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95 Core Concepts in Mandarin Chinese

What are the most basic, elementary, core concepts that virtually all languages express? Many linguists have put a great deal of effort into answering this question, and several short word lists have come out of it. The most famous are probably the Swadesh lists, based mostly on intuition and refined over time. Later lists like the Leipzig-Jakarta have used more stringent methods to determine which vocabulary items are most resistant to borrowing and change over time.

What I've done here is taken five such word lists (Swadesh 100, Ranked Swadesh 40, Swadesh-Yakhontov, Leipzig-Jakarta, and Woodward) and kept only the items that occur in at least two of the lists. Here is the Mandarin Chinese version. Enjoy!

1) name = 名字 (míngzì), 姓名 (xìngmíng)
2) water = 水 (shuǐ)
3) blood = 血 (xuè)
4) fire = 火 (huǒ)
5) stone/rock = 石头 (shítóu), 岩石 (yánshí)
6) dog = 狗 (gǒu)
7) fish = 鱼 (yú)
8) louse/flea = 虱子 (shīzǐ), 跳蚤 (tiàozǎo)
9) hand/arm = 手 (shǒu), 手臂 (shǒubì)
10) eye = 眼 (yǎn), 眼睛 yǎnjīng)
11) ear = 耳 (ěr), 耳朵 (ěrduǒ)
12) nose = 鼻 (bí), 鼻子 (bízǐ)
13) tongue = 舌 (shé), 舌头 (shétóu)
14) tooth = 牙 (yá), 牙齿 (yáchǐ)
15) bone = 骨 (gǔ), 骨头 (gǔtóu)
16) horn = 角 (jiǎo)
17) tail = 尾巴 (wěibā)
18) egg = 蛋 (dàn), 卵 (luǎn)
19) leaf = 叶子 (yèzǐ)
20) night/evening = 夜 (yè), 晚上 (wǎnshàng), 夜晚 (yèwǎn)
21) star = 星 (xīng), 星星 (xīngxīng)
22) sun = 太阳 (tàiyáng)
23) moon = 月亮 (yuèliàng)
24) earth/soil = 地球 (dìqiú), 土地 (tǔdì), 土壤 (tǔ'rǎng)
25) salt = 盐 (yán)
26) mountain = 山 (shān)
27) tree = 树 (shù)
28) rain = 雨 (yǔ)
29) wind = 风 (fēng)
30) bird = 鸟 (niǎo)
31) flesh/meat = 肉 (ròu)
32) liver = 肝 (gān), 肝脏 (gānzāng)
33) skin/hide = 皮肤 (pífū), 皮革 (pígé)
34) knee = 膝盖 (xīgài)
35) breast/chest = 胸 (xiōng), 胸部 (xiōngbù), 乳房 (rǔfáng)
36) person/human = 人 (rén), 人的 (rénde)
37) man = 男人 (nán'rén)
38) woman = 女人 (nǚ'rén)
39) child = 孩子 (háizǐ), 小孩 (xiǎohái)
40) hair = 头发 (tóufā), 毛发 (máofā)
41) mouth = 嘴 (zuǐ), 口 (kǒu), 嘴巴 (zuǐbā)
42) neck = 脖子 (bózǐ)
43) foot/leg = 脚 (jiǎo), 足 (zú), 腿 (tuǐ)
44) feather = 羽毛 (yǔmáo)
45) grease/fat = 油脂 (yóuzhī)
46) smoke = 烟 (yān)
47) ash/soot = 灰 (huī)
48) sand = 沙 (shā)
49) wood = 木 (mù), 木头 (mùtóu)
50) root = 根 (gēn)
51) rope/cord = 绳 (shéng), 绳子 (shéngzǐ)
52) path/road = 路 (lù)
53) year = 年 (nián)

54) die = 死 (sǐ)
55) see/look/watch = 看 (kàn)
56) hear/listen = 听 (tīng)
57) know = 知道 (zhīdào), 了解 (liǎojiě), 认识 (rènshí)
58) drink = 喝 (hē)
59) give = 给 (gěi)
60) come = 来 (lái)
61) stand = 站 (zhàn)
62) sit/set = 坐 (zuò), 放 (fàng)
63) lie/lay = 躺 (tǎng), 放下 (fàngxià)
64) fly = 飞 (fēi)
65) eat = 吃 (chī)
66) bite = 咬 (yǎo)
67) burn = 燃烧 (ránshāo)
68) kill = 杀 (shā)
69) say/tell/speak/talk = 说 (shuō), 谈 (tán)
70) laugh = 笑 (xiào)

