The answer to how many letters are in the Chinese alphabet is plain and simple. None! Because the Chinese language adopts a non-alphabetic script for writing. Chinese has characters and tones instead of letters and an alphabet. Each character is a logogram representing a word or morpheme. This guide may shed light on how the Chinese writing system work without an alphabet and letters.
Does Chinese have an Alphabet?
Such a thing as the A to Z Chinese alphabet doesn’t exist. Although previous attempts were made to romanize Chinese using the Latin alphabet to transliterate Chinese script, they all failed in the end. Hanyu Pinyin, the official romanization system for Standard Mandarin Chinese, was invented during the process.
Chinese Pinyin alphabet is a life safer for Chinese learners familiar with the Latin alphabet because it includes diacritics indicating the tones of different characters. Pinyin without diacritics is used for spelling Chinese names and entering Chinese characters into computer systems via standard keyboards like QWERTY.
As the chart shows below, the Chinese Pinyin alphabet encompasses 23 consonants/initials (聲母) and 24 vowels/finals (韻母). Mastering this Chinese phonetic system allows you to get the correct pronunciation of just about any Chinese character using a dictionary.
How Many Chinese Characters are There?
The exact total number of Chinese characters is unknown. The largest recorded number is 106,230 characters in the Dictionary of Chinese Character Variants (異體字字典) published in 2004. Tens of thousands may sound like an enormous figure, but the number of commonly used characters only tops 3,500. This means you only need 3,500 essential Chinese characters under your belt to read a Chinese newspaper.
Schoolchildren in China are required to learn a minimum of 3,500 characters. Yet the vocabulary of the highly educated can easily go over 5,000 or even 6,000. As for acing the Chinese Proficiency Test (HSK), you only need to familiarize yourself with 2,600 characters. This number is so much less formidable, isn’t it?
Chinese Characters are Made up of Components, Not Letters - Alphabet Not Needed
Chinese don’t have letters. Unlike the alphabetic writing languages that Westerners are familiar with, Chinese is a pictorial language that uses different components to form a character. Writing a Chinese character is a lot like building blocks – with the blocks being the character components.
There are three categories of character components:
- The sound/phonetic component (声旁): indicating the sound/pronunciation (yet the tone may differ).
- The meaning component (形旁): indexing what semantic field a character belongs in (the general meaning of a character).
- The indexing/graphic component/Chinese radical (Bushou/部首 ‘section header’): specifying to which Bushou (section header) the character falls into that can be found listed in a Chinese dictionary.
The radicals are sometimes conflated with the other two components. You can consider these radicals as the Mandarin / Traditional Chinese alphabet, with which you can build a character with all the strokes needed.
Chinese radicals chart
一 丨 丿 丶 乛
十 厂 匚 卜 冂 八 人 勹 儿 匕 几 亠 冫 冖 凵 卩 刀 力 又 厶 廴
干 工 土 艹 寸 廾 大 尢 弋 小 口 囗 山 巾 彳 彡 夕 夂 丬 广 门 宀 辶 彐 尸 己 弓 子 屮 女 飞 马 么 巛
王 无 韦 木 支 犬 歹 车 牙 戈 比 瓦 止 攴 日 贝 水 见 牛 手 气 毛 长 片 斤 爪 父 月 氏 欠 风 殳 文 方 火 斗 户 心 毋
示 甘 石 龙 业 目 田 罒 皿 生 矢 禾 白 瓜 鸟 疒 立 穴 疋 皮 癶 矛
耒 老 耳 臣 覀 而 页 至 虍 虫 肉 缶 舌 竹 臼 自 血 舟 色 齐 衣 羊 米 聿 艮 羽 糸
麦 走 赤 豆 酉 辰 豕 卤 里 足 邑 身 釆 谷 豸 龟 角 言 辛
青 龺 雨 非 齿 黾 隹 阜 金 鱼 隶
革 面 韭 骨 香 鬼 食 音 首
髟 鬲 鬥 高
黄 麻 鹿
鼎 黑 黍
Chinese Character Structures
With different components in mind, how to write/form a character? The structure of a Chinese character is the key.
* There are ten Chinese character structures: single-radical, left-right, up-down, left-down, up-right, up-left-down, left-down-right, left-up-right, and enclosure.
Taking the character 媽 mā (mother) as an example. The left part “女” nǚ (female) is the radical serving as the semantic indicator, and the right part “馬” mǎ (horse) is the phonetic component indicating the sound of the character. And the structure of the character “媽” is classified as left-right.
Chinese Characters are Morphemes
Chinese doesn’t have letters. Instead, it has characters that are more like “word parts” or “morphemes”.
What is a Morpheme?
A morpheme is the smallest meaningful segment in a linguistic expression. It must concurrently fall into the following criteria:
- It is either a word or a part of a word with meaning.
- It can’t be divided into smaller meaningful units without leaving a meaningless remainder or changing its meaning.
- Its meaning in different verbal environments is relatively the same.
How do Morphemes Work in Chinese?
For example, the English word “unattractive” is made up of three morphemes: “un”, “attract”, and “ive”, all of which can be used to form another word. The Chinese word for the verb “attract” is “吸引”, which also comprises two morphemes, “吸” and “引”. “吸” means to suck and “引” means to lead. Let’s form another word with the character “吸”. Say “吸管”, the Chinese word for drinking straw. In this word, “吸” also means to suck and “管” means pipe. So “吸管” literally translates into a pipe used for sucking in liquid. See how it goes? It’s fascinating, isn’t it?
Why is Chinese So Difficult to Learn?
Mastering the Chinese can be a Herculean task. But it is not simply because of the many strokes in each character. Chinese characters do not always look like the ones listed above. In fact, it is safe to say even a regular highly-educated native Chinese speaker can’t recognize two of these variant Chinese characters.
Chinese is a challenging language to master for a variety of reasons.
First and foremost, its writing system is nothing like what the alphabetic language speakers (or anyone using the Latin alphabet) accustom to. Secondly, the tonal system of the Chinese language is extremely complicated because sometimes, one character could have multiple tones, and the same pronunciation could also apply to dozens of characters. Thirdly, unlike English or other Latin-based languages in which the number of letters in alphabet is only 26, you need to memorize thousands of characters to have a basic command of the Chinese language.
Experts estimated that it would take at least 2,200 class hours to become fluent in Chinese. If you’re planning to expand your business in China, the fastest way would be to work with a local translation company that is fluent in your language and native to Chinese, Simplified or Traditional. If you need such a service, look no further than Wordspath!
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If you have come this far, you’ve probably learned how many letters are in the Chinese alphabet now. Technically, Chinese doesn’t have an alphabet. Broadly speaking, you can consider Chinese Pinyin as the “alphabet”, but only as alphabetic transcription of Chinese characters. Unlike Latin-based languages that use letters to form different words, Chinese words are made up of characters constructed with different components. Each component has a different stroke combination and serves its own prescriptive function.