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List of Basic Chinese Terms

Posted: Feb 25th, 2022 - Modified: Feb 25th, 2022


Translations of Minimal English

I wanted to find list of words that would let me discuss concepts without knowing the specific word for that concept.

Minimal English is an attempt to compile a set of words and grammar which are in some sense maximally translatable. The idea then is that the core translation can be used to define more complex terms. The examples of basic translation they give are rather awkward and stilted. But I can admire the project as an art piece, and the set of words they came up with is conceptually close to what I was looking for.

Semantic Primes

Semantic Primes are what the authors of Minimal English call a set of concepts which:

  • Everyone in the world understands, and
  • which are difficult or even impossible to define in more simple terms.

How do you define “Me”? You point at yourself while saying it.

The author’s of Minimal English provided a translation list of these terms into Chinese, and the list below is based on the linked list, but with some slight differences, edits, and additional clarifications.

English Chinese Notes
I 我 (wŏ)  
you 你 (nĭ) Or 您 (nín) if you want to be extra formal.
someone 某人mŏurén or 有人yŏurén or 人rén 有些人 (yǒuxiērén) means ‘some people’
somethingorthing 什么shénme or 某事 mŏshì or 东西dōngxī 什么 also means ‘what’. ‘东西’ literally means ‘eastwest’ and can be used similarly to ‘dingus’ or ‘whatzit’.
people 人们 (rénmen) 们 is also used as the plural modifier for pronouns.
body 身体 (shēntĭ)  
kinds 种类 (zhŏnglèi) varieties, categories, etc.
parts 部分 (bùfen)  
this 这 (zhè) 那 (nà) for ‘that’
the same 同一(tóngyī) or 一样y(īyàng)  
other else 别(的) bié (de) or 其他(的) qítā (de) or 另外lìngwài  
one 一 (yī)  
two 两 (liǎng) or 二 (èr) 两 when talking about quantity, 二 when talking about the digit.
some 有的 (yŏude) or 有些 (yŏuxiē) or 一些 (yīxiē)  
all 都 (dōu) or 所有 (suŏyŏu) or 全部 (quánbù) Use 两 and/or 都 to mean ‘both’.
much, many 很多 (hĕnduō) or 许多 (xŭduō) 很多 is literally ‘very more’.
little, few 很少 (hěnshǎo) or 一点点 (yīdiǎndiǎn) Dictionaries also list the word as “一点”, with only one diǎn. But my wife says the typical idom has two diǎns. See for example, the title of this song by Jay Chou.
good 好 (hăo)  
bad 坏huài or 不好bùhăo 坏 means something which has become bad. 不好 means ‘not good’.
big 大 (dà)  
small 小 (xiăo)  
know 知道 (zhīdào)  
think 觉得 (juéde) 认为 (rènwéi)  
want 要 (yào) or 想要 (xiǎngyào) You use 要 when telling someone to give you something. 想要 is more… wistful?
don’t want 不要 (bùyào)  
feel 感觉 (gănjué) This word is often skipped. Instead of “我觉得冷” (“I feel cold”), you might also say “我很冷” (“I very cold”) or “我冷了” (“I cold -ed”)
see 看 (kàn) or 看到(kàndào) or 看见 (kànjiàn)  
hear 听 (tīng) or 听到 (tīngdào) or 听见 (tīngjiàn)  
say 说 (shuō)  
word 字 (zì) or 词 (cí) or 话 (huà) (character wordgroup spoken) 字 is a character. 词 is a group of characters, and is also used to refer to old poetry. 话 is a spoken word.
true 真 (zhēn)  
do 做 (zuò) or 干 (gàn)  
happen 发生 (fāshēng)  
move 动 (dòng)  
be (somewhere) 在 (zài) Saying the object is at some place or engaged in some activity. Eg: “他在家” (“He is home.”), “他在拉屎” (“He is pooping”). Compare to Spanish “estar”.
be (something) 是(shì) Saying two things are the same or that the object belongs to a category. “He is a doctor.” Compare to Spanish “ser”. For some qualities like ‘tall’ or ‘sick’, use 很 (hěn) instead.
there is 有(yŏu) 有 also means ‘have’. Compare “我有水” (“I have water”) to “有水” (“There is water.”)
mine 我的 (wǒde) Example: “这 东西 是 我的” (“This thingamajig is mine.”). “的” can be appended to a noun to indicate possession: 你的 (yours), 某人的 (somebody’s), &c.
live, alive 生活 (shēnghuó) or 活(huó) or 活着(huózhe)  
die, dead 死 (sĭ) Traditionally, the number four 四(sì) is considered unlucky because it sounds similar to 死.
time when 时候 (shíhòu)  
now 现在 (xiànzài)  
before 之前 (zhīqián)  
after 之后 (zhīhòu)  
long time 很久 (hénjiŭ)  
short time 一会儿 (yīhuìr) or 马上 (mǎshàng) 一会儿 means something like ‘in a moment’. 马上 means ‘immediately’ and literally translates to “horse up”.
for some time 一段时间 (yīduàn shíjiān)  
moment 一刻 (yīkè) or 时刻 (shíkè)  
place where 地方 (dìfāng) or 哪里 (nǎlǐ) 地方 is a place, as in a ‘region’ or ‘location’; the characters 地方 can be incorrectly translated as ‘soil rectangle’. as in “你在哪里?” (“Where are you?”, literally “You are where?). Not to be confused with the similar 那里 (nàli), meaning ‘there’ or ‘that place’.
here 这里 (zhèlǐ)  
above 上面 (shàngmiàn) or 上 (shàng)  
below 下面 (xiàmiàn) or 下 (xià)  
far 远 (yuăn)  
near 近 (jìn)  
side 边 (biān) 边 means ‘not in the middle’, ‘edge’, ‘side’, &c.
inside 里面 (lĭmiàn) 外面 (wàimiàn) for ‘outside’.
touch 接触 (jiēchù) or 触摸 (chùmō) The difference between 接触 and 触摸 is somewhat like the difference between ‘contact’ and ‘poke’.
not 不 (bù) or 没 (méi) 不 is negation. 没 means a lack, typically used before 有, as in “我没有水” (“I don’t have water”). These words can also be used to inquire ask questions like so: 好不好 (“How’s it hangin’?””, literally “good not good”), 有没有… (“Is there any …”, literally “have not have”).
maybe 也许 (yéxǔ)  
can 能 (néng) or 会 (huì)  
because 因为 (yīnwèi)  
if 如果 (rúguŏ)  
very 很 (hĕn) Also used to express qualities or feelings, as mentioned above.
more 多 (duō) or 还 (hái) (still) 多 is used in reference to excess quantity. 还 is used in reference to ongoing processes.
like (similarity) 像 (xiàng)  

