Language vs. script

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Many of the debates over Chinese language issues that keep coming up on Language Log and elsewhere may be attributed to a small number of basic misunderstandings and disagreements concerning the relationship between speech and writing.

All too often, people think that the Chinese characters (hànzì 汉字) are the Chinese language.  Right away that brings us face to face with the monumental conundrum of what is the Chinese language.  This is a question that we have confronted countless times, and I have always come down on the side of there being numerous mutually unintelligible Chinese languages.  Moreover, many of the morphemes of these languages (often the most frequently occurring ones) cannot even be written in hànzì.  Consequently, the proposition that the hànzì are somehow collectively to be equated with the many varieties of Hànyǔ 汉语 (Sinitic) breaks down from the very beginning.

I view Sinitic as a group or family of languages that may be divided into branches like those that exist for all other language groups / families.  (Whether Sinitic is a group or a family depends upon how closely it is related to Tibeto-Burman and other groups.  Since the jury is still out on  the relationship between Sinitic and Tibeto-Burman, etc., I refrain from drawing any firm conclusions on this vexed issue.)

I reserve the designation "Chinese" (Zhōngwén 中文) for the written form of Mandarin that is used by literate speakers of all the Sinitic languages and topolects.

Having come just this far, we need to be constantly on the alert to confusing language and script, which is bound to result in faulty analysis of both.  Language is what people speak (the sounds that convey meaning); to the extent that their language may be written (most languages in the world are not written), script is the tool they use to write it.

Another source of vast confusion in the study of "Chinese" is the relationship between character and word.  Many students are under the misapprehension that every character is a word and every word is a character.  It must be pointed out that, until the first half of the twentieth century, there wasn't even a word for "word" in Chinese (henceforth I'll dispense with the definitional quotation marks).  As a result, Chinese linguists borrowed a term that originally (late medieval period) referred to a type of lyric verse set to various metrical patterns (still earlier, it meant "phraseology"), cí 词, to stand for "word".  Thus, in modern Chinese linguistics, a sharp distinction is drawn between ("character") and cí 词 ("word").  This distinction is fundamental to all contemporary linguistic analysis.  It is also why there are zìdiǎn 字典 ("character dictionaries") and cídiǎn 词典 ("word dictionaries").  These two types of dictionaries serve very different purposes, and we need both.

Except for the rare polysyllabic characters that we have talked about from time to time on Language Log, Chinese characters are one syllable in length.  In contrast, the average length of a Chinese word is almost exactly two syllables / characters.

Not all characters are morphemes, since some Sinitic morphemes are disyllabic; i.e., the individual syllables / characters do not mean anything by themselves:  shānhú 珊瑚 ("coral"), húdié 蝴蝶 ("butterfly"), qílín 麒麟 ("kirin"), zhīzhū 蜘蛛 ("spider"), fènghuáng 凤凰 ("phoenix"), pípá 琵琶 ("lute"), qiūyǐn 蚯蚓 ("earthworm"), biānfú 蝙蝠 ("bat"), and so forth (these are old terms, and there are many more like them).

Some characters are free (i.e., may be used independently as a single syllable word) while others are bound (i.e., may only be used in combination with another character or characters to form a disyllabic or polysyllabic word).

Chinese words may have affixes like words in other languages.  Already in 1976, the historical linguist Axel Schuessler wrote a seminal work on Affixes in Proto-Chinese, whose principles were elaborated in his A Dictionary of Early Zhou Chinese (1987) and other works by him.  Zhuōzi 桌子 does not mean "son of table" — it means "table"; zhōngtóu 钟头 does not mean "head of bell" — it means "hour".

Another common mistake in research on Sinitic is to call the description of character construction (radicals, residual strokes, etc.) etymology.  Etymology has to do with the evolution of the meanings of words through time.  That is a separate matter from the evolution of the form and structure of characters through time. Here again we are indebted to Axel Schuessler for his ABC Etymological Dictionary of Old Chinese (2006), the first of its kind.

