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Diachronic Prototype Semantics of Chinese Radicals

Chinese radicals are the semantic components of Chinese characters that generally indicate the major concept or category to which the Chinese character belongs  (see Chen & Chou 2010; Chen 2012; Chou & Huang 2005; Chou & Huang 2006; Huang, Yang & Chen 2008; Yang et al. 2018; Qiu 1988: 11–12). Characters that share the same radical may be semantically linked in various ways to the broad semantic category that the radical represents, and radicals may thus be considered a categorization mechanism to distinguish lexical meanings. In this sense, lexical semantic studies of Chinese radicals are within the scope of prototype-based studies of lexical semantics. However, traditional studies of Chinese characters or radicals in Chinese linguistics are philological in nature (e.g. Lu & Wang 1994; Wang 1996). These studies tend to focus on the origin of radicals and characters, their graphemic development through time, and the symbolic connection between the character’s graphemic form and its phonetic aspect. In other words, not only has the cognitive aspect of Chinese radicals been neglected, but also prototype-based studies of Chinese radicals seem to be missing.

    Against this backdrop, this dissertation takes the perspective of Cognitive Linguistics to determine which role radicals play as a way of categorization in Chinese characters to fill this research gap. Concretely, the research questions are formulated as follows.

      1. How does the semantics of the radical relate to the semantics of the same form when used as an independent character?

      2. Do radicals go through internal semantic change? If so, what are the possible diachronic changes that radicals go through? What is the underlying mechanism that drives the semasiological development of radicals?

      3. How does radicals’ semasiological change influence the word and character networks in which they are involved?

      4. As a way of categorization, which role do radicals play in Chinese characters?

Concretely, the project focuses on the FIRE character as a case study in particular given that FIRE is an independent character that can also be used as a radical in composite characters. In view of the first research question, the question arises as to what extent the semantic developments of the FIRE character and the FIRE radical are similar and whether it is possible that the FIRE radical develops independently of the FIRE character. In a first case study (published as Huang et al. 2021), I therefore investigate how the senses of the internal semantic structure of the FIRE character connect as a network. In a second case study (published as Huang et al. 2020), I analyze the semantic structure and development of the FIRE radical as well as the semantic network of composite characters in which the FIRE radical is involved. Finally, I look into variant characters and paronyms incorporating the FIRE radical in order to find out the semantic functions of radicals in so-called radicalization processes, whereby a radical is either added, replaced or removed from a character.

    The studies show that to a large extent, the radicals are semantically independent from the independent character they originate from. That is, radicals inherit the most prototypical meaning from their corresponding independent character. From this core meaning, they develop their own clusters of extensions in a radial network. These individual developments can result from the need to capture new concepts following changes in the real world, which are categorized with the radical. They can also follow from the fact that the radical changes indirectly due to the semasiological changes of composite characters featuring the radical. That is, the radical develops semantically because the characters that feature the radical develop semantically over time. However, the radical constrains the semantic development of these characters to some extent, because radicals preferably categorize senses that fit its prototypical circle better than that of other radicals. Hence, the semantic network of the radical results from an interplay between the categorizing function of the radical and the semantic development of characters featuring the radical.




Chou, Ya-Min & Chu-Ren Huang. 2005. Hantology: An ontology based on conventionalized conceptualization. In Proceedings of OntoLex 2005 - ontologies and lexical resources. https://aclanthology.org/I05-7002.

Chou, Ya-Min & Chu-Ren Huang. 2006. Hantology-a linguistic resource for Chinese language processing and studying. In Proceedings of the fifth international conference on language resources and evaluation (LREC’06). Genoa, Italy: European Language Resources Association (ELRA).

Huang, Chu-Ren, Ya-Jun Yang & Sheng-Yi Chen. 2008. An ontology of Chinese radicals: Concept derivation and knowledge representation based on the semantic symbols of the four hoofed-mammals. In Proceedings of the 22nd pacific asia conference on language, information and computation, 189–196. The University of the Philippines Visayas Cebu College, Cebu City, Philippines: De La Salle University, Manila, Philippines.

Huang, Chu-Ren. (黄居仁), Sheng-Yi. (陳聖怡) Chen & Ya-Min. (周亞民) Chou. 2010. 語言的知識與知識的語言: 由說文解字出發的知識本體研究 [Knowledge of the Language and the Language of Knowledge: An ontological study based on ShuoWenJieZi]. In Wuyun. (悟雲) Pan & Zhongwei. (鍾偉) Shen (eds.), 《研究之樂:慶祝王士元先生七十五壽辰學術論文集》[The Joy of Research: A Collection of Academic Papers in Celebration of Mr. Wang Shiyuan’s 75th Birthday], 106–122. Shanghai: 上海教育出版社 [Shanghai Education Publishing House].

Huang, Danqing, Dirk Geeraerts & Weiwei Zhang. 2020. A semantic analysis of the fire radical in chinese. Revista Diadorim 22(2). 248–276. https://doi.org/10.35520/diadorim.2020.v22n2a39308.

Huang, Danqing, Dirk Geeraerts & Weiwei Zhang. 2021. A diachronic analysis of the FIRE character. Chinese Semiotic Studies. De Gruyter 17(1). 1–44. https://doi.org/10.1515/css-2021-0001.

Yang, Yike, Chu-Ren Huang, Sicong Dong & Si Chen. 2018. Semantic transparency of radicals in Chinese characters: An ontological perspective. In Proceedings of the 32nd pacific asia conference on language, information and computation. Hong  Kong: Association for Computational Linguistics. 

Date:25 Sep 2017 →  8 Feb 2022
Keywords:semantic change and variation, cognitive linguistics, cross-linguistic, corpus-based
Disciplines:Theory and methodology of literary studies
Project type:PhD project