The Function of Phonophores (sound-bearing elements of characters)

Xīnhuá Dictionary (Xīnhuá Zìdiǎn, 1971) included 8,075 characters. Based on the relationship between the characters’ radicals (bùshǒu) and phonophores, the sound-bearing elements of characters (piānpáng), the dictionary may be divided as follows:

Characters used as phonophores or sound-bearing elements 1,348 17%
Characters containing a main radical and a phonophore 6,542 81%
Other characters (none of the above) 185 2%

If the Chinese phonophoric characters (shēngpángzì) are pronounced accurately, then so long as one can read the 1,348 phonophoric characters, one should be able to read all the other 6,542 characters that contain these phonophores. The scenario should be: knowing how to read one character (a phonophore) is equal to knowing how to read another five characters which contain that phonophore (hánpángzì). Unfortunately, this is not so in reality, because the phonophoric characters are divided as follows:

  1. Phonophoric characters with the same initials and finals but not necessarily the same tones (tóngyīn [-yìdiào] shēngpángzì). For example 爱 (ài): 嫒(ài), 暧(ài), 瑷(ài), but 嗳(āi, ǎi, and ài). There are 473 phonophoric characters that have the same initials and finals but sometimes different tones, amounting to 35% of the total phonophores.
  2. Phonophoric characters with variant pronunciations (duōyīn shēngpángzì) can indicate the pronunciation of some of the characters that contain them, but cannot indicate some others. For example, 敝 (): 蔽 (), 弊 (), 鳖 (biē), 蹩 (bié), 瞥 (piē), 撇 (piē and piě). There are 642 such phonophores, amounting to 48% of the total. They often lead the reader to mispronounce the characters, because they are unstable; they sometimes indicate the pronunciation correctly but sometimes do not.
  3. Phonophoric characters pronounced differently from the pronunciation of the characters that contain them (yìyīn-shēngpángzì), cannot indicate the pronunciation of the characters that contain them. For example, 罢 () does not reflect the pronunciation of 摆 (bǎi) or 罴 (). There are 233 such phonophores, amounting to 17% of the total. These kinds of phonophoric characters cannot reflect the characters’ pronunciation accurately.

Among the 473 phonophoric characters that have the same consonants and vowels but different tones, 44 have more than one pronunciation. Their indication of pronunciation is uncertain, so they cannot be used as a guide for reading a character. There are also 43 phonophoric characters that are not even collected in dictionaries. Some of these phonophoric characters are ancient characters that no one can read any more, while some are just character components (not complete characters) without any pronunciation of their own; fundamentally, they cannot be pronunciation indicators. Without counting the above unreliable phonophoric characters, there are only 386 phonophores that can accurately indicate a character’s pronunciation. These 386 reliable phonophoric characters amount to only 29% (less than one-third) of the total phonophores, and only 5% (one- twentieth) of all the characters in a dictionary. Thus, we know that the function of the phonophores for indicating the basic pronunciations of modern characters is very weak.

The phonophores’ function for indicating the tones of modern characters is even weaker. Characters themselves have no parts that indicate tones. Many phonophores can indicate any possible tone, and this is equivalent to not being able to indicate any tone at all. Among the 1,348 phonophoric characters, there are only 234 that have the function of indicating tones, amounting to 17% (less than one-fifth) of the total phonophores, and 3% (less than one thirtieth) of all the characters in a Chinese dictionary.

These statistics explicitly reveal that only one-third of the phonophoric characters have the function of indicating basic pronunciation (tones are not considered), while only one-fifth have the function of indicating basic pronunciation plus tones of modern Chinese characters. If accuracy in indicating the pronunciation of characters is required, then we must rely on a Chinese alphabet that is separate from the system of characters. As the old saying goes, “A country-side scholar/county level degree holder [who] reads half of each character (Xiùcái shízì dú bànbiān)”—his reading/pronunciation is unreliable!