Sunday, October 23, 2005

Why are 2 characters needed for 1 word?

Yesterday, I was reading an article and came across the word 회화(繪畵), which means "picture." I knew that 畵(화) meant "picture," but I was not sure what 繪(회) meant, even though I had come across it a couple of weeks ago when I was writing a post on 膾(회), which means "raw meat" or "raw fish." Anyway, I looked up 繪(회) and found that it also means "picture." When I saw that, I could not understand why two "picture" characters were needed to make the word for "picture." Why not just use one of the two? Still curious this evening, I decided to check a book on Chinese writing (한문) that I had, but had not read. I think I may have found the answer, even though I have only read just a few pages.

Besides meaning "picture," 繪(회) also means "to draw" or "to paint." In fact, 畵(화) also has both meanings. In other words, 繪(회) can function as both a noun and a verb. In the case of 繪畵(회화), I think the literal meaing is "그린 그림," which means "a drawn picture." Since that is redundant, we just say 그림(picture). We do not know if it is "ink drawing," 묵화(墨畵), or a "colored picture," 채색화(彩色畵); we just know that it is a "drawing" or "picture." In other words, the word seems fairly generic.

I am only guessing at the above, so if anyone would like to correct me, please feel free. In fact, I would appreciate it.


  1. Chinese has so many homophones, even with its four tones. To avoid confusion, many characters with similar meanings are put together to form a two-character compound word. This explanation comes from a Chinese teacher I studied with.

  2. Thanks Sonagi. That explanation certainly makes sense. Of course, now I am wondering why they have more than one character that means "picture"? If there is confusion with the characters, it seems like more characters would make only more confusion.

    Instead of saying "picture, picture," which is what "회화(繪畵) seems to be saying, why not say something like "plain picture" or "generic picture," which might be written as 단화(單畵)? That would help distinguish the word and also better define it, just as the 묵(墨) in 묵화(墨畵)defines it as being an "ink drawing" as opposed to some other kind of drawing.

    Anyway, the damage is done, and I am pretty sure the Chinese are not going to modify their language just for me. Thanks again for commenting, "Rain Shower."


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