Since the mistranslation of the Chinese term fāngyán 方言 into English as "dialect", and vice versa, has caused so much mischief in the study of Sinitic, we would do well to avoid it altogether and substitute "topolect" in English for fāngyán 方言 and tōngyán 通言 in Chinese for "dialect".  For copious examples of the reasoning behind these suggestions, see several pages of each of these searches:  here, here, and here.

—————

The above paragraphs constitute a mini introductory grammar of Sinitic for the neophyte.  We have gone into all of the topics touched upon here in much greater depth in Language Log posts of the last decade.  For those who are serious in pursuing these matters further, the following books are warmly recommended:

Y. R. Chao and L. S. Yang, Concise Dictionary of Spoken Chinese (Harvard University Press, 1947).  Elegant, brilliant work that is particularly good at delineating the contrast between free and bound.

Charles N. Li and Sandra A. Thompson, Mandarin Chinese: A Functional Reference Grammar (University of California Press, 1989)

Yuen Ren Chao, A Grammar of Spoken Chinese (University of California Press, 1965).

Jerome L. Packard, The Morphology of Chinese: A Linguistic and Cognitive Approach (Cambridge University Press, 2000).



69 Comments

  1. John Thayer Jensen said,

    November 21, 2016 @ 2:32 pm

    I always to try to explain it to my non-linguist friends by pointing out to them that we users of alphabetically-written languages do have a certain number of logograms in common – principally numerals, but also signs like ampersand. The language we speak may use these signs but of course they represent distinct words (viewing a 'word' as a pronounceable thing) in different languages.

    jj

  2. Mark Mandel said,

    November 21, 2016 @ 3:14 pm

    Thank you for an extremely clear summary. I am going to post a pointer to it on my blog, for such of my readers as are interested in these things.

  3. Mark Mandel said,

    November 21, 2016 @ 3:29 pm

    Language vs. script in "Chinese"

  4. WSM said,

    November 21, 2016 @ 4:32 pm

    Don't 凤 and 凰 refer respectively to different types of phoenix, and can therefore be understood without being paired together? Similarly for 蝶 which shows up by its lonesome I believe in Zhuangzi and also in names of contemporary starlets such as 蒋梦蝶.

    Combination of such characters in compounds, particularly in vernacular contexts, can be interpreted as an effort at disambigiuation which doesn't imply the constituent elements have lost their standalone meaning.

  5. Jim Breen said,

    November 21, 2016 @ 4:39 pm

    Excellent article, as ever. Much of it applies to Japanese as well.

    For a couple of minor points of comparison, in Japanese 方言 (ほうげん, hõgen) does mean dialect, and 通言 (つうげん, tsûgen) means slang or cant.

  6. WSM said,

    November 21, 2016 @ 5:20 pm

    Also some examination of the process of constructing neologisms might be pertinent to this – as far as I can tell new words in Chinese are rarely formed by fusing 词 together into long strings a la German, but rather combining existing 字 (construed as a word/character/whatever) into new 词 – such combinations often (Certainly not always) seem to have some relationship to the semantics of the standalone 字.

  7. Bathrobe said,

    November 21, 2016 @ 6:09 pm

    WSM has made an excellent point about the process of constructing neologisms using 字. Without the distinctions that Prof Mair points out you end up with muddied thinking. Clarifying these concepts also allows you to arrive at a clearer analysis of the power of the 字 in Chinese culture and language. Unless the 字 is taken into account, a lot of word-building doesn't make sense. Even old disyllabic words can be broken down and used as single 字 in making new words.

    I don't think the process is unique to Chinese. Similar things happen in alphabetic languages when acronyms (combinations of initial letters) are used as words.

    For better or for worse, literacy does have an important impact on language.

  8. philip said,

    November 21, 2016 @ 6:57 pm

    Is it true that "most languages in the world are not written"?

  9. leoboiko said,

    November 21, 2016 @ 8:38 pm

    > Don't 凤 and 凰 refer respectively to different types of phoenix, and can therefore be understood without being paired together?

    Those appears to be later rationalizations; something akin to back-formation.

