Of precious swords and Old Sinitic reconstructions

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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]


  1. Logan Streondj said,

    March 8, 2016 @ 9:00 am

    Finnish / miekːa/
    Polish/Slavic / mʲˈɛtʃ/

  2. Victor Mair said,

    March 8, 2016 @ 9:20 am

    Thank you very much, Logan.

    Do those words actually mean "sword"? How do you spell them in contemporary orthography?

  3. cr said,

    March 8, 2016 @ 9:43 am

    According to Wiktionary both Finnish miekka and Polish miecz are of Germanic origin, and both are translated as sword.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    March 8, 2016 @ 9:47 am

    I am deeply grateful to Logan Streondj and cr for the precious information they have supplied, as precious as the sword we are discussing.

  5. Frédéric Grosshans said,

    March 8, 2016 @ 9:56 am

    A quick look at the list of the Wikipedia articles for sword in all languages, listed here indeed show that slavic and finno-ugrian languages are good candidates for chasing down the cognate.

    (below is a list of all the cases wit a m (in the LGC script family). the three which do not look like Mec are the three which are neither indo-european nor uralic)

    be_x_old Меч
    be Меч
    bg Меч
    bs Mač
    % bxr Һэлмэ
    cs Meč
    et Mõõk
    fiu_vro Mõõk
    fi Miekka
    hr Mač
    pl Miecz
    ru Меч
    sh Mač
    sk Meč
    sl Meč
    % sn Munondo
    sr Мач
    uk Меч
    vep Mek
    % vi Kiếm

  6. Frédéric Grosshans said,

    March 8, 2016 @ 10:07 am

    And lloking at the etymology of the polish miecz on the wiktionary lead me to the proto-slavic mьčь, which is “usually considered to be a germanic borrowing”, from the proto-germanic mēkijaz , also borowed in finnic (from Gothic ‎(mēkeis) ? ).

    But we’re a bit far from China !

  7. cr said,

    March 8, 2016 @ 2:26 pm

    I don't know if this is related, but some varieties of Greek seem to have used the word μαγαρίς. Its meaning is given as μικρὰ σπάθη "little sword" here and as kurzes Schwert "short sword" here.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    March 8, 2016 @ 2:47 pm

    From Donald Ringe:

    That's interesting. One of your commentators is right: the reconstructable Proto-Germanic word is *mēkijaz. It's attested very early in two languages, both times in the accusative singular (which was *mēkiją in PGmc.): Gothic meki and Early Runic makija. Later on it survives in Old Norse mækir, Anglian Old English mēċe (used only in poetry), and Old Saxon māki (again in poetry, but poetry is practically all we have for Old Saxon).

    However, the word has no etymology outside of Gmc. It looks as though the Slavic and Baltic Finnic words were borrowed from a Germanic language–that's the usual direction of borrowing–and from an East Germanic language at that, maybe actually from Gothic. Since borrowing from any Gmc. language into Chinese is extremely unlikely, a reasonable hypothesis is that both words were borrowed from a common source, which would have to be some language of the steppes (Iranian??).

    More than that I can't say, at least not at the moment.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    March 8, 2016 @ 2:48 pm

    In a separate note, Donald Ringe added:

    Be aware that Greek makhaira 'knife' is NOT a cognate of the Gmc. word; that's 19th-century stuff that was discarded long ago. The basic problem is that nothing–literally nothing–except the m- fits by the regular sound correspondences.

  10. Eidolon said,

    March 8, 2016 @ 4:06 pm

    These appear to be false cognates –


    무력(武力) – mu ryeok


    武力 – bu ryoku

    武 "wu" was pronounced "ma" in Old Chinese according to the ABC Etymological Dictionary of Old Chinese, so it looked as though there might have been an etymology since 武 is a Sino-Tibetan cognate for "army" and "war," but 力 was always "lik" so does not match "ja"/"ye" and besides, the Japanese and Korean examples appear to be transcriptions of the Chinese characters in their pronunciation, so I think this is a false cognate.

  11. Np said,

    March 8, 2016 @ 4:35 pm

    Google translate gives this Thai word for sword, presented as the last of five different choices: มิตยาว – with a transliteration Mit yāw – no idea if this is accurate though. But a Tai-Kadai origin for the term would fit nicely with Gan jiang and Mo ye's associations with the southern kingdom of Wu (which do seem to date from the Eastern Han, however).

