Chinese letters are an interesting thing, because we can split them into two parts: Chinese Hanzi characters and Chinese pinyin pronunciation. Some people don’t really agree whether Chinese characters are letters or words. Our say is that in themselves, Chinese characters aren’t really words nor letters, but rather morphemes. Let’s go through it.
Chinese characters: Are they letters?
‘刚Gāng’ in Chinese means ‘just’ or ‘firm’, while the letter ‘G’ in English doesn’t mean anything. And yet Chinese characters aren’t all words, nor are they letters. Most are simply morphemes. The difference between a morpheme and a word is that the latter doesn’t always stand alone.
- An example from English is that ‘boy’ is a word but ‘ish’ (as in ‘boyish’) is a morpheme. The ‘ish’ cannot stand on its own, yet it has meaning.
- An example from Chinese is 视Shì, as in 电视Diànshì (Television) or 视觉Shìjué (Visual). 视Shì cannot stand on its own, yet has the meaning of ‘vision’.
- Another sample is 沙发Shāfā. Both characters have a meaning in themselves, but when put together they mimic the sound of ’sofa’ in English, and together mean sofa, so we call this a double syllable morpheme.
- Other Chinese characters are words though. For this we can look at simple examples such aas 人Rén (Person), 山Shān (Mountain), and 水Shuǐ (Water).
Can we consider Pinyin as Chinese letters?
Pinyin was invented in the 1950s as a way to write out the pronunciation in roman characters. This was needed for modern typewriters (good luck trying to fit 10,000 characters on a keyboard), as well as to benefit literacy by making learning Chinese easier. Pinyin is the Chinese alphabet.
We could say Chinese Pinyin has 26 letters:
ɑ, o, e, i, u, ǖ, b, p, m, f, d, t, n, l, ɡ, k, h, j, q, x, z, c, s, r, y, w.
These make up the following initials, finals, and whole syllables:
But are these Chinese letters? They are rather roman letters representing the pronunciation of the Chinese characters.
So as you see: What are Chinese letters? It’s hard to answer.