    I do think, however, that Sinitic has a noticeable tendency to want its syllables to be morphemes (not words!). Most syllables are morphemes, and even in the case of polysyllabic morphemes, their syllables end up being reanalyzed as individual morphemes. (This tendency interact with a distinct tendency for prosodic feet to be polysyllabic, leading to polysyllabic words.) And since, say, 蝶 became a morpheme (e.g. in 蝶泳 "butterfly [swimming] stroke" or 蝶骨 "sphenoid [butterfly-like] bone"), 蝴 in 蝴蝶 is rendered into something akin to English cranberry morphemes. Kennedy believed such developments to be the result of influence from writing, mere "literary abbreviations"; but I think it's the other way around; it's too strong and widespread a tendency for me to believe writing alone could cause it; rather, it must be because the language family likes syllables to be morphemes that a morpho-syllabic writing system arose. I don't have time to expand the argument right now, but see:

    * PACKARD, J. L. The morphology of Chinese: A linguistic and cognitive approach. 2000.
    * FENG, S. Monosyllabicity and disyllabicity in Chinese prosodic morphology. 2009.
    * DUANMU, S. Word-length preferences in Chinese: A corpus study. 2012.
    * DONG, Y. The Prosody and Morphology of Elastic Words in Chinese: Annotations and analyses. 2016.

  10. WSM said,

    November 21, 2016 @ 10:51 pm

    @leoboiko I'm not quite sure what you mean by "later rationalizations" – if you mean that the Chinese started out by just calling all phoenixes feng4huang2, and then later decided that they needed characters to represent the syllables feng4 and huang2, and then decided that feng4 and huang2 should male/female phoenixes; I have my doubts, and suspect that classical dictionaries will provide definitions for each of the characters by themselves.

  11. Chris Button said,

    November 21, 2016 @ 11:46 pm

    Another common mistake in research on Sinitic is to call the description of character construction (radicals, residual strokes, etc.) etymology. Etymology has to do with the evolution of the meanings of words through time. That is a separate matter from the evolution of the form and structure of characters through time.

    I'm not sure if I'm entirely in agreement. The implication is that "ci yuan" (word origin) may be equated with "etymology", but "zi yuan" (character origin) may not. If "etymology" is literally "the study of true form", then just because English doesn't have any "zi" to which it can be applied, that doesn't make it any less applicable elsewhere. While "word etymology" might sound a little tautological in English ("word" being redundantly specified), making a distinction in Chinese between "word etymology" and "character etymology" seems perfectly valid to me.

    Furthermore, the fact that xiesheng series of "zi" can sometimes (and only sometimes) be used to trace associations between monosyllabic "ci" represented by such "zi" is not really that different from English spelling calling attention to the silent "g" in "sign" that connects it with the spoken "g" in words like "signal".

  12. Bathrobe said,

    November 22, 2016 @ 12:37 am

    making a distinction in Chinese between "word etymology" and "character etymology" seems perfectly valid to me.

    I think that making the distinction is what is crucial here. Unfortunately, when talking of the etymology of a word in Chinese it seems all too common to slip into a discussion of the etymology of the character, which leads to muddled thinking. It is one thing to discuss the evolution and meaning of the word jiā in Chinese; it is another to trace the ultimate meaning of jiā to a pig under a roof (家). The form of the character 家 may or may not throw an interesting light on the earliest meaning of the word jiā, but it certainly doesn't represent the word's etymology.

    Hence the need to clearly distinguish between language and writing.

  13. Bathrobe said,

    November 22, 2016 @ 1:22 am

    it's too strong and widespread a tendency for me to believe writing alone could cause it; rather, it must be because the language family likes syllables to be morphemes that a morpho-syllabic writing system arose.

    There is a chicken and egg aspect to this. How far back do you have to go to find out whether the language family innately likes syllables to be morphemes, or whether it was simply a cultural proclivity that arose at some period in time? Does it apply to Tibetan and Burmese (which are in the same language family)? Does it apply to the many small members of the larger family found in northeastern India and western Myanmar? If not, what does it mean to say that the language family likes syllables to be morphemes?

  14. Usually Dainichi said,

    November 22, 2016 @ 2:22 am

    > Etymology has to do with the evolution of the meanings of words through time

    Interesting, I would have thought that it also had to do with the evolution of the (spoken) _form_ of words. So when an etymological dictionary mentions that some word is derived from some PIE word, that's just extra information, not etymological information? I'm not being sarcastic here, I'm genuinely surprised.

