Word of the day – diphthong

Diphthong, noun = a vowel sound, occupying a single syllable, during the articulation of which the tongue moves from one position to another, causing a continual change in vowel quality. For example, the ou in doubt.

Origin: from Latin diphthongus, from Greek δίφθογγος (diphthongos) – with two sounds, which is made up of δίφυες (diphues) – twofold and φθογγος (phthongos) – sound.

Related words
diphthongize, verb = to make (a simple vowel) into a diphthong

monophthong, noun = a simple or pure vowel

triphthong, noun = a composite vowel sound during the articulation of which the vocal organs move from one position, through another and ending in a third

The Chinese word for diphthong is 二重元音 (èrzhòngyuányin) or 雙元音 (shuangyuányin), which literally mean “two weight vowel” and “twin vowel”. 元音 (vowel) means literally “primary/fundamental/basic sound”. This demonstrates a fundamental difference between English and Chinese: many words from other languages are used in English, and technical, scientific and medical terms are often cobbled together from Greek and/or Latin roots. However in Chinese, there are very few foreign loanwords and most words are made up of native roots. If you didn’t know the meaning of diphthong you could only guess it if you knew Greek, whereas you could probably work out the meaning of 二重元音 even if you had never seen it before.

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This entry was posted in Chinese, English, Language, Words and phrases.

17 Responses to Word of the day – diphthong

  1. TJ says:

    I think it is not always easy to guess the meaning of a hanzi or a kanji character or phrase evne if you know the meaning of a single character (or radical). In the puzzles page here, you could see that every certain cluster of “dragon” has a meaning, and such meaning is really has nothing to do with the dragon, maybe only mythically!

  2. Weili says:

    I remember studying in elementary school in Taiwan. Instead of memorizing vocabulary words like American students, we learned new characters (字 zi) and new compound words (詞 ci). Like most students, I dreaded learning new characters because the only way to do it was just write it repeatedly (normally about 3-5 times) as homework and it really helps when you read it out loud as you write it. However, also like most students, learning new compound words was a almost always a piece of cake unless the compound word includes a character we haven’t learned yet, otherwise I would say 9 out of 10 times we can easily correctly guess the meaning.

    I am not too sure what TJ is referring to with his “dragon” example.

    But just from the examples provided by Simon in the entry above, I easily guessed the meaning of 二重元音 and 雙元音, although I think he made a “typo” as shouldn’t it be 原音 instead of 元音?

  3. Mike says:

    The example I was given to illustrate this point was the Japanese 水力 (suiryoku), meaning ‘hydraulic power’. Even if a Japanese child were to incorrectly pronounce it as “mizu no chikara,” the meaning would stay the same. It’s for this reason, the ease and speed of conveying even complex ideas, that I really think it’s worth the huge time and effort that goes into learning kanji/hanzi.

  4. Simon says:

    Weili – according to all my dictionaries, vowel is 元音 not 原音

  5. TJ says:

    yes Weili, actually the puzzle im talking about is now in the “solved puzzles archive” in this site. It was about a character composed of 4 dragons. As far as I remember, 1 character meant “dragon” and 2 of them meant “walking dragon” and up to 4 it meant “talkative” !!
    I really love the chinese characters even thought I don’t study chinese or japanese because it is one of the fewest writing systems that you can make as a gate to study the culture! For example, “bad spriti” or “evil spirit” is written with 2 radicals “bad” and “heart” which gives an impression that chinese people did believe that the heart is the core of all acts and emotions as well and not the brain (ancient egyptians also believed so and they didn’t remove the heart when doing the mummification thing).

    >> Simon: I solved the new puzzle (partially) still some phrases in turkish I will translate soon. they are ottoman coins and I think I knew the Sultan’s name even though the coin is completely, destroyed, if i can say!

  6. Weili says:

    Simon – You are right, as both 元 and 原 (both pronounced yuán) have similar meanings although 元 does mean closer to “primary/fundamental/basic” as 原 mean closer to “original”.

    TJ – For 99.99% of Chinese speakers, the only time we would see those characters you mentioned are probably in the dictionary when we are really bored and wanted to see what’s the most complicated (and least used) characters are :) Besides, those are single characters, not words as Simon was talking about.

    BTW, what is the character/word that you’re talking about when referring to “bad spirit” or “evil spirit”? Your description doesn’t ring any bells to me.

  7. TJ says:

    unfortuntely I really don’t know how to say the words and if I can draw here I would do it!!
    but maybe i can describe it?
    it is the word “bad” (the one that looks like a plus sign) and the word “heart” under it!
    hmmm closer ?

  8. Benjamin says:

    You mean this one? 恶

    This is the simplified character though. In the traditional character the upper part really looks a bit like a cross or plus.

  9. Weili says:

    Ah, yes in traditional Chinese it’s 惡 è, it doesn’t necessarily mean “bad/evil spirit” though, just bad/evil. I wasn’t aware the top half of this character means “bad”, as far as I know 亞 yà simply means “Asia” or “second”. The meaning of Asia is relatively recent as it was simply “Asia” translated into Chinese phonetically.

  10. TJ says:

    Yes exactly this one, and I think I mixed the whole “bad spirit” into one character, but anyway the meaning is something related to the core or the heart being bad! :)

  11. Weili says:

    Yes, many Hanzi related to thought, emotion and even behavior have the heart radical.

