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CHINESE BLOCKBUSTER Take for instance the following three characters: 1 根 gēn (root of a plant) 2 校 xiào (school) 3 村 cūn (village, hamlet) They all have on the left side the character 木 , a radical which means ‘tree, wood.’ It is used here to indicate that the character to which it belongs has something to do with wood: 1 the root of a plant, of a tree; 2 a wooden structure where you study; 3 a village with houses made of wood. Written on the right side of the tree radical are components (and characters in their own rights) which give an indication to the sound of the main character. 1 艮 gěn (tough; stubborn) 2 交 jiāo (to deliver, hand over; to intersect) 3 寸 cùn (Chinese inch) Their meaning, in this case, does not contribute to the sense of the character to which they belong. There are also what we call meaning-meaning compounds, where two or more semantic components are joined to create a new character that has a meaning derived from the sum of the meanings of all the components. For example, still using 木 as a radical, we have 析 xī (to separate, divide, split) where the right part 斤 jīn represents an ax, hence to separate, split wood with an ax; the character 林 lín, where two trees are put next to each other to mean ‘grove, woods’; or the character 森 sēn, where three trees are grouped to mean ‘forest.’ With time, the characters underwent gradual changes, mostly phonetic changes but also shifts in meanings and structure to the point that lexicographers are not always able to trace them back to the original character. Therefore, some characters no longer appear on their own and do not have a meaning or a pronunciation of their own. They have essentially become ‘non-characters,’ but they continue to be used as building blocks to form more complex characters. In such cases, a fictitious meaning is given in this series to help memorize a noncharacter, often based on its shape for a better recall. WHY ARE FICTITIOUS MEANINGS USEFUL? Fictitious meanings are not only useful to help memorize non-characters. This book capitalizes on their power as an important mnemonic tool to help make the stories more vivid, allowing you to use many of your senses when you read them and help them stick. Fictitious meanings are used in this book when: • An abstract concept needs to be transformed into a concrete object to be able to visualize it. If we go back to the example given at the beginning of 6 六

A NEW APPROACH TO YOUR RESCUE the book for character 寸 , it is much easier for your brain to visualize a STAPLE GUN than a length measurement of one INCH. • The shape or structure of a character reminds us of a physical object, making it easier for our brain to make the association with the character and the said object. If we take the character 十 for number TEN as an example, it is easier to picture a CROSS than to try to picture a number 10 in our mind. • A character needs to be differentiated from other characters having the same meaning. For example, both 丈 and 老 mean ‘old man.’ With the appearance of one leg being longer than the other, the fictitious meaning of LIMPING MAN is given to the first character to help your brain differentiate between these two characters. In all these instances, the real meaning of the character is mentioned in the text or appended to the fictitious meaning when used so that its real meaning also gets registered. SOUND SYSTEM Learning a language requires to be able to pronounce its words, and for Chinese characters, it means learning to pronounce pinyin syllables made up of initial and final phonemes. Since not all initials can be combined to all finals, the total number of possible syllables is limited to 404. Also, not all syllables are pronounced in the four tones. The net result is that we get a total of about 1300 distinct syllables, which is far smaller than in a language such as English. Considering that there are roughly 6,000 Chinese characters still commonly used, this amounts to a lot of homophones, that is, different characters that are pronounced with the exact same sound and tone. It is therefore imperative to develop a system that would allow us to reduce the confusion and differentiate between all these homophones. When I devised my own system to learn and remember Chinese characters, I wanted to use mnemonics to reproduce the sound of Mandarin. I then quickly realized that it was close to impossible to reproduce all Chinese sounds with enough precision by relying only on English sounds. For example, the letter ‘u’ in a pinyin syllable is pronounced as the English ‘u’ in some cases and as the German ‘ü’ or the French ‘u’ in some other cases (like in the pinyin yu). The ‘c’ in the pinyin cun is best remembered as a German ‘z’ (which sounds like ‘ts’) while the ‘z’ of zan sounds more like the Italian ‘z’ letter (sounds like ‘ds’). The initial ‘ch’ is a good match for the Spanish ‘ch’ sound and the initial ‘r’ sounds almost like the French ‘j.’ This was when I realized that by using five European languages (English, French, Italian, Spanish and German) to create ‘sound words’ mimicking Chinese sounds, 七 7

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