So as im reading through my books and learning materials it keeps using the terms semantic and phonetics i dont understand what these mean in relation to the chinese characters.
Also when the book talks of radicals and strokes are these talking about the same thing ? Is a stroke the same as the radical shape?
Help appreaciated ! I appologize if i appear to ask lots of questions its just whenever i first start a language i always have so much confusion to clear up -
The simplest way to break this down is from the ground up.
Strokes are the individual strokes you make with a brush or a pen without breaking the line. The easiest way to spot fake Chinese tattoos is that they use strokes that don't exist.
Radicals are the parts of a character, and made up of strokes. In compound characters they can usually be divided left and right. For example, 语 (yu) has 言 on the left, and 吾 on the right. The left portion typically gives you a hint at the meaning, and 言 means "speech." The right part typically gives you a hint at the pronunciation, so 吾 is pronounced "wu" which is sort of like yu. The left part is called the "radical" while the right part is called the "phonetic."
If you want to use a Chinese language dictionary, you start by counting the strokes in the radical. The radical in 语 has two strokes. There will be a table in the front of the dictionary with radicals listed according to the number of strokes. Finding that radical will then tell you the page where characters using those radicals begin. Within that section, the characters will be listed in order of complexity, meaning 语 with nine strokes total will come after 试 with eight strokes total.
Characters are made up of radicals. Each character has both a meaning and a pronunciation. Each character represents only a single phonetic syllable, though characters can have different pronunciations to indicate different meanings. Characters may also have several different meanings, but only one pronunciation. I believe this is the distinction between "phonetic" and "semantic" that you are reading about.
While some characters are words in and of themselves, very often, words are made by combining two characters together. These bisyllabic words are a recent invention, dating back only a few hundred years, but there is no consensus on why they came into being, and though I'd love to discuss the theories at length, I haven't found one yet that I find plausible.
Some interesting numbers arise from this: there are 37 strokes, 214 radicals, 1,600 possible phonetic syllables, 50,000 characters, and 370,000 words in Modern Putonghua. This means that many characters will have identical pronunciation, and many words will use the same characters, so the distinction between meaning and pronunciation is really powerful in Chinese. Unlike in English, words that sound alike are not cognates, and every character does not have a single "definition" but instead has a constellation of associated meanings that indicate how it can be used in different words and sentences.
Hahaha, don't worry, you aren't alone! And even asking this question actually is the beginning of making it better. As a student, I've often found that I have to go through a period of not understand what questions I should be answering, and not realizing how confusing things actually wore, until I slow start to learn enough to realize that I should be asking about something. That's an important break through.
Chinese and English are probably the two most radically different languages I've ever studied on a conceptual level. (Even beyond Salishan languages, which, while complicated, are also agglutinative in ways that help make the grammar make sense.) The cool thing, but also the difficult thing, is that when you learn Chinese you are a learning a totally different way of thinking, and once you expand your mind to accommodate both English and Chinese logic, you'll never see the world the same way again!
Keep at it and good luck!