71) new = 新 (xīn)
72) full = 满 (mǎn)
73) good = 好 (hǎo)
74) long = 长 (cháng)
75) red = 红 (hóng)
76) black = 黑 (hēi)
77) white = 白 (bái)
78) green = 绿 (lǜ)
79) yellow = 黄 (huáng)
80) small/little = 小 (xiǎo)
81) big/large = 大 (dà)
82) wide/broad = 宽 (kuān)
83) heavy = 重 (zhòng)
84) old = 老 (lǎo)
85) dry = 干 (gān)

86) I/me = 我 (wǒ)
87) you = 你 (nǐ), 你们 (nǐmen)
88) what/which = 什么 (shénme), 哪 (nǎ), 哪一个 (nǎyīgè)
89) who/whom = 谁 (shuí/shéi)
90) one = 一 (yī)
91) two = 二 (èr), 两 (liǎng)
92) not/no = 不 (bú), 不是 (bùshì), 没有 (méiyǒu)
93) this/these = 这 (zhè), 这个 (zhègè), 这些 (zhèxiē)
94) we/us = 我们 (wǒmen)
95) all/everything/everyone = 全部 (quánbù), 所有 (suǒyǒu), 一切 (yīqiè), 大家 (dàjiā)

Please let me know if you spot any mistakes here. And if you take this list and translate it into another language, that would be awesome! I'd be sure to give you some lingots! More versions can be found here. (Be sure to check what's been translated already before posting your own.) And if you like this kind of thing, check out my website for more!

December 3, 2017



The swadesh list is not meant to be basic elementary core concepts that all languages share, but words that are likely to be found in many languages. These are two different things. Most of our concepts are expressed by using the grammatical resources of a language to combine words and morphemes to express concepts. If you're really after a set of basic concepts that are likely to be found across many languages, have a look at the Natural Semantic Metalanguage approach to semantics https://www.griffith.edu.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0006/419064/Goddard_2010_OUP_Handbook_Ch18.pdf


This is an admittedly approximate approach, but one within my grasp without a lot of theoretical work on my part. It's a shortcoming that a list like this won't take into account some of the most common words and concepts that are typically expressed grammatically, but I've attempted to remedy this somewhat with a second list based on word/morpheme frequency: 105 More Concepts Across Languages.

If you come up with some basic concepts using this approach that aren't covered by either of my lists, then I'd be very interested to hear them. Perhaps a third list is in order!


Thanks for chiming in, I am learning a lot from this thread. Unfortunately, the link you posted is now dead.


'犬' is literary and is not used in isolation in spoken Mandarin. I think '日' and '月' are pretty literary too in the meanings of 'sun' and 'moon'.

'Lie' and 'lay' are entirely different verbs.

It always amuses me how the Swadesh list gives such importance to fleas, lice, bones and livers.


Please let me know what edits I should make here. I'll do my best, but I'm not at all proficient in Mandarin. Bearing in mind that I'm not interested in the sense of "lie" meaning "tell a lie", what would you list for #63?


Thanks for your list! I think it is useful.


Perhaps it would be a good idea to either distinguish between ancient and present usage, or to only include the synonym that is presently used in standard modern speech, otherwise this could be misleading and confusing for beginner-level users (who are the target learners of this course). The words in this list also vary greatly in level of formality, some being the 口语 term and others being exclusively 书面语 or even classical/literary/scientific terms, so some adjustment may be required for uniformity's sake. Of course, with some words like 虱子 vs. 跳蚤, the two are regional differences and equally standard.

Thanks so much for the hard work of putting this together though! I am sure it will be greatly appreciated and a big help to Duolingo learners.


I agree. Standard, modern vocabulary is what I'm looking for. Please let me know where I'm missing the mark here. I'm not proficient in Mandarin by any means, so I'm relying on reader feedback.


62) sit/set = 坐 (zuò), 放 (fàng)

I'm not sure why these are combined since "sit" and "set" are very different in English. Is 坐 always used when "sit" is used in English, and 放 when "set" is used? Also, "set" has at least two meanings in English: set the cup down vs. set the fan on high. Is 放 used in both these ways?


No, the concept #62 is getting at doesn't include the sense of "set the fan on high". The words "sit" and "set" are very closely related, and many languages don't make a lexical distinction. Their relationship is parallel to "lie down" vs. "lay that down" and "stand here" vs. "stand that up here". In the first case, you're doing the sitting/lying/standing, and in the second, you're making an object do it.

As for your question about the Mandarin words 坐 (zuò) and 放 (fàng), I'll leave that to someone who speaks the language better than I do. I'm counting on reader feedback here.

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