical based on ‘root’, the etymonic 采 portion would be the radical, colored in red in the picture to the above right. Those who focus on the root meaning of radical (that is, those who equate radical with root and etymon) criticize other uses of the term radical[7] However, even critics of other uses of the term radical will generally avoid this usage of it due to the confusion over the term, instead calling such original graphs the original form, or etymon. One reason for avoiding this usage is that most people would now refer to the other half as the radical (e.g., 扌 in the above example of 採,), but for two different reasons, based on two different uses of the term as outlined below: a) any semantic element, and b) section headers of a Chinese dictionary, under which characters containing it can be found.
  • 2) Any semantic element. Since the radical of a European word is not only its root but also the portion bearing the core of its meaning, some have applied the term radical not to the original root of a character, such as the 采 in the above example, but to any portion bearing meaning. Ramsey (1987, pp.136-137) uses the term radical this way, clearly equating any “meaning determinant” with “radical”. Wieger (e.g., p.14-15) also used the term radical this way, for the “formal element which gives meaning” and divided components into radicals and phonetics depending on their usage in particular characters; e.g., he interpreted 木 mù ‘tree’ as radical in 柏 bó ‘cypress’, but as phonetic in 沐 mù ‘to bathe’. In neither character is there an original root portion, as both characters were created as is, as phonetic-semantic compounds. Note that to avoid confusion with meaning #3 below, this meaning of “any portion bearing meaning rather than purely sound” is now generally termed a semantic component or element[8], a determinative[9], or a signific[10][11].
  • 3) Section headers of a Chinese dictionary, i.e., the graphic portion of a character (regardless of its role -- phonetic, semantic, both[12], or none -- in that character) under which it is listed in the dictionary, known in Chinese as 部首 bùshǒu (Japanese bushu, Korean busu). Section headers is the literal translation, but these are also known as dictionary classifiers[13] or index keys[14]. This is de facto the prevailing usage of the term radical today. However, some[15]object to the term, because of confusion due to the other uses of the term radical, meaning root and semantic component, as well as because most (but not all) section headers do happen[16] to play a semantic role in the characters listed under them. As a result, many are misled into thinking that the section headers are by definition either semantic roots or semantic components in those characters. This is definitely not correct. There are numerous instances of characters listed under section headers which are merely artificial extractions of portions of those characters, and some of these portions are not even actual graphs with an independent existence (e.g., 亅 jué or juě in 了 liǎo), as explained by Serruys (1984), who therefore prefers the term ‘glyph’ extraction rather than graphic extraction (p.657). This is even truer of modern dictionaries, which reduce the number of section headers to less than half the number in Shuōwén, at which point it becomes impossible to have enough section headers to cover semantic elements in every character. In the Far Eastern Chinese English Dictionary for instance, 一 is a mere artificial extraction of a stroke from most of its subentries such as 丁 dīng and 且 qǐe; the same is true of 乙 yǐ in 九 jiǔ; 亅 jué or juě in 了 liǎo, le; 二 èr in 亞 yà and yǎ; 田 tián in 禺 yù; 豕 shǐ in 象 xiàng ‘elephant’, and so on. There are also instances of section headers which play a phonetic and not a semantic role in those characters, such as 臼 jiù ‘a mortar’ in 舅 jiù ‘maternal uncle’ (Shuōwén lists this under its semantic 男 nán, ‘male’, but modern dictionaries, with only 200-odd section headers, simply don’t have enough to cover a semantic for every character) and 舊 jiù ‘owl; old’ (listed in the Far East on p.1141 under the header 臼); 虎 hǔ ‘tiger’ in 虖 hū ‘shout’; 鬼 guǐ (originally ‘helmet’[17]), now ‘ghost’, in 魁 kúi, ‘leader’; 鹿 lù ‘deer’ in 麓 lù, foothills; 麻 má ‘hemp’ in 麼 ma, mó ‘tiny’; 黃 huáng ‘yellow’ in 黌 hóng ‘a school’; 羽 yǔ ‘feather’ in 翌 yì ‘next’ (Qiú 2000, p.7); 齊 qí in 齎 jī ‘to present’; 青 qīng in 靖 jìng ‘peaceful’, 靚 jìng ‘to ornament; quiet’; and 靜 jìng ‘quiet’, and so on. In other words, although most section headers happen to play a semantic role in the characters listed under them, they are not fundamentally semantic, but rather, are somewhat arbitrarily chosen[16] classifiers used to group characters for lexicographic convenience. As Professor Jerry Norman (1988) writes (referring to semantic elements as “significs”):
"The Shuōwén Jiézì contains 9,353 characters (Liú 1963). Xǔ arranged these characters under 540 radicals or graphic classifiers. These radicals are elements which a number of characters have in common, and which can thus be used as a means of classifying those characters' graphic shapes; frequently they correspond to the characters' significs, but this is not necessarily always the case." (p.69)

