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In South Korea, when Chinese characters are used they are of the traditional variant and are almost identical to those used in places like Taiwan and Hong Kong.

In Japan, 2,136 are taught through secondary school (the Jōyō kanji); hundreds more are in everyday use.

The vast majority were written using the rebus principle, in which a character for a similarly sounding word was either simply borrowed or (more commonly) extended with a disambiguating semantic marker to form a phono-semantic compound character.

Pictograms make up only a small portion of Chinese characters.

For example, many additional readings have the Middle Chinese departing tone, the major source of the 4th tone in modern Standard Chinese.

Scholars now believe that this tone is the reflex of an Old Chinese *-s suffix, with a range of semantic functions.

Another common alternation is between voiced and voiceless initials (though the voicing distinction has disappeared on most modern varieties).

This is believed to reflect an ancient prefix, but scholars disagree on whether the voiced or voiceless form is the original root.

In the Old Chinese period, affixes could be added to a word to form a new word, which was often written with the same character.

In many cases the pronunciations diverged due to subsequent sound change.

Increasing numbers of polysyllabic words have entered the language from the Western Zhou period to the present day.

It is estimated that about 25–30% of the vocabulary of classic texts from the Warring States period was polysyllabic, though these words were used far less commonly than monosyllables, which accounted for 80–90% of occurrences in these texts.

Many characters have multiple readings, with instances denoting different morphemes, sometimes with different pronunciations.