    Anyway, even when studying the history of the form of words, it's too easy to confuse script with sound. I mean, how many descriptions of word origins have you seen using IPA? Sure, the written word might be all we have which is attested, and might give some insight about the phonemes of the word, but I always find myself wondering "but how was this _pronounced_?"

  15. Bob Crossley said,

    November 22, 2016 @ 5:25 am

    "I reserve the designation "Chinese" (Zhōngwén 中文) for the written form of Mandarin that is used by literate speakers of all the Sinitic languages and topolects".

    I understand why you might want to do that for simplicity, but it does rather obscure the intimate connection of that language with writing. I can see some problems though in calling it "Literary Chinese". It's unfortunate that English doesn't have a word that means "literary" without the "artistic" connection

  16. Andreas Johansson said,

    November 22, 2016 @ 7:39 am

    If I'm allowed a tangent, I recently met a Chinese woman whose given name is Qingbi in pinyin, but her pronunciation sounded, to my non-sinophone, non-phonetician ears, as more or less [tʰɪmbi], which of course isn't at all what the usual pinyin pronunciation guides would suggest wrt the first syllable. She's apparently from Chengdu – is that a normal pronunciation from thereabouts, or is something else going on?

  17. Victor Mair said,

    November 22, 2016 @ 7:47 am

    @Andreas Johansson

    Excellent observation / question!

    Later today or tomorrow, I will make a post on the Chinese transcription of Trump's surname that will speak to precisely that point.

  18. Victor Mair said,

    November 22, 2016 @ 8:00 am

    Read any of the definitions and descriptions of "etymology" here; they all have to do with the evolution of the sounds and meanings of words, not the shape and construction of letters / characters / glyphs.

    See the last two paragraphs of this post:

    "Chinese 'Etymology'" (1/17/11)

    Also:

    "Clogged drains and Uncle Hanzi" (11/16/15)

    "Phonosymbolism and Phonosemantics in Chinese" (1/13/12) (last paragraph)

    "Heart-mind" (9/29/14)

  19. Victor Mair said,

    November 22, 2016 @ 8:48 am

    I just heard one of the strangest songs of my life. It's called "Wordy Rappinghood" by Tom Tom Club. If you want to hear a clip from it, click on 07:31 am (11-22-2016) here.

    You do get to hear this sort of thing on 88.5 WXPN, UPenn's magnificent radio station.

    I think that all Language Loggers will enjoy this paean to the building blocks of our languages.

    YouTube here (4:30) — posted 3/2/12

    Really funky!

    Must listen!

    Amazing! It's had nearly a million views!

    What an effective advertisement for our profession.

    Full lyrics here.

  20. Victor Mair said,

    November 22, 2016 @ 9:08 am

    The reason I spent so much time preparing the previous comment is because of the uncannily serendipitous synchronicity of hearing "Wordy Rappinghood" this morning, precisely at the moment when I was meditating on the centrality of THE SPOKEN WORD in all that we as linguists do. In fact, that is what prompted me to write this post yesterday early in the afternoon, and I've been thinking about it ever since, especially after reading all the stimulating comments from others. Phonemes, morphemes, graphemes, grammar, syntax…; they're all there for describing and analyzing what words are and what we do with words.

  21. ~flow said,

    November 22, 2016 @ 11:10 am

    @VHM—"Read any of the definitions and descriptions of "etymology" here; they all have to do with the evolution of the sounds and meanings of words, not the shape and construction of letters / characters / glyphs."

    Having read your post, I was on the verge of adding my view, i.e. I do find that 'etymology of a CJK character' can be done and should be called 'etymology', but not in the precise sense that you want to deny that very label.

    There is, to be sure, a real danger of confusion, especially for 'non-linguistic' folks, to mix up the written and the spoken modes of expression.

    However, when I think of the 'etymology of a character', what I think of is not 'the shape and construction' of it as such, but rather an enquiry to find out how a character has come to mean something, how it was used in the past, what the motivations were to assemble a given number of elements to form it, what, if anything, is depicted by its elements, what parts have been left out or added in the course of its history, and so on.