The authors of Minimal English say the following conjuctions aren’t universal, but the this seems like a good place to include them:

English Chinese
and 和 (hé)
but 但是 (dànshì)
or 或 (huò)

So-called Universal Semantic Molecules

The Authors of Minimal English provide the following list of more complicated concepts which they claim are nonetheless universal to all languages.

English Chinese Notes
hands 手 (shǒu)  
mouth 口 (kǒu)  
eyes 目 (mù)  
head 头 (tóu) 头 has an oddly similar set of meanings to the English ‘head’. There’s the body part. But 头 can also mean boss, leader, top, beginning. And 头 is the measure word for livestock, in the same way that English has the phrase “head of cattle”: “三头牛” means “three head of cattle”. (In Chinese, you would also say 三头猪, whereas English would just say “three pigs” instead of “three head of pig”.)
ears 耳 (ěr)  
nose 鼻子 (bízi) 鼻 by itself is fine. Yiru’s grandma says I have a 大鼻子.
face 脸 (liǎn)  
legs 腿 (tuǐ)  
teeth 牙齿 (yáchǐ)  
fingers 手指 (shǒuzhǐ)  
breasts 胸部xiōngbù or 奶奶nǎinai or 咪咪mīmī or 乳rǔ  
skin 皮肤 (pífū)  
bones 骨头 (gǔtou)  
blood 血 (xuè)  
long 长 (cháng)  
round 圆 (yuán)  
flat 平 (píng)  
thin 薄 (báo)  
hard 硬 (yìng)  
soft 软 (ruǎn)  
sharp 利 (lì)  
smooth 滑 (huá)  
heavy 重 (shòng)  
be on something 在 (zài) Same word as to ‘be’ at a location.
in the middle 中 (zhōng) 中 can also be used to represent the country of China, 中国 (Zhōngguó), literally meaning ‘Middle Country’.
the Earth 地球 (dìqiú) Literally ‘dirt ball’.
sun 日 (rì)  
moon 月 (yué)  
stars 星 (xīng)  
ground 地 (dì)  
sky, day 天 (tiān) Same word in Chinese.
during the day 白天 (báitiān) Literally means ‘white sky’.
at night 晚上 (wǎnshang) or 夜里 (yèli) 晚上 is evening. 夜里 is ‘at night’.
water 水 (shuǐ)  
fire 火 (huǒ)  
creature 动物 (dòngwù) 动物 means animal (literally ‘moving thing’).
grow 生长 (shēngzhǎng)  
egg 蛋 (dàn)  
tail 尾 (wěi) or 尾巴 (wěibā)  
wings 翅膀 (chìbǎng)  
feathers 羽毛 (yǔmáo)  
children 孩子 (háizi) The character 子 originated as a pictogram of a baby, and by itself meant “child”. But nowadays, 子 is mostly used as part of another word.
men 男人 (nànrèn) Male person.
women 女 (nǚ)  
be born 出生 (chūshēng)  
mother 妈妈 (māmā) or 母亲 (mǔqīn) Affectionate vs academic. Compare ‘mama’ vs ‘mother’.
father 爸爸 (bàba) or 父亲 (fùqīn) Affectionate vs academic. Compare ‘papa’ vs ‘father’.
wife 老婆 (lǎopó) or 妻子 (qīzi) Affectionate vs academic. 老婆 is like ‘old lady’.
husband 老公 (lǎogōng) or 丈夫 (zhàngfu) Affectionate vs academic. 老公 is like ‘old man’.
wood 木 (mù)  
stone 石 (shí)  
know (someone) 认识 (rèn​shi) Or if you know of somebody, just by their name, it’s 知道 (zhī​dào).
be called 叫 (jiào) or 称作 (chēng​zuò)  
hold 拿 (ná) or 抱 (bào) 拿 has the connotation of ‘grabbing’. 抱 is like a hug. “Hold” is difficult to translate into Chinese
make 做 (zuò)  
kill 杀 (shā)  
breathe 呼吸 (hūxī)  
sleep 睡觉 (shuìjiào)  
sit 坐 (zuò)  
lie 躺 (tǎng)  
stand 站 (zhàn)  
play 玩 (wán) Pronounced wáer in my wife’s dialect. “Northern people just add ‘er’ to all the words.”
laugh 笑 (xiào)  
sing 唱歌 (chànggē)  

