Of precious swords and Old Sinitic reconstructions, part 5

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Previous posts in the series:

As mentioned before, the following post is not about a sword or other type of weapon per se, but in terms of its ancient Eurasian outlook, it arguably belongs in the series:

Today's post is also not about a sword, but it is about a weapon, namely an arrow.

Hannes A. Fellner:

…speaking of jiàn, that is to say 箭 'arrow', B-S reconstruction MC *tsjenH < OC *[ts]en-s, and names for weapons.

*[ts]en-s seems to be borrowed into Chinese either from Tocharian (cf. Tocharian B tsain 'arrow') – which in turn is from an Iranian source *jainu– [dzainu-] (cf. Av. zaēnāu– ‘baldric’, Av. zaēna- 'weapon') – or directly from Iranian.

Let's put this linguistic evidence in archeological, paleographical, and historical context.

Already from the Mesolithic period, ca. 26,000 BC, there is archeological evidence for arrows, specifically that which was found in 1963 in Shuo County, Shanxi.  See Joseph Needham, Robin Yates, et al., Science and Civilisation in China, vol. 5, part 6, note 4 on p. 102.  See also Stephen Selby, Chinese Archery (Hong Kong:  Hong Kong University Press, 2000), p. 5, who cites evidence dating to 20,000-10,000 BP for arrowheads.

Of course, we don't know what the word for arrow was then, and indeed that was long before Sinitic languages arose (that would take place more than 20,000 years later than the earliest date mentioned in the previous paragraph).

By the time of the oracle bone inscriptions, ca. 1200 BC, we do have a word for "arrow", that is shǐ 矢, which is a simple pictograph, a shaft with a point on one end and fletching on the other, so it doesn't tell us anything about how, specifically, the kind of arrow depicted was made. Its Old Sinitic (OS) reconstruction is *lhiʔ (Schuessler), which is clearly completely unrelated to the sound of jiàn 箭 ("arrow"), OS *tsens (Schuessler, Minimal Old Chinese and Later Han Chinese, p. 248, where he notes Toch. tsain).

Since Sinitic already had a word for arrow going back to the oracle bones ca. 1200 BC, viz., shǐ 矢, I suspect that jiàn 箭 reflects the borrowing of a completely new word from outside that most likely was accompanied by a significant technological development.  This probably took place in the latter part of the Zhou Dynasty ( 1046-256 BC), when the new character shows up on bronze inscriptions.

It's conceivable that Tocharians were already in contact with Chinese by that time (late Zhou), but I rather suspect that Sinitic borrowed this new word for arrow from an Iranian source (cf. the remarks of Fellner above), since they were the ones who appear to have brought horseriding, the composite bow (necessary for shooting arrows from horseback), and suitable arrows to go along with the radically new bows.  This would have happened during the second half of the first millennium BC, around the same time that jiàn 箭 seems to have entered the Chinese lexicon (though these developments took place earlier, stretching back into the second millennium BC, farther to the west).

On the other hand, some of the male warrior burials in Xiaohe / Small River Cemetery No. 5, also known as Ördek's Necropolis, dated to around 1800 BC, were literally smothered in arrows with fletching that is still like new.  But people would not have been riding horses for purposes of warfare at that early date, though the Tocharians are among the most likely candidates for the identity of the people who buried their dead at this site.  See J.P. Mallory and Victor Mair, The Tarim Mummies and J. P. Mallory, The Problem of Tocharian Origins: An Archaeological Perspective (free pdf, 63 pp.).  I am a great fan of the Tocharians overall, but I still think that a new package for mounted warfare (horseriding, composite bow, appropriate arrows [with metal tips instead of stone arrowheads or none], etc.) were brought eastward across the steppes by Iranian-speaking peoples during the first millennium BC.

See also:

“The Horse in Late Prehistoric China:  Wresting Culture and Control from the ‘Barbarians.’”  In Marsha Levine, Colin Renfrew and Katie Boyle, ed.  Prehistoric steppe adaptation and the horse,  McDonald Institute Monographs.  Cambridge:  McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research,  pp. 163-187.

