DOI: 10.1177/21582440231211385 ISSN: 2158-2440

Semantic Overlaps Between Chinese Two-Character Words and Constituent Characters: A Normative Study

Lifeng Xue, Degao Li, Dangui Song, Wenling Ma
  • General Social Sciences
  • General Arts and Humanities

In written Chinese, the graphic units are Chinese characters (CCs). Most of the commonly used characters often join with others to form two-character words (2C-words) or words of more than two characters. Indeed, over 70% of the commonly used words are 2C-words. Since almost all characters are meaningful in their own right, there are semantic overlaps between 2C-words and their constituent characters. The present study investigated how normative semantic overlap of 2C-words and their constituent characters (SWC) might be influenced by whether the constituent characters are word or word-not characters (Wording) and by whether they are left or right characters (Positioning) and might be predicted by ordinary features of the constituent characters. The results confirmed earlier work that word-not characters are more strongly associated than word characters with 2C-words, and that right characters are more strongly than left characters associated with the 2C-words in semantics. The present study is also the first to provide evidence concerning the prediction of SWC by the norm features of the constituent characters. Skilled readers’ perception of the semantic features, frequency features and number-of-word features of the constituent characters may be mediated by Wording and Positioning in 2C-word semantic processing. However, they are not likely to perceive the visual features of the constituent characters. Rather, they seem to take the constituent characters of m-CCs as individual units, which should be highly familiar to them. In a semantic task on 2C-words, skilled readers may process the constituent characters in number of meanings, concreteness, imageability and emotion arousal, but not in sensory experience arousal. There appears to be a close association in valence between the 2C-words and the word characters, but not between the 2C-words and the word-not characters. These findings strongly support the theoretical argument that both words and characters should be taken as language units in Chinese. However, Wording and Positioning should be considered carefully when considering a CC as a language unit. These findings may be of more general significance for semantic understanding of compound words.

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