From "barbarian" to "very"

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Earlier this week, I wrote a post titled "'Little Man' the eating machine" (5/22/17), in which I pointed out that "Man" here does not mean "(hu)man" or "male human", but that it signifies "(southern) barbarian", with extended meanings of “rough; reckless; fierce; rude; unreasoning; unruly; bullying”.  I also noted that this mán 蛮 has another set of meanings:  "quite; rather; somewhat; very".

In the sixth comment to the post, liuyao wrote:

I was hoping VHM would do a linguistic/philological analysis of 蛮 in the sense of “very”. Given that it was originally a derogatory term for “barbarians” in the south (possibly Austroasiatics that have long been displaced or assimilated), how did it come about that the southern topolects (or when they speak their variants of Mandarin) have this character or word for “very”? Are there alternative characters for this morpheme?

I will now attempt to answer all of liuyao's questions.

I started out by asking myself and a number of colleagues why mán 蠻 ("[southern] barbarian") means "quite; pretty; very; fairly" in southern topolects.  At the same time, I began to think about the ultimate origin of the designation "mán 蠻", since the peoples to whom it referred were clearly not Sinitic.  Judging from where they lived, I wondered:  is mán 蠻 an Austroasiatic word?  An Austronesian word?

Here are some examples of mán 蠻 meaning "quite; pretty; very; fairly":

mán hǎokàn 蠻好看 (“quite good looking”)

mán piàoliang 蠻漂亮 (“quite beautiful”)

Of course, we can say "terribly beautiful" and "terribly good looking" in English, so that may be a clue to what happened with mán 蠻 in the transition from "barbarian" to "very".

Cf. mán bù jiǎnglǐ 蠻不講理 ("very unreasonable").

Maybe it's just an intensifier, further extending the meaning of "rough; reckless; fierce; rude; unreasoning; bullying”, which is already an extended meaning of "barbarian".

I have a vague recollection that mán 蠻 was originally the self-designation of some southern group, or perhaps that it actually meant "(hu)man" in their language.

Perhaps mán 蠻 is cognate with the word "Min" itself, as in the Mǐn 閩 branch of Sinitic topolects, since their Middle Sinitic reconstructions would have resembled each other fairly closely.

There's a book called The Man shu (Book of the Southern Barbarians), Data Paper Number 44, Southeast Asia Program (Ithaca:  Cornell University, 1961), by Fan Ch'o; translated by Gordon H. Luce (1889-1979).  I think that Luce talks about the origins of the name in a note or in his commentary, though I may be wrong about that, since I read it decades ago.

Mán shū 蠻書 (The Book of Man) is dated to 863.

I suppose that James Matisoff's Sino-Tibetan Etymological Dictionary and Thesaurus (STEDT) might have something useful to say about the origins of 蠻.
Here is the STEDT link, if anyone wishes to check on mán 蠻 and mǐn 閩.
That's about as far as I got on my own.  Then replies began to pour in from learned colleagues.  Here are some of them.

Guillaume Jacques:

I think that whatever the ultimate origin of 蛮, the semantic change

barbarian > rude/unreasonable (蛮横;蛮不讲理) > "quite, very"

is quite straightforward (cf French terriblement, Tibetan drag "fierce, violent" > "very")

South Coblin:

So far as I know, this intensifier first appears in rather late texts, such as Ming/Qing novels and plays, etc. How old it really is is of course uncertain. Comparative dialectological studies could perhaps be done, to see if it is reconstructable to the proto-dialect stages of various dialect types.

As to its etymology, before attempting to interpret it directly in terms of received earlier senses traditionally written with the character 蠻, it might be worth considering that it is virtually identical in use and function to the common form 滿*,  whose etymology as an intensifier is easier to envisage semantically. It is theoretically possible that mán is some sort of nonce deformation of mǎn, thereby accounting for the tonal discrepancy. This, of course, is just an offhand speculation. But at this stage I would caution against attempting to account for the etymology of mán in terms of traditional meanings written with 蠻 without fully considering such alternative possibilities.