[Thanks to Robin Yates, Anthony Barbieri-Low, Peter Lorge, and Matt Anderson]


  1. Eidolon said,

    March 28, 2016 @ 10:10 pm

    Can we be convinced that a variety of Iranian is the source of this loan when it didn't actually mean "arrow" in the language, but "weapon"/"baldric"? Perhaps the direction of Iranian dzainu "weapon" > Toch. B tsain "arrow" > Old Chinese "arrow" is more sound, considering the late appearance of the term in Old Chinese ie in the Warring States period. But it is also not obvious to me why dzainu was borrowed into Toch. B as "arrow" when none of the *other* borrowings of this Iranian word listed in, for example, https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/%D5%A6%D5%A7%D5%B6, are "arrow," but strike closer to "baldric", "weapon", and "armor." Perhaps a fuller discussion of the etymology of Iranian "dzainu" within Indo-European would help with this argument, with respect to the word's many cognates across Indo-Iranian's descendants as well as loans in other languages.

    As for the Chinese character, 箭, it seems to be semanto-phonetic hybrid, combining phonetic 前 qian with semantic 竹 zhu "bamboo". As it is hard to imagine Iranian arrows being made from bamboo, that must be a local adaptation.

  2. Victor Mair said,

    March 29, 2016 @ 7:47 am

    From Marcel Erdal:

    Av. zaēna- 'weapon' is surprisingly similar to Biblical Hebrew zayin 'weapon, sword', which gave its name to the 7th letter, and is Common Semitic; I wonder whether it has an Indo-European (or even Indo-Iranian) etymology.

  3. Ilya Lipovsky said,

    March 31, 2016 @ 2:35 pm

    Hi Prof. Mair,

    Per Orly Goldwasser, in "How the Alphabet Was Born from Hieroglyphs":

    and Jeff A. Benner, in "The Ancient Hebrew Lexicon of the Bible" and here:

    Marcel Erdal is likely incorrect on this one. We can probably point to the early Indo-European/Indo-Aryan influence on the Semites and Canaanites manifested in the presence of chariots in the Hyksos armies. However, that happened no earlier than around 1700 BC, while (if both Orly Goldwasser and Jeff A. Benner are to be believed), the Semitic alphabet was born at least three centuries earlier, and the meaning of "zain"/"zan", also the Hebrew letter, is about a mattock/plow rather than sword, although both, obviously "cut."

    Hence, I think if we use the etymology for [harvest] "cut" as our reference, it is more likely that Avestan borrowed that word from the relatively more autochtonic pan-sedentary-agrarian linguistic milieu that preceded the later Indo-Aryan invasion of the Iranian plateau. Hence, the influence on Chinese (I'd speculate) is of directly Iranian, rather than Tocharian origin.

    Basically, I'm in agreement with you except when it comes to quoting of Erdal's position on Hebrew alphabet and Hebrew itself.

  4. Ilya Lipovsky said,

    March 31, 2016 @ 2:55 pm

    >at least three centuries earlier
    Correction: at least a century earlier. Sorry, was relying on memory here, should have re-read Goldwasser's article.

  5. Chris Button said,

    April 1, 2016 @ 10:47 pm

    Only a minor note, but its interesting how Schuessler's "e" vowel, which should really be treated as "ja", corresponds to the Toch.A reflex "e" of the Toch.B "ai" that we have here.

    In terms of the arrows being made of bamboo, the numerous references here (http://ctext.org/dictionary.pl?if=en&char=%E7%AE%AD) with the "bamboo" part explicitly mentioned as 竹箭 make this almost certainly the case. However, it is also worth noting that the word also sometimes refers to a type of thin bamboo (presumably used to make such arrows) rather than the arrow itself.

  6. Chris Button said,

    April 2, 2016 @ 9:21 am

    Just to clarify my above posting (typos and all), while -aj and -jan were both permissible in Old Chinese, -ajn was not. Hence OC -jan is going to be the best correlate for -ajn (or -ain), particularly given any tendency to surface as -en in Tocharian or Old Chinese.

  7. Eidolon said,

    April 4, 2016 @ 7:58 pm

    "In terms of the arrows being made of bamboo, the numerous references here (http://ctext.org/dictionary.pl?if=en&char=%E7%AE%AD) with the "bamboo" part explicitly mentioned as 竹箭 make this almost certainly the case. However, it is also worth noting that the word also sometimes refers to a type of thin bamboo (presumably used to make such arrows) rather than the arrow itself."

    It was the Indians of this period who were known to have made arrows using bamboo, while the Iranians used reed, according to Herodotus. Could this influence have arrived via an Indian milieu, instead? In which case we should be looking for an influence from the south, rather than the west. I suppose archaeology is the ultimate test, but unfortunately all mentioned materials are easily perishable. I have been looking through the records for whether 箭 was used to refer to an imported/external product, but no direct evidence exists.

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