Chinese syllable structure and meaning saturation

I had an important realisation about Chinese phonetics and its implications. In Chinese, each syllable has three combined characteristics – one initial consonant, or 声母, one final vowel, or 韵母, and a tone, or 声调. Together, they define one unit of meaning.

One consequence of this structure is largely unexplored, at least that I know of: Chinese has no nonsense words.

Let’s look at English for comparison. Let’s look at two phonetically close words, like ‘mutton’ and  ‘button’. The distinction between those is marked by one phonological trait of their initial consonant. But kids (or creative adults) can (and like to) make up nonsense words like ‘putton’ or ‘nutton’. Those words do not exist in the language, but they might. Chinese doesn’t have this. Every possible combination of sound within the Chinese phonetic system is associated to a meaning – in fact, often more than one. In other words, the linguistic soundscape of Chinese is saturated with meaning.

I would like to explore further what this means for Chinese creative patterns, but also Chinese people’s relationship to sounds. If the language has no nonsensical words, it entails that every sound production is expected to have meaning. This would have consequences in comprehension patterns. It also aligns with the meaning saturation of Chinese toponyms and names: family names have associated stories, and given names all have a ‘meaning’, as do brand names. What is it like, then, to live in a linguistic world where everything has meaning?

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