  12. Victor Mair said,

    March 8, 2016 @ 7:16 pm

    From Peter B. Golden:

    It would be useful to look at Saskia Pronk-Tiethoff, The Germanic Loanwords in Proto-Slavic Leiden Studies in Indo-European, 20 (Amsterdam-New York: Rodopi, 2013): 210-211 who also cites Old Irish machtaim “slaughter” (1sg.) and comments “The ultimate origin of the word is unclear. PGmc*meık- has, perhaps apart from the Old Irish form, no cognates in the Indo-European Languages.” She also cites Vasmer (I am using the Russ. trans. M.F. Fasmer, Etimologicheskii slovar’ russkogo iazyka, trans. O.N. Trubachëv (M. “Progress, 1986), II: 612-613): Middle Persian magēn “sword” which may get you a little closer. Pronk-Tiethoff concludes that the word was not borrowed into Proto-Slavic from Germanic and that it was “borrowed from an unknown language” -which Vasmer also considered possible.

    She also cites attempts (following Vasmer, Kiparsky) to derive both the Germanic and Slavic from a Caucasian language, cf. Georg. maχna “sharp; sword” ( a word that I cannot find in any of my Georgian dictionaries – rather there is maχvili “sharp, sword” and χmali), noting also Udi meχ, Lezgian maχ (both taken from Vasmer) – but I am uncertain about these. In Lezgin “sword” is tur and maχ is “iron” in (North-Caucasian) Avar.

  13. PeterL said,

    March 8, 2016 @ 10:07 pm

    Maybe related to PIE "mighty" or "magic"? (magh- 'to help, be able; might, power')

    Also: http://www.utexas.edu/cola/centers/lrc/ielex/R/P1209.html
    which includes: Old Persian: mogush: magus, sorcerer

  14. Jean-Michel said,

    March 9, 2016 @ 12:24 am

    @PeterL: Interesting notion, especially since Mair has previously proposed that Chinese borrowed Old Persian magus as 巫 "shaman, wizard, witch," reconstructed as OC *mʸag. But I'll have to defer to others to determine as to whether this can be reasonably connected with 鏌鋣; at the very least it would seem to leave the 鋣 unaccounted for.

  15. John Swindle said,

    March 9, 2016 @ 2:23 am

    Extraordinary sleuthing by all nonetheless! I take back whatever snarky comment I made over two decades ago in Usenet. If you say that the Chinese term for "all things," MSM "wànwù," pronounced anciently something like "myanh-var," "is clearly related to English 'many varieties,'" then I say why not? It's probably true.

  16. Jongseong Park said,

    March 9, 2016 @ 6:54 am

    @Eidolon, Korean 무력 武力 muryeok "military force" is transparently a Sino-Korean term whose meaning is explained by the meaning of the Chinese characters that compose it, and which corresponds exactly to the Chinese term 武力 wǔlì, so it cannot be cognate with 莫邪. If you're trying to find cognates for Chinese terms in Korean, you should stay away from the obvious Sino-Korean derivations, and look for where the Chinese characters seem to be phonetically transcribing a native term.

    By the way, 鏌鋣/莫邪 Mòyé is 막야 magya in Korean, or mak ya if each syllable is pronounced separately, so the Korean reading is still quite close to Baxter's *mˤak-ja.

  17. Logo said,

    March 9, 2016 @ 7:16 am

    Latin : machaera, from Greek μάχαιρα (@cr : that's probably where μαγαρίς is from ?).
    The etymology of this word in proto-indo-european is *magh- (to fight). I'd say that's also maybe the origin of the slavic and germanic words.

  18. Rodger C said,

    March 9, 2016 @ 10:07 am

    @Logo: This was covered above. A Germanic reflex would start with *mag-.

  19. R. Fenwick said,

    March 9, 2016 @ 10:47 pm

    I did a bit of trolling through Northwest Caucasian, since there are known cultural borrowings going on between NWC and Germanic. At least two examples, seemingly dating to two different periods, are known (Common NWC *gᶣašᶣə ↔ Late PIE *agʷesī 'axe', and Proto-Circassian *kːʷaʦːə ↔ Proto-Germanic *hwaitiya– 'wheat').

