Chinese is a fascinating language with a long history and rich culture behind it. As a tonal language, Mandarin Chinese relies heavily on tones to convey meaning. However, prefixes and suffixes also play an important role in building words and modifying meaning in Chinese.
Unlike English, Chinese has a relatively small set of prefixes and suffixes. However, they are widely used and worth learning. Having a solid grasp of common Chinese prefixes and suffixes will help you decipher unfamiliar words, expand your vocabulary more efficiently, and gain a deeper understanding of the language.
In this comprehensive guide, we will cover:
- What are prefixes and suffixes in Chinese
- Common Chinese prefixes and their meanings
- Common Chinese suffixes and their meanings
- How prefixes and suffixes are used in Chinese
- The differences between prefixes/suffixes in Chinese and English
- Why learning prefixes and suffixes is helpful for Chinese language learners
- Tips and resources for mastering Chinese prefixes and suffixes
What Are Prefixes and Suffixes in Chinese?
In linguistics, a prefix is a group of letters added to the beginning of a word to modify its meaning. For example, in English, adding the prefix “re-” can change a verb to mean “to do again” (e.g. replay, reuse).
A suffix is a group of letters added to the end of a word. In English, adding “-ly” often converts an adjective into an adverb (e.g. quickly, slowly).
Prefixes and suffixes in Mandarin Chinese work the same way – they are sets of characters that can be appended to words to change their meaning. Chinese prefixes come before the root, while Chinese suffixes come after.
Here are some examples of how prefixes and suffixes work in Chinese:
|复 (fù)||repeat||复习 (fùxí) – review|
|超 (chāo)||super, ultra||超市 (chāowù) – supermarket|
|店 (diàn)||shop||书店 (shūdiàn) – bookstore|
Common Chinese Prefixes and Their Meanings
Chinese has a relatively small set of common prefixes compared to English. Here are some of the most useful Chinese prefixes to know:
1. 复 (fù) – repeat
The prefix 复 (fù) means to repeat or do again. For example:
- 复习 (fùxí) – to review
- 复印 (fùyìn) – to photocopy
- 重复 (fùfù) – to repeat
2. 超 (chāo) – super/ultra
The prefix 超 (chāo) conveys the meaning of something being super, ultra or excessive. For example:
- 超市 (chāoshì) – supermarket
- 超载 (chāozài) – overload
- 超级 (chāojí) – super, ultra
3. 副 (fù) – vice/deputy
The prefix 副 (fù) means vice or deputy. It is used in words like:
- 副总统 (fù zǒngtǒng) – vice president
- 副标题 (fù biāotí) – subtitle
- 副本 (fùběn) – copy, duplicate
4. 老 (lǎo) – old
老 (lǎo) as a prefix means old or long-standing. For example:
- 老师 (lǎoshī) – teacher
- 老朋友 (lǎo péngyou) – old friend
- 老虎 (lǎohǔ) – tiger (literally “old tiger”)
5. 盲 (máng) – blind
The prefix 盲 (máng) means blind or blindly. It is used in words like:
- 盲人 (mángrén) – blind person
- 盲从 (mángcóng) – to follow blindly
- 盲目 (mángmù) – blind, blindly
6. 神 (shén) – godly/mystical
神 (shén) as a prefix carries meanings of mystical, psychic or godly powers. For example:
- 神奇 (shénqí) – magical, wondrous
- 神经 (shénjīng) – nerve
- 神力 (shénlì) – supernatural power
7. 半 (bàn) – half
半 (bàn) means half. It is used in many common words:
- 半个 (bàn ge) – half
- 半夜 (bànyè) – midnight
- 半小时 (bàn xiǎoshí) – half an hour
8. 全 (quán) – all/whole
The prefix 全 (quán) means whole or all. Some examples:
