Eli5, in written languages that use ideograms, how are people able to correctly pronounce words and names they’ve never seen before?

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Just that. Written English is phonetic, so I can easily read an unfamiliar word by sounding it out. Even though I don’t always get it right, usually I’m close enough to be understood.

How does this work in Chinese, or Japanese?

Edit – OK, yes I get it! English isn’t really phonetic. It’s just that when I was learning to read and write, our school used a method they called phonics. It must have confused the heck out of most kids, because they abandoned the method soon after, but it worked for me. We had a lot of practice in recognizing the various patterns words can take, and the many exceptions. So for me, who always did very well in English class, words tend to be easy to spell out.

I’m really glad not to have to figure it out as an adult, because I’m sure I’d be just as frustrated as some of you friends are! And I promise you that you are much better at English than I am at your language.

In: Other

Some characters in Chinese have similar sounds because they share some common “strokes” and one can always try to guess the sound of a character one hasn’t learned before (or even forgot). But most of the times if you can’t recognize a character, you gotta use a dictionary or ask someone else how to read it and pronounce it

For Chinese, you can’t.

You can guess, but if you don’t know the character, you probably won’t know how to say it or understand it.

Keep in mind that Chinese is tonal (i.e. the inflection). Different tones for the same sound can have different meanings. So not only do you need to know what sound the character is, but also the tone. Looking at a character may give clues, but there is no way to know exactly.

They can be composed smaller symbols that the reader does know. Kind of like our compound words.

Some languages that look like ideograms are actually an alphabet or syllabary. Japanese makes use of come Chinese characters (kangi?) But their commonly used written words are made by symbols with assigned sounds.

Similarly, Korean (hangul) is the one written language that is easiest to learn how to read due to the efforts of Sejeong the great – one of the previous kings of Korean. You can learn the phonetic assignments to their alphabet in minutes and read/pronounce the written language within the day. But learning the grammar and vocabulary comes separately.

You can’t. The really weird thing is when you know the character’s pronunciation in one but not another, when you’re reading something in one ‘voice’ and the ‘voice’ from the other language will come and interject on you.

For Japanese at least, there are characters that represent syllable sounds as well as the complex Chinese style characters. They use small versions of the syllable characters beside uncommon characters, unusual readings, or in teaching materials to show how to pronounce them.

In Chinese, a large number of characters are constructed such that half of the character indicates the sound while the other half suggests the meaning. For example:

种 (pronounced as “zhong3” or “zhong4”) is made of 禾 (meaning “rice”) on the left and 中 (pronounced “zhong1”) on the right, so by guesswork it means either “seed” (“zhong3”) or “to plant” (“zhong4”) (and also “category” so it can get very complicated).

Beware there are also a lot of *faux-ami* where the actual pronunciation is completely different from what it may suggest. If you get those wrong you would be laughed as an illiterate idiot.

In modern Chinese dictionary the characters are usually listed in *Pinyin* order, but usually there will also be a list of these character components which can be used to search for unfamiliar characters.

I learned this in my Chinese linguistics course in China, but basically the solution to spelling out more complicated words is to use simpler words to put together the sound. Please note that this is applicable for more olden, historical times when there isn’t pinyin or any phonetic sounding guides.

So if today I have the word 事 (shi4) I can directly use a common word that everyone should know to indicate the same pronunciation: 是 (shi4). So it would probably look like “事,音是” meaning the word 事 is pronounced like 是.

More complicated words often wouldn’t have a similar word to directly describe the sound over, especially since Chinese have to consider tone too. Generally the rule here is to describe the unknown word with two other common words: first word determining the consonant and the second word determining the vowel. (Note that consonants and vowels here don’t really work in the same way as phonetic languages where it’s a specific set of letters representing it, since each Chinese character is only one syllable with one consonant and one vowel. They work similarly but don’t confuse the pinyin below)

For example, I can have a more complicated word 冬 (dong1) that would be spelled by 都 (dou1) and 宗 (zong1), which means:

dong1 = (d)ou1 + z(ong1)

It would look like “冬,都宗切”

You may wonder how do people know what the common words even read, to which it can be assumed that it has been passed down or taught from nearby people as those are words to be commonly seen around. But it is also common to have people to not be able to read at all due to lack of education back then.

I know a little Japanese but no Chinese.

Written Japanese uses both Chinese characters (called kanji in Japanese) and phonetic alphabets called hiragana and katakana. When necessary, the pronunciation of a word can be written out phonetically using hiragana or katakana. This is how a dictionary, for example, can give a pronunciation for a given character.

There are usually only handful of pronunciations for each character. Usually there are at least two: the “on” reading and the “kun” reading, but there may be more. The “on” reading is usually from Chinese and is used when the kanji is part of a longer compound word. The “kun” reading is used when it is by itself, often as a native Japanese noun or verb. For example, the compound word “電車” means “electric train” and is composed of two kanji. We use the “on” reading for both characters: “den” for electric and “sha” for vehicle. However, if you saw 車 all by itself, you’d use the “kun” reading: くるま, or “kuruma”, meaning car.

Anyone who knows how to read those two characters will be able to pronounce the compound word “電車” even if they have never seen it before. (Yes, there are exceptions and words that don’t sound exactly like they should, just like every language. But this works most of the time.)