Other Words from the Same Source

In addition to the above universal terms, the authors of Minimal English also provide a list of terms which they believe to be useful for international communication. And hey, I may as well learn those words too.

English Chinese Notes
hungry 饿 (è)  
brain 脑 (nǎo)  
heart 心 (xīn)  
river 河 (hé) or 川 (chuān)  
mountain 山 (shān)  
desert 沙漠 (shāmò)  
sea 海 (hǎi)  
island 岛 (dǎo)  
forest 森林 (sēnlín)  
rain 雨 (yǔ)  
wind 风 (fēng)  
snow 雪 (xuě)  
ice 冰 (bīng)  
air 空气 (kōngqì)  
flood 洪 (hóng)  
storm 暴风雨 (bàofēngyǔ)  
drought 干旱 (gānhàn)  
earthquake 地震 (dìzhèn)  
east 东 (dōng)  
west 西 (xī)  
north 北 (běi)  
south 南 (nán)  
bird 鸟 (niǎo)  
fish 鱼 (yú)  
tree 树 (shù)  
seeds 种子 (zhǒngzi)  
grass 草 (cǎo)  
mosquitoes 蚊子 (wénzi)  
flies 苍蝇 (cāngyíng)  
snake 蛇 (shé)  
dog 狗 (gǒu)  
cat 猫 (māo)  
horse 马 (mǎ)  
cow 牛 (niú)  
pig 猪 (zhū)  
family 家 (jiā)  
month 月 (yuè) Same character as moon.
week 星期 (xīngqī)  
clock 钟表 (zhōngbiǎo)  
hour 小时 (xiǎoshí)  
second 秒 (miǎo)  
house 房子 (fángzi)  
village 村庄 (cūnzhuāng)  
city 城市 (chéngshì)  
school 学校 (xuéxiào)  
hospital 医院 (yīyuàn)  
teacher 老师 (lǎoshī)  
doctor 医生 (yīshēng)  
nurse 护士 (hùshi)  
soldier 士兵 (shìbīng)  
country 国家 (guójiā)  
government 政府 (zhèngfǔ)  
capital 京 (jīng)  
the law    
meat 肉 (ròu)  
rice 米 (mǐ)  
wheat 小麦 (xiǎomài)  
corn 玉米 (yùmǐ)  
flour 面粉 (miànfěn)  
salt 盐 (yán)  
sugar 糖 (táng)  
sweet 甜 (tián)  
knife 刀 (dāo)  
paper 纸 (zhǐ)  
iron 铁 (tiě)  
metal 金属 (jīnshǔ)  
gold 金 (jīn)  
rubber 橡胶 (xiàng​jiāo)  
plastic 塑料 (sù​liào)  
oil 油 (yóu)  
coal 煤 (méi) or 煤炭 (méi​tàn)  
petrol 石油 (shí​yóu) Literally ‘stone oil’.
car 车 (chē) This character is a pictograph of a cart, as can more clearly be seen with the traditional variant 車
bicycle 自行车 (zì​xíng​chē) Can be confusingly literally translated as ‘self-driving car’.
plane 飞机 (fēi​jī) Literally ‘flying machine’
boat 船 (chuán)  
train 火车 (huǒ​chē) Literally ‘fire car’.
road 路 (lù)  
wheel 轮 (lún)  
wire 电线 (diàn​xiàn) literally ‘electric line’
God 神 (shén) or 天神 (tiān​shén)  
war 战争 (zhàn​zhēng)  
poison 毒 (dú)  
music 音乐 (yīn​yuè)  
eat 吃 (chī)  
drink 喝 (hē)  
take (someone somewhere)    
burn 着 (zháo)  
buy/pay 买 (mǎi)  
learn 学习 (xué​xí)  
clean (adjective) 干净 (gān​jìng)  

Henanren Phrases

Source: My wife.

  • 吃了吗 (chīlema), pronounaced more like ‘tseleme’. A greeting. Literally means ‘Have you eaten?’
  • 中 (zhōng). A greeting, ‘okay’. Literally means ‘middle’.

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