[*VHM:  mǎn 滿 (lit., "full")]

Neil Kubler:

  1. It's not just in Southern topolects or "dialects" that this man meaning "quite, very" occurs, but very frequently in spoken, colloquial-style southern Mandarin.
  2. For the written representation of man, either 蠻 or 滿 can be used. In Taiwan, it's pretty much 50/50; In China, I think 蠻 is more common but 滿 also sometimes occurs.
  3. Very often it is used in the pattern man + Stative Verb + de, as in:

man haokande

man bu cuode

man haode

(Just like the pattern ting + Stative Verb + de.)

Jeroen Wiedenhof:

I had always assumed – but never checked – that this was an instance of the cross-linguistic tendency for 'barbaric ~ cruel ~ horrific' semantics to develop into adjectival 'well ~ good' meanings and/or adverbial 'very ~ rather' meanings.

Examples include Eng. bloody, awfully; Fr. [succès] monstre, Dutch wreed 'great', Mnd. hěn 狠 'cruel' > hěn 很 'very'. [however 酷 'cruel, oppressive' may be deceptive, since the modern Mnd. meaning 'cool, great' seems to have been popularized mainly as a phonetic loan from English cool.]

Lots of literature on that, I guess; just two references here for brevity's sake:

(1) 吕叔湘, 关于'很'和'狠'. 吕叔湘自选集, 上海: 上海教育出版社, 1987, 544-546;

(2) my Grammar of Mandarin (2015: 191).

For mán 蠻, any ethnonymic origins (in your 2nd message) aside, this development would then have to have started only after such self-designation had been borrowed as a Chinese name for non-Chinese groups, with pejorative connotations added in the process.

And since you mention southern topolects: mán 'quite; pretty; very; fairly' has spread to mainland Mandarin, including Beijing, since the 1990s – from Taiwan Mandarin, I suppose. And there seems to be a tendency to reinterpret or identify mán 'very' as mǎn 满 'full', no doubt reinforced by sandhi confusion before yǒu 有 etc. (mán yǒu yìsi, mán yǒu qián…)

Don Snow:

蠻 is a high frequency item in Suzhounese and other varieties of Wu. My guess is that its frequent use in Taiwan comes originally from Wu/Jiangnan, and that its use in Wu is additionally the source from which it has become more popular throughout the rest of China.

Jonathan Smith:

'fierce' > intensely' is the natural Sinitic solution and would be parallel to hen3 恨 > 很… in that case maybe really all the s/w as 'southerner/barbarian' which goes back quite a ways.

Then the question would be whether 蠻 'southerner/barbarian' is itself actually from some local endonym or rather a Sinitic word… in either case you are right, relation to 閩 a definite possibility!

Julian Wheatley;

First, the easier part: the use of 蠻 “(southern foreigner), barbaric, fierce” as an intensive (i.e. 表示程度甚) as in 蠻好的, 蠻有趣的, 蛮可怕的. That does look like a reasonable extension of the meaning “fierce”, as you note. 滿 is used in much the same way, presumably extended from its adverbial usage, as in 脚上满是泥 ‘feet covered in mud’ to an intensifying function: 满有把握, etc. The tones are different, but the 2nd versus 3rd tone distinction is neutralized in common expressions such as 蠻/滿好的 (where Chinese are often uncertain which character to write), so there’s probably been some contamination. Neither Cantonese nor Min uses 蠻 as an intensive as far as I know; the source seems to be Wu, as for example Shanghai: 明白哚!which must mean “I totally get it!” I can't think of any parallels in TB – or other – but it wouldn't surprise me if there were since it seems like a fairly reasonable shift.

The next part is murkier. For 蠻, the reconstruction of medial “r” (OC *mron, etc.) makes me think of the mran of mranma – Myanmar, a name that isn’t attested until the early 12th century according to Luce. (Burmese have tried to derive it ultimately from “Brahman”.) The Chinese representation with 缅 (OC *menʔ – so the “r” already lost in Bs) isn't attested until even later. But regardless, I can't think of a root that would explicate 蠻 (or similar sounding names) beyond its use as an ethnonym. Luce doesn’t comment on the name in his 蠻書 and I don’t see any leads in Matisoff’s Handbook. Nor can I think of a Tai or AA source – but I should check with experts for that. Your proposal of a connection between 蠻 and 閩 (OC *mrən, etc.) certainly looks feasible – I’ve never thought of it. 閩 is originally a toponym, isn’t it? The name of the river. Austroasiatic country, perhaps.