- 全部 (quánbù) – all, the whole
- 全世界 (quán shìjiè) – the whole world
- 全能 (quánnéng) – all-powerful, omnipotent
9. 大 (dà) – big/great
大 (dà) can function as a prefix to mean big or great. For instance:
- 大学 (dàxué) – university
- 大河 (dàhé) – big river
- 大意 (dàyì) – main idea
10. 小 (xiǎo) – little/small
Conversely, 小 (xiǎo) as a prefix means little or small:
- 小学 (xiǎoxué) – elementary school
- 小孩 (xiǎohái) – little kid
- 小心 (xiǎoxīn) – be careful
Common Chinese Suffixes and Their Meanings
Chinese has more suffixes than prefixes. Here are some of the most useful suffixes to know:
1. 们 (men) – plural marker
The suffix 们 (men) makes a noun plural, like adding “s” or “es” in English. For example:
- 学生 (xuésheng) – student
- 学生们 (xuéshengmen) – students
2. 家 (jiā) – expert/specialist
Adding 家 (jiā) to the end of a word indicates someone who specializes in or is an expert in that field. For example:
- 数学 (shùxué) – mathematics
- 数学家 (shùxuéjiā) – mathematician
3. 店 (diàn) – shop/store
The suffix 店 (diàn) means shop or store. Some examples:
- 书 (shū) – book
- 书店 (shūdiàn) – bookstore
- 饭 (fàn) – cooked rice
- 饭店 (fàndiàn) – restaurant
4. 者 (zhě) – person connected with noun
The suffix 者 (zhě) indicates someone who is associated with or does something. For example:
- 作 (zuò) – to do
- 作者 (zuòzhě) – author
- 医 (yī) – medicine
- 医者 (yīzhě) – doctor, physician
5. 员 (yuán) – member/staff
员 (yuán) signifies a member or staff of a certain group when attached to the end of words. For example:
- 教 (jiào) – to teach
- 教员 (jiàoyuán) – teacher
- 警 (jǐng) – police
- 警员 (jǐngyuán) – police officer
7. 度 (dù) – degree/extent
The suffix 度 (dù) indicates degree or extent. For instance:
- 高 (gāo) – high
- 高度 (gāodù) – height
- 清 (qīng) – clear
- 清度 (qīngdù) – clarity
8. 化 (huà) – to change
Adding 化 (huà) to the end of words means to make that change. Some examples:
- 电 (diàn) – electricity
- 电子化 (diànzihuà) – to electrify
- 数 (shù) – number
- 数字化 (shùzihuà) – to digitize
9. 站 (zhàn) – station/place
As a suffix, 站 (zhàn) refers to a station, place, or building. For example:
- 火车 (huǒchē) – train
- 火车站 (huǒchēzhàn) – train station
- 工厂 (gōngchǎng) – factory
- 工厂站 (gōngchǎng zhàn) – factory building
10. 院 (yuàn) – institution
The suffix 院 (yuàn) refers to an institution, college, or academy. Some examples:
- 大学 (dàxué) – university
- 大学院 (dàxuéyuàn) – university campus
- 研究 (yánjiū) – research
- 研究院 (yánjiūyuàn) – research institute
How Are Prefixes and Suffixes Used in Chinese?
While Chinese morphology is not as extensive as languages like English or French, prefixes and suffixes play an important functional role. Here are some key ways prefixes and suffixes get used in Mandarin:
- Word building – Prefixes and suffixes are used productively to build new words in Chinese. For example, adding 超 (chāo) to 拥挤 (yōngjǐ) makes 超拥挤 (chāo yōngjǐ) meaning super crowded.
- Adding specificity – Suffixes like 家 (jiā) add more precise meaning to a root term. For example, 美术 (měishù) art becomes 美术家 (měishùjiā) artist.
- Pluralization – The suffix 们 (men) pluralizes nouns, a feature absent in Chinese nouns on their own. For example, 人 (rén) person becomes 人们 (rénmen) people.
- Verbosity – In written Chinese in particular, suffixes tend to make words more formal, specific and verbose. For example, using 设备 (shèbèi) equipment instead of just 器 (qì) tool.