Professor Woon, Wee Lee (1987) also explains:

"It is important to note that the concepts of semantic element and 'section heading' (部首 bùshǒu) are different, and should be clearly distinguished. The semantic element is parallel to the phonetic element in terms of the phonetic compound, while the section heading is a terminology of Chinese lexicography, which is a generic heading for the characters arranged in each section of a dictionary according to the system established by Xu Shen. It is the 'head' of a section, assigned for convenience only. Thus, a section heading is usually the element common to all characters belonging to the same section. (Cf. L. Wang, 1962:1.151). The semantic elements of phonetic compounds were usually also used as section headings. However, characters in the same section are not necessarily all phonetic compounds. ...In some sections, such as 品 pin3 'the masses' (S. Xu 1963:48) and 爪 zhua3 'a hand' (S. Xu 1963:63), no phonetic compound is incorporated. In other words, the section heading was not commonly used as a semantic element...To sum up, the selection of a section heading is to some extent arbitrary." (p.147-8)
  • 4) Any character which is also used as a dictionary’s section header: Some have failed to recognize the distinction between a character and that character’s role in a particular situation, thus coming to think of a character which is used as a section header as being a radical in and of itself, or a character which is phonetic in some instance as being a phonetic in and of itself. This is incorrect, as Wieger, p.15 points out.
  • 5) Any component of a character. So great is the confusion among the above four uses, that some have inferred that radical must simply mean any component or element of a character. This is of course fundamentally incorrect.