Matt Anderson:

My initial guess would be that, yes, it comes from some AA or AN word, but I don’t know of any possible candidates (Baxter and Sagart have OC *mˤro[n] < MC maen and Schuessler has OC *mrôn < MC man for 蠻, so something in the realm of *mron would be what we were looking for). And, as for the name of the southern people(s), both Baxter/Sagart & Schuessler give 閩 as OC *mrən, so that would certainly be a good match.

I have one wild guess about why it might mean “quite, pretty, very, fairly”, but I have no evidence for it, other than that it just occurred to me.  Could it just be being used in place of mǎn 滿? In both Shanghainese and Cantonese, 滿 is pronounced with a rising tone, while its MSM pronunciation is, in practice, usually a low tone. Could 蠻 have been chosen as a closer MSM representation of 滿 in either Cantonese or Shanghainese? One problem with this is that, in both Cantonese and Shanghainese, 滿 is a low-rising tone (23 in Shanghainese, I believe, unlike 蠻’s MSM 35), so there might not really be a good reason to switch characters. And I don’t know if 滿 was ever actually common in any southern topolects with the meaning of “quite, pretty, very, fairly”.

[Update 6/24/17, from Boyd Michailovsky:

About mán — it must be related to Tibetan monpa, which means something like 'southern barbarian' and is used for several different Tibeto-Burman (but not Tibetan) speaking groups in southern Tibet, Bhutan and Arunachal. (The 6th Dalai Lama is said to have been a Monpa.) Maybe monpa is from Chinese. The STEDT database doesn't seem to make this connection.

That 'barbarian' could become an attention-getting intensifier seems plausible to me. There must be a parallel elsewhere, but I don't know of one.

Mán/mǎn yǒuyìsi 蠻/滿有意思 ("quite interesting")!]

[Thanks to Axel Schuessler and David Prager Branner]


  1. Nicolas said,

    May 27, 2017 @ 3:13 pm

    Kinda tangential here, but it's worth noting that "bárbaro" in Brazilian Portuguese (lit. "barbarian") is a somewhat dated slang for "terrific/awesome".

  2. Ian said,

    May 27, 2017 @ 7:31 pm

    In Finnish, "sika" (pig) is often used as an intensifier. There does seem to be a universal tendency at least.

  3. chris said,

    May 27, 2017 @ 10:43 pm

    I was reminded of English "beastly" and "brutally" as intensifiers. At least, if you regard barbarians as only one step removed from beasts and brutes.

  4. Michael Watts said,

    May 28, 2017 @ 1:45 am

    I don't think "it's fiercely cold!" would be thought of as an unnatural thing to say in English, either.

  5. Easterly said,

    May 28, 2017 @ 5:36 am

    In Croatian:
    strašno dobro > awfully/terribly good
    brutalno > brutally, used by the younger set to mean excellent/super/great

  6. January First-of-May said,

    May 28, 2017 @ 4:14 pm

    Russian ужасно and страшно (~= "terribly") also seem to be commonly be used as intensifiers, with meanings similar to "very".

  7. Chris Button said,

    May 28, 2017 @ 10:56 pm

    @ Julian Wheatley

    Interesting comment regarding "Myanmar" although wouldn't the first syllable have originally gone back to Inscriptional Burmese "mram" with a bilabial -m coda rather than Written Burmese "mran" with its -n coda?

    @ Victor Mair

    The idea of an association between 閩 and 蠻 could perhaps be strengthened if we assume that perhaps 蠻 did not originally have a labialised rhyme -wan (-Schuessler's -on), but that the phonetic 䜌 was still applicable due to the labialising effect of the bilabial initial of 蠻. Conveniently ignoring the type a/b syllable distinction for the time being (which Schuessler marks with/without a circumflex), that would then give us *mrən and *mran for 閩 and 蠻 which attests the basic ə/a ablaut underlying the Chinese lexicon (and sometimes found in variant forms of the same word e.g. the two readings of 懑 as *mranʔ and *mrənʔ).

  8. Lameen said,

    May 29, 2017 @ 3:12 am

    "Frankly beautiful" isn't quite the same sense, but it does give an attested Western example of the name of a barbarian group turning into an adverb…

  9. Biscia said,

    May 30, 2017 @ 4:49 am

    I can't help thinking of the New England intensifier "wicked."

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