In general you need to know the kanji and their readings to be able to pronounce them. However, many kanji have a “radical” – basically a part of the ideogram – which gives you the pronunciation. This makes it easier to learn and remember the pronunciations.

Also, because many words are in fact compound words composed of two or more kanji, you don’t need to learn a kanji for *every* word in your vocabulary. You need to learn about 2,000, which is enough to graduate from high school or read a newspaper. In particular, many technical or scientific terms are compound words comprised on relatively simple kanji.

In texts intended for beginners or small children (such as comic books / manga) it’s common to see furigana – tiny hiragana characters above each kanji that give the pronunciation. In texts for small children, every kanji will be annotated with furigana. In texts for older children, only unusual kanji that a middle schooler wouldn’t be expected to know will have furigana. By the time you’re reading newspapers or books written for adults, furigana are very rare, but will still be used if the kanji in question is known to be obscure, such as an obsolete kanji that is only used in a place name, for example.

Names can be a bit sticky. The truth is, you can’t always correctly guess the pronunciation of a persons name the first time you see it! Some names can even be read in more than one way. And you can’t always guess how to write someone’s name just from hearing it! However, it’s fairly normal for people to use business cards, or to do the equivalent of “no, not A as in Apple, A as in Aardvark” or just to write in the air or on your hand if they need to clarify which kanji should be used. Place names are particularly hard (for me, anyway.) They often include obscure kanji or non-standard pronunciations.

Lastly, if you have a kanji that you simply do not know how to pronounce, there are of course Japanese kanji dictionaries. They are ordered by stroke count and radical, so you can find an entry just by looking at the ideogram with no idea of what it means or how to pronounce it. This is even easier for digital text, where simply selecting and searching for a difficult kanji will take you straight to a dictionary.

First, written English is far from phonetic. Spanish is more phonetic than English.

Next, how do you know that the letter “a” has a particular sound or sounds? When you’re young, you just learn by copying what you hear other people say around you. Later, when you go to school, you learn that the sound “a” in “cat” looks like the letter “a” and you practice writing it. Then you learn that “a” has other sounds as well depending on placement and history of the word.

I’m more familiar with Japanese than Chinese, so I’ll explain using that. Kids learn words first by copying people around them. Sound familiar? Then they learn syllabaries that represents sounds only called hiragana and katakana. That is the equivalent “alphabet” in Japanese. か is “ka” almost always. They have no inherent meaning on their own. Just like the letter “b” doesn’t hold a special meaning. Anyway, during the same time, kids start to learn basic kanji ideograms that represent concepts and associate a known word with that kanji.

All young kids know that the typical house feline (cat) is called ねこ or ネコ (neko) written in the basic syllabary. Later they learn that there is a kanji as well for “neko”. That ideogram is “猫”. Through practice, tradition, and style, the average Japanese will choose a particular way to express that word when writing.

There’s a half-joke in Chinese that goes “if there’s a side part, read the side part, otherwise read the middle part” (有邊讀邊,沒邊讀中間).

For example, the characters 清 and 青 are pronounced the same, as are the pairs 授 and 受, 佈 and布, so the rule works for some characters. In all three cases, the radicals (parts of a character) on the left side are sort of like modifiers applied to many different characters, so the pronounciation is determined by the right radical.

But it doesn’t work with 讀 and 賣, 填 and 真, and many others. For an extreme example, cigarette butts is 烟蒂 (approximinately “yen di”), but if you pronounced it as 因帝 (“yin di”) it would sound exactly like a female body part.

Since people have covered Chinese and Japanese, I’ll also point out that written English is not very phonetic. A quick google and you’ll find examples like though, through, cough, rough, plough, ought, borough. With or without an alphabet, you hear other people say it, and you just memorize what the correct sound is.

As someone whose native language isn’t English
I can tell you, English isn’t phonetic, a phonetic language will have a letter being pronounced the same, in every single instance.
This is not the case for half the letters in English

Thanks very much, everyone! This has been helpful.

English phonetic? As spanish-speaker i have to disagree. I dont know how pronounce a word if is the first time. In English there are words so different to their pronunciation that is imposible know how do it.

Englisch Is not phonetic quite a few words are written completely different to what the sound, also some words that share similarities are spoken different.

English is not a phonetic language though. Where did you get that from?

You learn English through trial and error, because a lot of the pronouncing makes no sense whatsoever.

They don’t.

Being a logographic language, written Chinese takes more time to learn, since you can’t sound out the words. However, it allows people who can’t understand each other’s spoken language to communicate through writing.

A Mandarin speaker might not be able to talk to a Hokkien speaker. But they can both read the same language. Since each would read the words in their own dialect.

Written English is phonetic? I don’t think this is true.

It’s kind of like doing a cryptogram that you find in the newspaper. Basically you look for patterns in language, and because most of us use frequent communication for the same things, no matter what the culture, food, clothing, housing, family, so those can be Clues to figure things out. For language like Mandarin, we have had the fortune of cultures meeting and exchanging explanation. And in fact different cultures mixing their languages, can also help you find the root of whatever language you’re looking for. You can work backwards through Modern languages or ancient language is to figure out how they’ve changed over time, and kind of work backwards. It’s extremely complicated. You could also work for words from an ancient language that you understand. Anyone studying a new language and trying to figure it out, would also have all of the linguistic information that we have now and whatever was available at the time of study.

English is ”phonetic”. No, just no. Look at spanish or any slavic language for that matter.