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Where Is The Chinese Alphabet?

By Kah Joon Liow

In any single month, more than 10,000 people search for the "Chinese alphabet on the internet.

Question is:

Does the Chinese language have an alphabet?

If so, where is it?

Why don't I "see it?

To answer the above questions, let's look at how Chinese writing evolved over the ages.

At the beginning, societies created symbols to refer to simple things.

Symbols are signs and pictures that refer to actual objects.

The earliest symbols looked like the things they represented.

For instance, the symbol for "bird looked like a bird.

Same for "mountain", "tree", "rain", "child", "knife", "boat".

As time went by, societies grew bigger and became complex.

Naturally, the meanings of visual symbols changed as well.

Symbols not only stood for physical things, but for more abstract things as well.

Like "sunrise", "friend", "pray", "play", "safe", "year etc.

As a culture took shape, a written language made up of letters (i.e. the alphabet) was invented.

A sound was attached to each letter so a string of letters could be pronounced.

Symbols were thus replaced by words and phrases as the primary means of communication.

Usually, that's what happened with written languages.

But not so with the Chinese language.

A Chinese alphabet was never invented.

Rather, the evolution of the Chinese language took a special turn:

Instead of visual symbols being replaced by a written language of letters, the symbols themselves became the written language.

That's why there's no Chinese alphabet.

One of the reasons for this is that the Chinese language is tonal.

This means there are several tones and each tone means a different thing.

For instance, in Mandarin there are four tones.

Cantonese has six tones.

In addition, words with the same tones often have different meanings.

And their meanings can only be made clear by the context of the sentence.

This unique feature of the Chinese language gives rise to "visual puns".

The interplay of phonetics (i.e. sounds) and puns often reveal the hidden meanings of Chinese symbols or characters.

Phonetics and puns give clues to the hidden meaning of images.

Hence a picture of a fish is an expression of "abundance because the Chinese word for "fish" yu2 鱼 has the same sound as "abundance" yu2 余.

This is an example of a "visual pun and there are lots of them in the Chinese language.

It's easy to see why there is no such thing as a "full Chinese alphabet or "Chinese alphabet letters".

Or why the Chinese alphabet is "missing".

An alphabet consists of a small number of letters (e.g. 26 in English) which make up all the words in the spoken language.

There are no letters in Chinese writing.

Only thousands of individual symbols or characters each with their specific sound(s) and meanings.

Since there are no letters in Chinese it naturally follows there is no Chinese alphabet.

About The Author
Kah Joon Liow

Want to learn Chinese for pleasure and profit in less time? Like to creatively enhance your life with Chinese characters and symbols? Liow Kah Joon is your guide. Sign up for his free Chinese Symbols ezine at

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