In a recent post, we discussed the creation of hitherto unknown Chinese characters:
In that post and in other Language Log posts, we have mentioned how artists and language enthusiasts sometimes make completely new characters, whether out of whimsy or out of a genuine felt need (as though there were not already enough characters).
Here's an earnest invitation to create a new character in real life.
The World Wildlife Fund –> World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) has asked Hongkongers to come up with a new Chinese name for ivory. The current one is "xiàngyá 象牙". They think that, since "xiàngyá 象牙" literally means "elephant tooth", it gives people the impression that losing their ivory causes little harm to elephants, as though they might just grow back new teeth or that they can get along without them.
The existential problem is that elephants are slaughtered for their ivory. I doubt that changing the Chinese word for "ivory" is going to make much / any difference in the killing of elephants for their ivory.
The linguistic problem is that "xiàngyá 象牙" is not a character; it is a word made up of two characters. It is not necessarily the case that someone would have to create an entirely new character to obviate the problem of people thinking that an ivory tusk is merely an elephant's tooth.
The usual word for "tusk" in Chinese is chángyá 長牙, which just means "long tooth", so that still doesn't solve the problem, even if we say xiàng de chángyá 象的長牙 ("elephant's tusk" [i.e., "elephant's long tooth"]).
Not only elephants have ivory. Walruses also have ivory. Unfortunately, the Chinese word for "walrus ivory" is (get ready!) hǎixiàng xiàngyá 海象象牙 (lit., "sea elephant elephant tooth").
Narwhals also have a single ivory tusk, which anatomically is a protruding canine tooth, so it might well be called a yá 牙 ("tooth"), but it is not. Instead, as is all too obvious from the name of the animal, it is called a "horn": yījiǎo jīng 一角鲸 ("single horn whale" or "unicorn whale"). I would not, however, propose xiàngjiǎo 象角 ("elephant horn") as a replacement for xiàngyá 象牙 ("elephant tooth / tusk / ivory"), because horns normally grow on the top of an animal's head, not out of its mouth. There are also already too many other common disyllabic terms that are partially homophonous (except for the tones) with xiàngjiǎo 象角 ("elephant horn"): xiāngjiào 相較 ("compared with"), xiāngjiāo 香蕉 ("banana"), xiàngjiāo 橡膠 ("rubber"), xiàngjiāo 相交 ("intersect"), and xiāng jiāo 鄉郊 ("rural").
Maybe if ivory were called something like xiàngmáo 象矛 ("elephant spear"), people might take it more seriously as a vital part of the animal. Perhaps others can come up with a better term. Or, if we take the WWF's call at face value, what would a totally new character for "ivory" look like?
[h.t. Fangdan Li]