    It turns out that Abaza makʲa and Abkhaz a-mákʲ(a) mean 'sharpening steel' – which is a bit of a semantic leap from Germanic *mēkiya- 'sword', but not at all a long one given the appearance of the average kitchen sharpening steel. Unfortunately, mákʲ(a) seems to be isolated in Abkhaz-Abaza as well, with no comparanda seeming to survive in the Circassian branches or Ubykh (though on the latter that's scarcely surprising), so it doesn't really answer the question of where the isolated Germanic *mēkiya- comes from. But it's very intriguing nonetheless.

  20. Eidolon said,

    March 10, 2016 @ 3:03 pm

    @Jongseong I think I said the same in the comment for why they are "false cognates". What threw me at first was that 무력 was/is actually a word for "sword" in Korean. The other, more popular word for "sword," 검 geom, is much more similar to the standard Chinese word for "sword", 剑 jian. The literal translation of 武力 for "military force" that you gave is, of course, identical with that of Chinese and makes it an obvious Sino-Korean term. However, the secondary meaning is different.

    Even still, I think 武 "military, martial" pronounced ma- in Old Chinese, and with cognate dmak- "war" in Tibeto-Burman, is an important term for this discussion. First of all, it matches the semantics of what we're talking about – ie a weapon. Second, there's a similar root in Indo-European ie "mars"/"mart" for "war," which could explain the Germanic word for "sword," provided it follows the same logic as "moye." Even in case "dmak" and "mars" ends up being a false cognate, the Sino-Tibetan root is still reasonable for "mak" in "makja," as it doesn't, then, require us to look for a distant source, since Sino-Tibetan groups were, well, right there.

  21. Sili said,

    March 10, 2016 @ 3:54 pm

    What does the archaeology say? Swords are usually the sorta thing to be used as grave gifts or offerings. And while I'm not a smith, I suspect that the designs evolve slowly rather than undergo radical innovation. Shouldn't it be possible to track the road and timeline for the arrival of swords in the East (assuming iron-smithing wasn't discovered independently)?

  22. David B Solnit said,

    March 10, 2016 @ 3:56 pm

    Google Translate is probably trying for Thai มีด mî:t 'knife' ยาว ya:w 'long' . มิต mít, with short vowel, is wrong for 'knife'.

  23. Chau said,

    March 10, 2016 @ 4:18 pm

    @R. Fenwick

    Orel’s “A Handbook of Germanic Etymology” (p. 269) states that *mēkjaz ‘sword’ is “borrowed from North Caucasian *mĭqcV [with c in superscript] ‘chisel, hoe, knife’” with reflexes in Avar-Andi, Tsez, and Lezgi. It also lists references to Archi and Gorgian. And regarding Donald Ringe’s comment of “some language of the Steppes” being the common source for Germanic and Old Chinese, it cites a reference to Vernadsky who suggests the word may have been a “Sarmatian loanword [into Germanic]”.

  24. Victor Mair said,

    March 10, 2016 @ 4:51 pm

    From Robin Yates:

    Moye 莫邪 was the given name of one of the Scribe Directors (lingshi) in Qianling County in the Qin (27th year of King Zheng), the formidable First Emperor.


  25. Victor Mair said,

    March 10, 2016 @ 5:23 pm

    Within a day or two, I will make a post about another ancient sword with an obviously transcribed name.

  26. polyspaston said,

    March 10, 2016 @ 9:41 pm

    There is a word mSw (or maSw) in Egyptian which may mean "sword", though it may be a hapax: the only place I have found it is in the biography of Amenemhab, son of Mahu (fl. c.1450 BC), where it seems clear it was some kind of weapon (Urk. IV, 898: 5-11); in particular 898: 8-10:

    iw=i Hr sxsx m-sA=s Hr rdwy(=i) Xr pAy=i maSw iw=i Hr wn Xt=s
    "… I ran after it on (my) legs, under/with my sword, and I opened its body…"

    The Erman/Grapow Worterbuch describes it as chiefly 18th Dynasty, and gives only the orthography found in the biography of Amenemhab, so it may in fact be only found there (the digitized slip archive available online with the Worterbuch has no images for it, nor does the text corpus provide attestations, and I don't have Hannig's dictionary to hand so can't check that.)

  27. Yuji said,

    March 10, 2016 @ 10:57 pm

    I'd like to point out that the sword 莫耶 was made by/for King Goujian of Yue, https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/King_Goujian_of_Yue , in the southern boundary of the Chinese cultural sphere in those days, facing the Pacific Ocean.. It seems unlikely that Indoeuropean or Finno-Ugric was spoken there.