    Are there any ancient culture that didn’t think thought came from the heart though?

  12. TJ says:

    Weili, I heard that Chinese people are the one who established the idea of wearing the ring in the ring-finger in marriages because they believed that there is a nerve connecting the heart and its end is in this finger. Notice how much knowledge they knew about the nervous system, they did really rally against other cultures severaly with their knowledge. I heard also, they believed that sexual behaviour is mainly controlled by the brian and not the heart with the rest of the emotions and thoughts !!

  13. Several topics in one post.
    With regard to the ring-finger mentioned by TJ, curiously in traditional Japanese culture this is the finger used for applying medication (ointment, etc.), whence its name 薬指 kusuri-yubi (literally “medicine finger”).
    Back to diphthongs, which this thread started from, in Japanese they are called 二重母音 nijuu-boin, which literally means “two-weight vowel”, as in Chinese, with the interesting difference that the word for vowel (母音 boin) does not mean “primary sound”, but “mother sound”, in opposition to 子音 shiin = “child sound” i.e. “consonant”. However, being Japanese a syllabic language, consonants and vowels (particularly the latter) are rarely dealt with individually, and diphthongs too are not really a topic of great interest in Japanese grammar.
    Conversely, Italian (my native language) makes an ample use of diphthongs and triphthongs, and some words even have more than one, such as guaio = “mishap, incident”, cuoio = “leather”, stuoia = “mat”, or aiuole = “flower-beds”, a word whose peculiar feature, besides the ‘iuo’ triphthong, is to contain all five vowels! In fact Italian grammar, which is regretfully no longer taught in school (and therefore is practically ignored by younger generations), has specific rules concerning diphthongs and their classification …which I obviously refrain from describing, having this post already turned too boring. ;-)

  14. Weili says:

    Andrea from Rome: Actually when I first learned English in Taiwan, I was taught that vowel = 母音 and consonant = 子音, the same as Japanese. I’ve also heard these two terms used by mainland Chinese, so perhaps both terms are interchangeable.

  15. I looked up the two words in my Chinese dictionary, which is mainland Mandarin-wise, and 母音 / 子音 are the *only* terms given for “vowel” and “consonant”. I really have no knowledge of Chinese, but I enjoy comparing glyphs and words with Japanese, which I actively study or, more realistically, try to study on a ‘teach-yourself’ basis.
    This brings up a question for Weili: besides being spelt with traditional glyphs vs. the simplified ones now used in mainland China, in what degree is Taiwan Chinese different from mainland (standard) Mandarin? In other terms, could it be listed as a ‘dialect’ of its own, like others such as Cantonese in southern China, or Hokkien in Singapore, or is it the same language (pronounciation, grammar, etc.) in which only some words have changed, as part of a local custom?
    Apologies to other readers of the thread for going again off the opening topic.

  16. Weili says:

    Andrea from Rome: I think it depends on which dictionary you use. All dictionaries I have from both Taiwan and mainland China, which is 5 in total, gave 母音 and 子音 for vowel and consonant. However, I just used an online dictionary and it gave 元音 (basic sound) and 捕音 (patch sound) for vowel and consonant. I think for most people who can read Hanzi/Kanji, be them Chinese, Japanese (or even Korean?) they can easily figure out the meaning of all four of these words.

    Taiwan’s Mandarin can’t be count as a different “dialect” to mainland’s Mandarin, at least not like how Cantonese or Hokkien are considered Chinese dialects. The differences between Taiwan’s Mandarin and mainland’s are probably close to the differences between say American English, British English, and Australia English. While mutually intelligible, there are slightly different accents and occasionally, there would be differences in vocabulary, namely in terms that were “invented” in the past 50 years such as computer, DVD player… etc.

    The various Chinese dialects are not really mutually intelligible, although they are close enough that if you know one, it’s extremely easy to pick up another. Being a Mandarin speaker, I personally picked up enough Cantonese to carry basic conversations in matter of days. Just imagine English speakers in the U.S., Britian, and Australia being separated for centuries and develop English in their own ways and you’ll get a good idea of how different (or similar) Chinese dialects are. :)

  17. Weili, by bringing up the topic of national dialects you have opened Pandora’s box! :)
    Here in Italy, the long-awaited goal of a national language spoken by all citizens was achieved no sooner than in the late 1950s, when the national TV channel programs literally taught Italian to Italians. Earlier than that, not every region, but almost every single city had a dialect of its own, official Italian being confined to the role of a ‘lingua franca’, thanks to which a southern Italian native could communicate with a northern Italian one (…provided they both had been taught this language in school!).
    However, the aftermath was that ever since, dialects suffered from the bad reputation of being ‘the language of the poorly educated’, and the enormous cultural heritage behind them, including dialect literature, was degraded to a status of ‘local folklore’, rapidly falling into oblivion. Today the young generations have a very vague knowledge of their own local dialect, which in many cases is mistaken with slangue.
    A handful of people, including myself, are struggling to preserve this rich yet overlooked heritage, trying to stir the interest of youngsters for genuine local culture thanks to the internet (which they seem more sensitive to than old-fashioned printed paper), and the results as far as now seem promising. ‘Good globalization’ can help what ‘bad globalization’ would otherwise swallow up.
    This is the reason why I am so concerned with dialects, including those of other countries. I also look forward to finding this topic dealt with in a future thread of this blog.