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The Rarest Mandarin Syllables

🌈 Abstract

The article discusses the author's investigation into cataloguing the rarest syllables of Modern Standard Mandarin from September 2019 to October 2020. The author was specifically interested in syllables that are rare regardless of the tone they are pronounced in. The article covers various categories of rare syllables, including those associated with:

  • Zero characters
  • One character
  • Two characters
  • Three characters
  • Four characters (honorable mentions)

The author acknowledges that the list is likely incomplete due to challenges in definitively determining the number of characters associated with certain syllables.

🙋 Q&A

[01] Zero Characters

1. Are there any syllables in Mandarin that are not associated with any characters?

  • The author states that while there are no true Mandarin syllables without associated characters, there are a few special cases:
    • Combining initials and finals from existing Mandarin syllables can create pseudo-syllables that do not exist in the language.
    • Some new syllables, like "duang" invented by Jackie Chan, may not have official characters associated with them.
    • There are also invented Chinese characters that do not correspond to any pronunciations.

[02] One Character

1. What are the three everyday words that are associated with a single character each?

  • The three everyday words associated with a single character each are:
    • "shei" (who)
    • "lia" (a colloquial shortening of "two")
    • "gei" (the verb "to give" and various grammatical functions)

2. What are some of the more obscure syllables associated with a single character?

  • Some of the more obscure single-character syllables include:
    • "chua" (the character 欻 meaning "crashing sound")
    • "tei" (an alternate reading for the character 忒 meaning "too, very")
    • "fiao4" (the character 覅 meaning "need not" or "don't")
    • "kei" (an alternate reading for the common character 克)
    • "eng" (the archaic literary term 鞥 for a horse's reins)

[03] Two Characters

1. What are the four syllables that are only associated with two characters each? The four syllables associated with two characters each are:

  • "diu" (the characters 丢 "lose, discard" and 铥 "thulium")
  • "sen" (the characters 森 "forest" and 椮 "lush growth")
  • "seng" (the characters 僧 "monk" and 鬙 "short hair")
  • "zen" (the characters 怎 "why?/how?" and 谮 "to slander")

[04] Three Characters

1. What are some examples of syllables associated with three characters each? Some examples of syllables associated with three characters each include:

  • "miu" (the characters 谬, 缪, and 唒)
  • "zei" (the characters 贼, 戝, and 鲗)
  • "cen" (the characters 㟥, 岑, and 涔)
  • "fou" (the characters 否, 紑, and 缶)
  • "shua" (the characters 刷, 耍, and 唰)
  • "ne" (the characters 呢, 讷, and the radical 疒)
  • "den" (the characters 扽, 扥, and 㩐)
  • "nüe" (the characters 虐 and 疟)

[05] Four Characters (Honorable Mentions)

1. What syllables are known to be associated with four characters each? The syllables known to be associated with four characters each are:

  • "zhua"
  • "shuan"

The article also mentions that "shai" may have either 4 or 5 associated characters, while "ha" and "re" are still being investigated.

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