[edit] Notes

  1. ^ E.g., Prof. Boltz 1994 & 2003
  2. ^ Due to another, earlier usage meaning semantic component, and because most (but definitely not all) of the dictionary section headers play semantic roles in the characters listed under them, there is a widespread misperception that these section headers are by definition semantic in role in all the characters listed under them.
  3. ^ For instance, some have misunderstood radical to mean any component of a character, which is inconsistent with all of its various historical uses; Wieger 1927, pp.14-15 complains of inconsistent and incorrect usage of the term radical as early as the early 20th century, with some saying “the radical 木 is phonetic in 沐”, whereas as Wieger points out, clearly 木 is not a radical in this instance, but a phonetic element; and the confusion continues today.
  4. ^ Boltz 1994 & 2003, pp.67-8 complains of incorrect usage, insisting on the first meaning given below
  5. ^ Chinese huìyì (會意); also termed compound indicative, or logical aggregate
  6. ^ Some of the oracle bone script graphs of this character show a hand plus a tree with small items on it, which are variously interpreted as fruits (Wú, T.L. 1990, p.200; & Luó Zhènyù 1958, p.177, cited in Wú) or leaves (Prof. Woon 1987, p.112; & Prof. Lǐ Xiàodìng 1970, v.6, pp.2005-13, cited in Woon) being picked; the items were eliminated in simplified forms in bronze inscriptions, leaving only the tree
  7. ^ e.g., Prof. Boltz (2003 & 1994), pp. 67-8, who writes: “Because such determinatives came later to constitute a basis for lexicographic classification they are sometimes also called semantic classifiers. In modern parlance they are often inaccurately called “radicals”. Given that they are, without exception, secondary accretions to an original graph, they are precisely not radicals, i.e., they do not reflect in any way the “root: or “core” of the graph.”
  8. ^ Woon (1987) p.147-8
  9. ^ Boltz (1994 & 2003), pp.67-8, for instance, uses the term determinative here, specifically for the later-added semantic components
  10. ^ Norman (1988), p.68
  11. ^ Woon 1987, p.291 gives an extensive list of the various translations of 義符 yìfú: semantic element, radical, determinative, signific, signifying part, significant, significant part, semantic part, meaning element, meaning part, sense-indicator, radical-determinative, lexical morpheme symbol, ideographic element, and logographic part. Among these, ‘radical’ and ‘ideographic’ have both been strenuously objected to as misleading.
  12. ^ When an etymon (original ‘root’ form of a graph, such as 采 cǎi ‘to pick’, in 採 cǎi ‘to pick’) is analyzed alongside the remaining element(s), it cannot be said to be playing only a phonetic role. For instance, operating under the two misconceptions that a) all characters have exactly one semantic and one phonetic part, and b) each part can only play one role, many would mistakenly dissect 採 as comprising 扌 shǒu ‘hand’ semantic and 采 cǎi phonetic. However, being the original graph, it must necessarily impart its original semantic meaning (showing as it does a hand picking from a tree) as well as its sound. In the case of 陷 xiàn ‘pit trap; fall into’, for instance, 段玉裁 Duàn Yùcái notes in his annotation of Shuōwén Jiézì (v.14, p.732) that the Dà Xú 大徐 edition acknowledges that plays the dual roles of phonetic and semantic in 陷, stating “从阝, 从 , 亦聲”.
  13. ^ Boltz 1994 & 2003, for instance, uses this translation of “classifiers” for 部首 bùshǒu (p.68), explicitly rejecting ‘radical’ due to its connotation of “root” or “core”
  14. ^ Wieger 1927 p.14 uses the terms “keys of the dictionary” and “the 214 keys of K’ang-hsi” for 部首 bùshǒu, reserving the term ‘radical’ for any element (not just the root portion) bearing meaning. Note that Shuōwén had 540 such section headers.
  15. ^ E.g., Boltz 1994 & 2003
  16. ^ a b Prof. Woon (1987) p.148
  17. ^ Wú 1990, p.350

[edit] References

  • Boltz, William G. (1994; revised 2003). The Origin and Early Development of the Chinese Writing System. American Oriental Series, vol. 78. American Oriental Society, New Haven, Connecticut, USA. ISBN 0-940490-18-8
  • Norman, Jerry (1988). Chinese. Cambridge University Press, UK. ISBN 0521228093; 0521296536.
  • Serruys, Paul L-M. (1984) "On the System of the Pu Shou 部首 in the Shuo-wen

chieh-tzu 說文解字", in 中央研究院歷史語言研究所集刊 Zhōngyāng yánjiùyuàn lìshĭ yǔyán yánjiùsuǒ jíkān, v.55:4, pp.651-754.

  • Wieger, Dr. L., S.J. (1927) Chinese Characters: Their Origin, Etymology, History, Classification and Signification. A Thorough Study from Chinese Documents. Translated from the French original ca. 1915 by L. Davrout, S.J., orig. Catholic Mission Press; reprinted in US – Dover; Taiwan - Lucky Book Co.. Dover paperback ISBN 0-486-21321-8
  • Woon, Wee Lee (雲惟利, 1987). Chinese Writing: Its Origin and Evolution. (in English; Chinese title漢字的原始和演變). Originally publ. by the Univ. of East Asia, Macau (no ISBN); now available through Joint Publishing, jpchk@jointpublishing.com (be sure to provide Chinese author and title).
  • Wú, Teresa L. (1990). The Origin and Dissemination of Chinese Characters (中國文字只起源與繁衍). Caves Books, Taipei ISBN 957-606-002-8
  • Xǔ Shèn (許慎) Shuōwén Jǐezì (說文解字), is most often accessed in annotated versions, the most famous of which is段玉裁 Duàn Yùcái (Tuan Yu-tsai; 1815). 說文解字注 Shuōwén Jǐezì Zhù (commentary on the Shuōwén Jíezì), compiled 1776-1807, and still reproduced in facsimile by various publishers. The reproduction by天工書局 Tiāngōng Books (1998) in Taibei is useful because the seal characters are highlighted in red ink.

[edit] See also

汉语大词典部首表 (hanyu da cidian bushou biao):


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