Understanding the Chinese pronouns that are translated to he, she, or it requires knowing a couple of things. First of all, the pronouns that mean he, she, or it in Chinese all sound the same, but have different characters.
他 ㄊㄚ (tā) “he”
她 ㄊㄚ (tā) “she”
牠 ㄊㄚ (tā) “it”
它 ㄊㄚ (tā) “it”
There are two different characters meaning it, because there is one for animals and one for inanimate objects.
牠 is specifically for referring to animals, which are not properly referred to using the characters that mean he or she. In Chinese, any “tā” meaning he or she (他 and 她) is reserved for people.
它 is used when speaking of inanimate objects.
One easy way to remember this is to notice the radicals used in forming the characters. Radicals are the building blocks of Chinese characters. These radicals are also characters in and of themselves, but while they add meaning to other characters, their sounds are not necessarily similar. The shape of the radical often changes somewhat when it is drawn into another character.
Learning some about these radicals can help you understand the deeper meanings of characters, as well as aid in looking up characters in a dictionary. In this specific case, it can help you read pronouns correctly.
For the characters representing either the he and she “tā”, the first radical helps identify gender.
The first “tā” is made of the radical for “person”, 人 ㄖㄣˊ (rén), plus the radical 也 ㄧㄝˇ (yě), which by itself is translated “also, too”. This 他 (tā) character is used when referring to males or in a gender inclusive way.
For instance, if one person is being referred to and the gender is known to be male, the pronoun character will be the first 他. If an unknown person is being referred to, such as when writing directions that might be referring to either gender, this character would also be used.
Similarly, if a group of mixed genders is being spoken of, this is the “tā” that will be made plural in a gender neutral sense. The character 們 ㄇㄣ˙ (men.) is added and it would be translated as “they.” 他們 ㄊㄚ ㄇㄣ˙ (tā men.)
The character 她 for the she “tā” has the female radical 女 ㄋㄩˇ(nǚ), also followed by the 也 yě radical. If a group is all female, the plural would then be 她們 ㄊㄚ ㄇㄣ˙(tā men.)
The 牠 (tā) for animals uses the radical 牛ㄋㄧㄡˊ (niú) also followed 也 (yě). 牛 (niú) by itself means “cattle” which even in English is sometimes used as a broad term for beasts of the earth. Since 也 (yě) is used in all pronouns referring to living creatures, we can assume for our purposes that the radical has something to do with life.
In the process of discussing all of this, my Chinese tutor told me that Chinese characters are formed 4 different ways.
- by shape
- by sounds
- by mutually explanatory or synonymous characters
- by borrowed words
Some characters have a more complicated analysis or unclear history than others. The inanimate object 它 (tā) seems to fall into this category. It is made of the radical 宀 ㄇㄧㄢˊ (mián), which means “roof”, and 匕 ㄅㄧˇ (bǐ), which means dagger or ancient spoon! You would use this “tā” when writing about things like books, computers, or rugs. None of these is or ever has been alive.
Now, if you hear a native Chinese speaker getting English he’s and she’s mixed up, you will understand why it is harder for them to remember to the different English pronouns for he, she, and it. It should also help you remember that even though Chinese speakers are using the same sound for all the “tā’s”, that does not mean they think of all the genders as synonymous.