In "The hand of god" (3/4/16), I cited a Chinese text in which the term Mòyé 鏌鋣 (the name of a famous sword in antiquity) came up. The translation I provided rendered that term as "Excalibur", which caught the attention of a couple of commenters who wondered how one could get from Mòyé 鏌鋣 to "Excalibur", when all that Google Translate could offer is "ROBOT 鋣".
Since this is the type of problem that Sinologists (philologists who work on ancient Sinitic texts) encounter every day, and it fits right in with another recent post ("Which is harder: Western classical languages or Chinese? " [3/6/16]),
I will go into it a bit more deeply here as an example of the methods we use and the solutions we come to in the study of old Chinese texts.
There are at least six different ways to write the name of the sword: 莫邪, 莫耶, 鏌邪, 鏌耶, 鏌鋣, 鏌鎁 — all pronounced mòyé in MSM. Note that these different orthographic forms include one consisting of just the phonophores of 鏌鋣 without the "metal" semantophore on the left side of the two characters, viz., 莫邪.
See Hanyu Da Cidian, 9.415a, 11.1360a and Victor Mair's alphabetical index to HDC, 751a.
Whenever we find a disyllabic term in Old Sinitic that is written with two or more different sets of characters, we immediately know that it is simply the transcription of a word for which there is no fixed sinographic form. We may also suspect that the term was of non-Sinitic origin, hence the lack of a stable, single way to write it in sinograms.
As to where the word might have come from, we must first make a stab at reconstructing the Old Sinitic pronunciation of its constituent syllables to get a sense of roughly what it may have sounded like. The science of the reconstruction of the early forms of Sinitic began with the Swedish linguist Bernhard Karlgren in the 1920s, first Middle Sinitic (ca. AD 600), and then Old Sinitic (ca. 600 BC) from the 40s.
Since that time, there have been about a dozen major reconstructions of Old Sinitic. My favorite, for ease of use and clarity of conception, is that of Axel Schuessler, which may be found in his Minimal Old Chinese and Later Han Chinese: A Companion to Grammata Serica Recensa (ABC Chinese Dictionary). Currently the most widely cited system is that of William H. Baxter and Laurent Sagart, as presented in their Old Chinese: A New Reconstruction, which is readily accessible here.
I asked Bill Baxter how the Old Sinitic of mòyé 鏌鋣 / 莫邪 would be reconstructed in the Baxter-Sagart system. He replied:
Based on ctext.org, the expressions seem to occur no earlier than rather late Zhanguoª. The first syllable is no trouble:
*mˤak (or *a/mak, *maak, … however you represent "type A")
The second syllable is MCªª yae; and MC y- can come from either *l- or *ɢ- (voiced uvular stop): the phonetic 牙 suggests the latter, for us (B&S). But I would guess that by late Zhanguo *l- and *ɢ- had probably already merged as *j- ("y"), so my best guess is
[VHM: ªWarring States period 475-221 BC; ªªMiddle Chinese.]
By the Eastern Han (AD 25-220), an elaborate legend about the sword and its supposed mate had developed, but the earliest references to the fabled sword are from the Warring States period, so we need not concern ourselves overly much with the Eastern Han fiction when we are attempting to determine a possible origin for mòyé 鏌鋣 / 莫邪.
So now I wish to enlist the aid of Language Log readers who may have knowledge of a word for "sword" or other type of metal weapon that sounds something like *mˤak-ja (B&S) or /makzæ/ (Jonathan Smith, personal communication). Since it might be a borrowing into Sinitic from some other language, don't hesitate to mention any word you may know of that has a similar sound and meaning.
[Thanks to Chris Button]