Overall, prefixes and suffixes make the Chinese language more logical and systematic by providing consistent ways to modify meaning.
Differences Between Chinese and English Prefixes/Suffixes
There are some key differences to note between prefixes and suffixes in English vs Chinese:
- Number – Chinese has only about 20-30 common prefixes and suffixes, compared to hundreds in English.
- Productivity – English prefixes and suffixes can be added to almost any word. Chinese has more restrictions on which affixes can attach to which roots.
- Bound roots – Some Chinese prefixes and suffixes only appear bound to another morpheme, unlike English (e.g. re-, -ness).
- Syllabic – Chinese affixes are full syllables rather than just sequences of consonants/vowels. This fits with Chinese morphology overall being more isolating.
- Formality – Chinese affixes are more common in written than spoken Chinese, and tend to make words sound more formal.
- Word class conversion – Chinese affixes rarely change a word’s part of speech like English affixes do (e.g. teach → teacher).
Despite their differences, prefixes and suffixes serve similar fundamental purposes in both languages – they build up complex words from meaningful units while modifying word meaning.
Why Learn Chinese Prefixes and Suffixes?
Here are some key reasons why mastering Chinese prefixes and suffixes as a language learner is worth your time and effort:
- Understand new vocabulary – Knowing affix meanings helps you decode unfamiliar words and expand vocabulary.
- Gain insight into words – Breaking down words into morphemes reveals deeper insights into Chinese semantics.
- Sound more fluent – Using appropriate prefixes/suffixes makes your Chinese sound more natural.
- Learn formal register – Many affixes appear primarily in academic/professional contexts.
- Track meaning changes – Affixes systematically modify word meaning in consistent ways.
- Study patterns – Understanding the limited set of productive affixes reveals patterns about how Mandarin morphology works.
- Character recognition – Recognizing common prefixes/suffixes helps with character and word identification.
Even as an isolating language, Chinese can still benefit from some morphological analysis. Grasping prefixes and suffixes gives you a valuable tool for unlocking Chinese vocabulary.
Tips for Mastering Chinese Affixes
Here are some tips to help you efficiently learn and productively use Chinese prefixes and suffixes:
- Learn the most common affixes first starting with just a few. Gradually build up your knowledge over time.
- Memorize affix meanings separately before seeing them in words. This will prepare you to readily recognize them when attached to unfamiliar roots.
- When learning new vocabulary, break down words into component morphemes including prefixes/suffixes rather than learning words in isolation.
- Pay attention to any pronunciation changes when affixes are attached to words, since they can alter tones and sounds in roots.
- Practice thinking of appropriate prefixes/suffixes that could be added to root words to modify their meaning.
- Immerse yourself in reading and listening materials abundant in prefixed/suffixed words like news, academic content and literature.
- Test yourself by removing prefixes/suffixes from words and guessing the root and meaning.
With consistent practice analyzing and using Chinese affixes, you’ll find your vocabulary, reading comprehension and appreciation for the language improving.
Resources for Further Study
Here are some helpful resources if you want to dive deeper into Chinese prefixes, suffixes and morphology:
- Outline of Chinese Morphology – Book providing a thorough overview of Chinese morphology.
- Chinese Dictionary Net Affixes List – Comprehensive reference listing Chinese affixes.
- Chinese Grammar Wiki Prefixes and Suffixes – Details on meanings and usage.
- Word Lists of Prefixed/Suffixed Terms – Pre-made word lists organized by affix type.
- Netflix Shows/Movies – Video content with Chinese subtitles to learn affixed words in context.
- Language Learning Forums – Ask questions and get help from fellow Chinese learners.
- Italki Tutor – Work 1-on-1 with professional Chinese teachers on morphology.
Understanding prefixes and suffixes will enrich your appreciation for the Chinese language. Integrating morphology into your vocabulary studies will help unlock the code of this fascinating language and its writing system.