ISSN 0439-755X
CN 11-1911/B

Acta Psychologica Sinica ›› 2016, Vol. 48 ›› Issue (2): 130-140.doi: 10.3724/SP.J.1041.2016.00130

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The effects of semantic radicals and phonetic radicals in Chinese phonogram recognition

WANG Xieshun1; WU Yan1; ZHAO Simin1; NI Chao; ZHANG Ming2   

  1. (1 School of Psychology, Northeast Normal University, Changchun 130024, China)
    (2 Department of Psychology, School of Education, Soochow University, Suzhou 215123, China)
  • Received:2015-01-20 Published:2016-02-25 Online:2016-02-25
  • Contact: WU Yan, E-mail:; ZHANG Ming, E-mail:


The majority of Chinese characters are compound characters, and around 80% of the compound characters are phonograms which are comprised of a semantic radical and a phonetic radical. The semantic radical usually implies the meaning of the phonogram (e.g., 桐, tong2: tung, whose semantic radical is 木, mu4: wood), and the phonetic radical offers a phonological clue for the pronunciation of its host phonogram (e.g., 桐, tong2: tung, whose phonetic radical is 同, tong2: together/same). Since the semantic and phonetic radicals have different functional values, some researchers turned to investigate the issue whether their distinctive functions would generate different processing patterns during the phonogram recognition. However, regretfully, current results are confusing, with some studies reporting that the effect of the phonetic radicals were earlier and stronger than that of semantic radicals, however, others assuming that the semantic radicals played a predominant role.

Therefore, the present study was conducted to explore the effects of semantic and phonetic radicals during the phonogram recognition, especially focusing on the relative importance of them. Two kinds of radical frequencies were manipulated: semantic radical frequency and phonetic radical frequency. Different from prior research, both semantic and phonetic radicals are standalone characters in the present study in order to make sure some confusing variables such as the pronunciation and the other lexical information are kept consistent between the two types of radicals.
Behavioral results (Experiment 1) revealed only phonetic radical frequency could influence the processing of phonogram, the reaction time of phonograms containing high-frequency phonetic radicals was longer and error rate was higher than those containing low-frequency phonetic radicals. However, ERP results (Experiment 2) showed that both semantic radicals and phonetic radicals could play a role in Chinese phonogram recognition. High-frequency phonetic radicals elicited a smaller P200 during 200~300ms time window and a larger N400 around 350~500ms time window as compared to the low-frequency ones. By contrast, the high-frequency semantic radicals elicited a smaller N400 during the time window of 350~450ms than did the low-frequency ones.
The present results indicated that both semantic and phonetic radicals could be activated and play a role in Chinese phonogram recognition. But the effect of phonetic radicals was found to be earlier as it was firstly reflected by P200 effects which a component was proved to indicate the sub-lexical orthographic processing. However, both semantic and phonetic radicals could influence the semantic extraction of its host phonograms, as reflected by the N400 effects. Such results were interpreted in terms of the properties of semantic and phonetic radicals in Chinese orthographic system.

Key words: semantic radical, phonetic radical, Chinese phonogram recognition, ERPs