Is it necessary to invent a new Chinese character for "ivory"?

« previous post | next post »

In a recent post, we discussed the creation of hitherto unknown Chinese characters:

"How to generate fake Chinese characters automatically" (12/30/15)

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.

"Wildlife groups call on Hong Kong to create new Chinese character to write out ivory trade" (12/10/15)

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]


  1. holio said,

    January 2, 2016 @ 11:31 am máo

  2. leoboiko said,

    January 2, 2016 @ 12:36 pm

    Call them "death teeth" 死牙 sǐyá.

    I agree that a new character is very much unnecessary, the WWF is confusing characters with words; but if we were to create one, just squeeze these two as ⿰歹牙.

  3. Guy said,

    January 2, 2016 @ 1:33 pm

    It's not obvious to me this would be a fix anyway. English has a monomorphemic word for ivory and it had to be explained to me when I was a child that the collection of ivory involved the killing of the elephant. Presumably one would have to do as leoboiko suggests and make it something explicit.

  4. liuyao said,

    January 2, 2016 @ 3:10 pm

    齒 is a legitimate radical, so I'd say xiangya could be written as [齒象] as a single character.

    Incidentally, Côte d'Ivoire has demanded that other countries stop translating their country's name, but use the phonetic spelling instead. So in Chinese 象牙海岸 has become 科特迪瓦 (ke te di wa), which makes Ivoire correspond to "iwa" (dropping the d).

  5. liuyao said,

    January 2, 2016 @ 3:21 pm

    Looking at the bronze script for 象, the very first stroke seems to represent the tusk. So according to the 指事 method of creating characters, we'd need to put an extra stroke (such as a dot) next to or crossing it, just like 刃 from 刀.

  6. liuyao said,

    January 2, 2016 @ 3:26 pm

    I apologize, that first stroke is probably the trunk, not the tusk.

  7. Michael Watts said,

    January 2, 2016 @ 9:47 pm

    I agree that a new character is very much unnecessary, the WWF is confusing characters with words

    This contention shows up in the article too, but I don't see what mistake the WWF is supposedly making. Their campaign page plainly indicates that they're looking for a single new character to replace the 牙 of 象牙, such that the term for ivory would go from being "elephant teeth" to "elephant [new character]".

    It's true that the fact that walrus ivory is also called 象牙 means that 象牙 has been lexicalized, but it's also obvious that the word comes from "elephant teeth". The WWF wants to get rid of that obvious association, and their idea isn't ridiculous if implemented. It could be a good idea; it could be a bad idea; but I don't see the confusion they're being accused of.

  8. Dan Milton said,

    January 2, 2016 @ 11:07 pm

    I've always liked the German version of Cote d'Ivoire (presumably now discouraged): Elfenbeinkueste. There's a thought for the WWF, bones are more vital than teeth.

  9. Guy said,

    January 3, 2016 @ 12:05 am

    Incidentally, there's no way to submit a pronunciation to go with the character, it's not clear if they envision a pronunciation coming later, or if they intend it to still be read as xiàngyá, or if they just haven't thought this through.

  10. JS said,

    January 3, 2016 @ 12:17 am

    As Michael suggests, the Chinese reads 為象「牙」創造新字, which is more or less clear, and there are some examples that suggest they are indeed hoping for a new character form to write the syllable yá of xiàngyá. Dubious, but would hardly be the first time such a thing had happened.

    Someone feel free to explain those examples, by the way:

    My submissions are in.

  11. Michael Watts said,

    January 3, 2016 @ 12:26 am

    Not to say that they did think it through, but keeping the pronunciation xiàngyá would almost certainly be the correct choice. It's not so hard to get people to change the way they spell; it's very hard to get people to change the way they talk.

  12. Krzysztof Sobolewski said,

    January 3, 2016 @ 3:08 am

    The phrase in Polish for ivory is "kość słoniowa" which, like in German, translates to "elephant bone". Seems like a good name in service of stopping elephant slaughter. On the other hand we all know that language doesn't *really* work that way :)

  13. Jon said,

    January 3, 2016 @ 3:27 am

    This reminds me of PETA's campaign to change the name of fish to 'sea kittens', on the theory that this would make people reluctant to eat them. And it's not an Onion parody, it's on PETA's website.
    Calling sheep flesh 'lamb' hasn't stopped people eating the stuff. Asking for an unenforceable and pointless change of name for ivory just makes WWF look foolish.

  14. Karen said,

    January 3, 2016 @ 8:31 am

    Russian also calls ivory "bones" rather than "teeth". It doesn't seem to have stopped them from using ivory.

  15. Victor Mair said,

    January 3, 2016 @ 12:54 pm


    You hit the yá on the head with both of your comments.

  16. January First-of-May said,

    January 3, 2016 @ 2:04 pm

    @Karen: it does, however, mean that many people believe that any elephant bones are ivory, not just the tusks (бивни – don't recall the etymology, though might well be "things that beat/strike") specifically.

    That said, historically, a decent fraction of Russian ivory came from native mammoths, which were of course dead long before the harvesting of the ivory.

  17. Michael said,

    January 4, 2016 @ 12:35 pm

    If not a new character, perhaps a new word? This is probably very bad/awkward Chinese but something like: 死象品

  18. Anonymous said,

    January 4, 2016 @ 12:51 pm

    Russian also calls ivory "bones" rather than "teeth". It doesn't seem to have stopped them from using ivory.

    I lived in Russia my whole life and have never heard of anybody ever using ivory.

    I guess no slander is too distasteful for a 'black legend' when you're itching to start WWIII.

    What next, blood libel?

    Maybe you should stick to linguistics instead.

  19. Terry Hunt said,

    January 4, 2016 @ 1:22 pm

    @ Anonymous

    So what were white chess pieces and piano keys predating the advent of plastics made of? Do you maintain that Russians, uniquely in European culture, didn't play chess or the piano?

  20. v01ces said,

    January 6, 2016 @ 5:20 am

    I (regrettably) live geographically close to Russia; I've been to Russia several times and as far as I can tell they use ivory more or less as much as everyone else.

  21. January First-of-May said,

    January 6, 2016 @ 6:31 am

    @Anonymous: I also lived in Russia my whole life, and I agree with v01ces that, while ivory use is rare, it does not appear to be necessarily rarer than should be expected given the general rareness of ivory.
    And, as I said, historically much of the ivory used in Russia was made from mammoths (thus no living elephants were harmed in its production).

RSS feed for comments on this post