    If the sword originated from the western boundary of Chinese cultural sphere it would not have been totally preposterous, though, since Tokharian was definitely spoken there. What's the word for "sword" in Tokharian?

  28. R. Fenwick said,

    March 11, 2016 @ 9:13 am


    I'd tend to steer clear of anything that involves a "North Caucasian" reconstruction, since it invariably arises from Nikolayev and Starostin's highly problematic 1994 North Caucasian Etymological Dictionary (NCED) and can't be used uncritically. In this case, the reconstruction you speak of is actually not *mĭqᶜV, but in NCED is *mɨ̆q’V with a central short vowel and ejective *q’ (see the online version of NCED). Orel's etymology is highly problematic in that the vocalism is right off in both syllables (in fact, I'm reminded of the critique attributed to Voltaire, that in etymology consonants count for very little and the vowels for nothing at all).

    For the first vowel nucleus, PNC *ɨ̆ (short, central, close) doesn't compare at all well to Proto-Germanic *ē (long, front, mid-open), and where a second vowel is extant at all in the modern North-East Caucasian languages it is back, a or u (cf. Karata maʔala, Tabasaran muq’u), not front as would be expected for *mēkiyaz. Moreover, the North-East Caucasian semantics go back not to a cutting instrument, but rather to a gouging one (Bezhta and Hunzib "chisel", Chamalal and Karata "hoe, mattock", Tabasaran "ploughshare"); Udi me is the only form in NEC that means "knife". I'd be interested to know what Archi and Georgian comparanda Orel claims, since Archi goes unmentioned in the NCED reconstruction and Georgian is not seriously considered to be related to North Caucasian by any modern researchers.

    By contrast, Common Abkhaz-Abaza *mákʲ(a) compares very neatly, both consonantally and vocalically, with Proto-Germanic *mēkijaz or some form or descendant of it (particularly Biblical Gothic mēki).

  29. R. Fenwick said,

    March 11, 2016 @ 9:20 am


    I only have access to a dictionary of Tocharian B, but apsal "sword", kertte "id.", and yepe "cutting weapon" are all impossible as candidates. I can't find any plausible Tocharian form that's semantically close.

  30. Jongseong Park said,

    March 11, 2016 @ 11:03 am

    @Eidolon: What threw me at first was that 무력 was/is actually a word for "sword" in Korean.

    This is not true. 무력 武力 muryeok means "military force" or "brute force" in Korean, never "sword". You could have a case where "sword" in an English sentence could be used figuratively to mean "brute force", as in "the uprising was put down by the sword" and could be translated as 무력 muryeok if we decided the metaphor was a bit awkward in Korean, but that does not mean that 무력 muryeok means "sword".

    Perhaps you were thinking of 무영검 無影劍 muyeonggeom "shadowless sword", the title of a 2005 martial arts film?

    The Sino-Korean 검 劍 geom is fairly common for "sword" as a weapon, but the most common everyday word you will encounter is the native 칼 kal (from Middle Korean 갏 gal, Yale: kalh) which encompasses swords and knives of all kinds and usage.

  31. January First-of-May said,

    March 14, 2016 @ 3:29 am

    The word "martial", which is what you're probably thinking of when you talk about "Indo-European "mars"/"mart" for "war"", is almost certainly from Classical Latin Mars "war god"; the Old Latin forms don't look as similar. (Are there any known cognates outside Latin?)
    Not to be confused with "marshal" and "march", both also military terms, which are related to "mare" (horse) and "margin" (boundary), respectively.

  32. Daniel de França Diniz Rocha said,

    March 16, 2016 @ 1:15 pm

    The word in Portuguese for ax is machado, it seems to come from From Latin marculatus, from marculus, diminutive of marcus ‎(“hammer”).


  33. David Marjanović said,

    March 19, 2016 @ 6:00 pm

    At least two examples, seemingly dating to two different periods, are known (Common NWC *gᶣašᶣə ↔ Late PIE *agʷesī 'axe', and Proto-Circassian *kːʷaʦːə ↔ Proto-Germanic *hwaitiya– 'wheat').

    The second doesn't fit well phonetically, but the first is really intriguing. Is a- a NWC prefix that could occur on this noun?

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