Monosyllabicity or Disyllabicity


            One of the “myths” about Chinese is that it is a monosyllabic language, meaning its words are all one syllable long.  In his book Facts and Fantasies, John DeFrancis argued convincingly against such a myth.  On the other hand, someone once said that the monosyllabic myth may be the truest myth about Chinese.  How come?  Well, monosyllabicity is either truth or myth; it depends on whether the word or the morpheme is being discussed.  It also depends on whether Classical Chinese or modern Chinese is under discussion.

Is the Chinese morpheme monosyllabic?  Absolutely.  Except for loanwords such as putao ‘grape’, boli ‘glass’ and pusa ‘Buddha’, the overwhelming percentage of Chinese morphemes are no more and no less than one syllable long.   The morphemes that are more than one syllable long only constitute 11%.

Is the Chinese word monosyllabic (for the differences between morphemes and words, click here)?  Absolutely not!   Only 44% of morphemes can freely occur as words.   There are just as many morphemes, such as can ‘meal’, fu ‘father’, that are not words by themselves but have to combine with other morphemes to form words.   Even many monosyllabic English words, such as car, jeep and so on, are actually two or three syllables long in Chinese: car and jeep are qiche and jipuche respectively. 

            If most Chinese morphemes are monosyllabic, then how many syllables do most Chinese words have?  The answer is two.  Many kinds of evidence can be seen pointing to the conformity to the magic number two. 

First of all, many di-syllabic words have the same meaning as each of their component morphemes.  For example, both of the morphemes/syllables in baohu mean ‘protect’.  There is no reason, from the point of view of meaning, for having two syllables.  So it seems that the extra syllable/morpheme is just for the right syllable count.  Other examples of this kind include gaomai (buy-buy) and xiaoshou (sell-sell) etc.

Secondly, most abbreviations (there are many in Chinese) are two syllables long.  Examples abound:


            Beijing daxue (Peking University)àBeida

            Qinghua daxue (Tsinghua University)àQinghua

            Bei Daxiyang Gongyue Zuzhi (NATO)àBeiyue


Thirdly, there is an interesting pattern in the use of Chinese names for terms of address.  Chinese surnames are either one or two syllables long and the given name is also one or two syllables long (examples of disyllabic surnames are Ouyang, Shangguan, Duanmu etc.).  Therefore, Chinese names can be two to four syllables long.  The interesting pattern is that all the different choices and combinations add up to two syllables:

If only a monosyllabic surname is used, then a respectful or endearing prefix such as lao ‘old’ or xiao ‘little’ has to be added to the surname, e.g., xiao Li, or lao Li.  But if a disyllabic surname is used, no such prefix can be added.

If the given name is used, then one of two things can also happen.  If someone has a disyllabic given name, then only the disyllabic given name is used.   But if someone has a monosyllabic given name and a monosyllabic surname, then the full name is used instead; and if the surname is disyllabic and the given name is monosyllabic, then the only choice is to use the surname only.

All three of these tactics conspire to achieve the desirable syllable count: 2.

Fourthly, the fondness of Chinese for four syllable expressions may also be related to the conspiracy towards the magic number two.  What is 4 but the two-times multiples of 2?

            Is Classical Chinese monosyllabic at the word level?  Definitely.  Many words that are more than one syllable long in modern Chinese are monosyllabic in Classical Chinese.  For example, erzi ‘son’ in modern Mandarin is zi in Classical Chinese and nüer ‘daughter’ in modern Mandarin is only in Classical Chinese,

What about the other dialects?  They differ in how much they have moved away from the mono-syllabicity of Classical Chinese.  Being more conservative and closer to Classical Chinese, Cantonese is more monosyllabic than Mandarin.  Many words that are disyllabic in Mandarin are monosyllabic in Cantonese.  Shanghai, on the other hand, is less monosyllabic than Mandarin.  Many words that are monosyllabic in Mandarin are more than one syllable long in Shanghai.  The following table shows a scale from more monosyllabic on the left to less monosyllabic to the right: