How does Chinese acquire new words if they are all different characters?

WiFi => 无线,无线网 (no wire, wireless, wireless network)

Computers => 电脑,计算机 (Electronic Brain, Computating Machine)

But those aren’t new words, they’ve been around for a some time.

What’s something new in the realm of physics?

Physics News

How do you say Nanoparticles for Artificial Photosynthesis in Chinese?


Nano- 纳米, it’s a sound-alike, it’s also a measurement of length. The Chinese language doesn’t go smaller than 1/100 of a millimeter by default. In physics we loan words from English. Since almost all measurement units for length in Chinese end with “米”, we take the phonetic “Na-” from “Nano”, combine it with “Mi” the common length unit, to get the new unit 纳米.

Particle 粒子, don’t ask me, early days of Chinese physicist decided how to translated it. Don’t know much about logic, but molecular => 分子, electron => 电子, atom => 原子, proton => 质子, neutron => 中子, etc. All these particles are called -子 in Chinese, so the collection is of course, 粒子.

Artificial 人工, or “man made, made by human, not natural”, but not to be mistaken with the actual word “man-made” which translates to 人造. But it seems when you translate Artificial Womb instead of “人工子宫” you get “人造子宫”…urgh… you know why? Because the latter sounded a bit better… yup, that’s about it.

Photosynthesis, a bit complicated. Photo- means “light”, so in Chinese, 光; -synthesis, the act of combination, therefore, 合. But in Chinese, the mere 光合 sounds like a verb, to disambiguate, we added the property disambiguator: 作用 which is “effect”.

Next is the clumsy “for”. We can’t say literally, “为”, it feels incomplete. We have to use the latent “for the purpose of” to disambiguate. It just feels like “you are missing an second argument, this statement does not have an overload method that takes single argument” error in the IDE.

So when you translate long and combined words like that, you just need to take each part out, and literally translate, then you make sure it sounds nice, and that its meaning coherent.

How about entirely newly formed vocabulary? How would Chinese translate pareidolia (wow, that’s a great word to learn, every time I call people delirious or paranoid they get angry, perhaps I can start calling them “pareidolic”, but I digress)

So, I had to look it up actually, it’s pretty difficult.

Pareidolia, 幻想性视错觉.

“Fantasized optical illusion”, which, loosely explains the word. The word Pareidolia means to mistake a random pattern for some real pattern, like when you look at a cloud in the sky and you haven’t had sex for 5 weeks and every cloud started to look like boobies.

How about words like “etymology”?

It’s 词源学, or literally, “the study of the origin of words”, which basically is another miniturized dictionary entry.

How about the “Devonian Period”. Well, in Chinese it’s 泥盆纪. From looking at it, I suspected it’s Japanese Kanji, and it is, haha.

In Chinese, it’s “ní pén jì”, the “jì” is just period. But it looks miles apart from the English “Devonian”, right?

In Japanese, guess how 泥盆 is pronounced? デイボン Dēbon (Japanese doesn’t have “v” sounds, so usually “b” is used to approximate.)

So, English word => Japanese sound-alike => Japanese Kanji => Chinese Hanzi.

(*Side note: Today Japanese use Katakana to represent Loan Words exclusively, Not Kanji sound-alike. The Chinese liked the Kanji, so we use it. But Japanese abandoned Kanji loan words after we adopted the neat Kanji)

When you do it like this, The English word is so far apart from Chinese, it stopped meaning “Devonian” the British County where these fossils are first discovered, and it stopped sounding anything like the county, which is 德文郡 by the way, (Dewen, we don’t have “v” sound either, but we approximate with “w”)

In the case like this, when you dig a little, you find the interesting etymology of the Chinese word for Devonian Period, was first translated by the Japanese, then the Chinese learned it in the 18th – 19th century.

Some words are translated phonetically.

“Romance”, “Romantic” are 罗曼史, 罗曼蒂克, pronounced “Luomanshi”, “Luomandike” (We do have r sounds, but… Ro- is usually approximated with Luo. Ron from Harry Potter is translated as 罗恩).

“Hysteria” is 歇斯底里, pronounced “Xiesidili”. It’s Japanese Kanji origin: because each Kanji is pronounced “Hesuteri” in Japanese.

「歇斯底里」是音译吗? – 知乎

“Club” as in social club, is 俱乐部 Jǜ Lè Bù in Chinese. I’ve always thought it was translated by meaning, because it literally means “gather, fun, organization”. Until I learned Japanese. How do they pronounce the Kanji 倶楽部? It’s クラブ, ku ra bu, or loosely, “club”.

Mind = Blown.

Other unexpected loan words that are translated phonetically:

Jazz (music), 爵士. Jazz => Jué Shì looks a bit far-fetched, no? In Wu language (Shanghainese / Suzhounese) these two characters are pronounced “Jah Z’”.

Cigar, 雪茄. Cigar => Xuě Jiā nothing like the origional. In Wu, the two characters sound like this: “Cee Ga”.

Salad, 沙律 Shā Lǜ, in Cantonese, it is pronounced “Saa Leot”.

Taxi, 的士 Dí Shì, in Cantonese, it is pronounced “Tik Si”.

There are more examples like this, and no, in case you wonder, there is no centralized Bureau of Loan Words in China. In every field, the experts and academy decides what terms to be used in their respective field.

Loan words are translated in 3 ways, mostly.

  1. miniture dictionary entries.
  2. English word sound-alike.
  3. Phonetic sound-alike from other character based languages (Japanese Kanji, Cantonese, Shanghainese, etc.)

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