    In word etymology, we are likewise not so much concerned with the construction of a given word as such, but rather why, when and with which connotations a word was formed, and how it has fared—how it was maybe re-analyzed, shortened, confused, or maybe how relatively constant in form and/or meaning it has been over decades or even centuries, as the case may be.

    It is, of course, not OK to conflate the history of the spoken word with that of the written word. However, inquiries in the history of the written word and the history of the very shapes are, of course, worthwhile.

    To give an example, Wikipedia, in the entry for the letter G: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/G, has the following to say: "[…] 'G' was introduced [by] Spurius Carvilius Ruga […] around 230 BC. […] Ruga's positioning of 'G' shows that alphabetic order related to the letters' values as Greek numerals was a concern even in the 3rd century BC."—These facts (and others in the article, which I assume to be 'true' for the purpose of this discussion) give an outline of the origins of the letter, a motivation for its shape, why it was invented at all, what its equivalents are in the Latin and in other scripts and so on.

    Now, we can of course any time call that "the history of the letter G", and I'm sure you won't object. If I understand you correctly, you *would* object if I was to suggest that the article outlines "the etymology of the letter G". Now, curiously, if we were to speak not about the letter 'G', but the word 'gee', and I was to present to you this article from http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?allowed_in_frame=0&search=gee:

    "gee (interj.) Look up gee at Dictionary.com
    exclamation of surprise, 1895, probably euphemistic for Jesus. Form gee whiz is attested from 1871; gee whillikens (1851) seems to be the oldest form. As a command to a horse to go, 1620s, Scottish. It had a particular sense as a teamster's command: "go to the right (or off) side of the driver." Extended form gee-up is from 1733, the second element said by OED to be hup."

    —you'd happily admit to this being "etymology", proper.

    I find both inquires to display similar motivations, applying similar techniques, arriving at similar narratives. I wonder why the one does, and the other does not deserve that label, "etymology". True, the word does have that 'logy' part; but then, many terms in linguistics and other sciences have evolved away from their literal meanings.

    Disclosure: I also think that there is a certain 'grammar' to how shapes are constructed (and avoided) in scripts. Others object that usage, and want to reserve the term for the study of regularities in the formation of spoken utterances.

  22. cameron said,

    November 22, 2016 @ 11:13 am

    This morning a piece appeared on Slate with a linguist discussing the film "Arrival" and using Chinese writing as an example for comparison: http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2016/11/22/a_linguist_on_arrival_s_alien_language.html

  23. Chris Button said,

    November 22, 2016 @ 12:57 pm

    Read any of the definitions and descriptions of "etymology" here; they all have to do with the evolution of the sounds and meanings of words, not the shape and construction of letters / characters / glyphs.

    Thank you for the references and in particular the old language log ones. However, I still can't help but feel that such definitions are overly-proscriptive, particularly when we take etymology in its broadest sense of "the study of true (forms)".

    If we take for instance the word "football", it has different connotations in different contexts. A Brit could argue that the word should not be applied to the American variety due to the limited amount of kicking involved. However, since "foot" actually seems to have originally referred to a game played "on foot" by the masses (e.g. Association Football which became known as Soccer, or Rugby Football which simply dropped the second word) as opposed to games like Polo played on horseback by the wealthy, this would not really be appropriate. As English speakers, we just need to be careful to specify which meaning of "football" we are referencing in cases of possible confusion.

    For me "etymology" can also have a different sense in different contexts too. I would argue that claiming that "etymology" can only be applied to "ciyuan" and not to "ziyuan" when talking about Chinese reflects more a lack of an established "ziyuan" category in English (although one could attempt to create one based on root morphemes) than an inappropriateness of use in Chinese. We just need to specify in cases of possible confusion whether we mean "word etymology" or "character etymology" just like we sometimes need to specify whether we mean "Soccer" or "American Football".

  24. Jonathan Smith said,

    November 22, 2016 @ 2:18 pm

    Methinks the etymology of etymology is irrelevant; that word is simply not used to refer to the scientific study of (the history of) writing, for which we have (historical) grammatology or (historical) graphemics or indeed etymography, and using etymology thus is especially hazardous in the Chinese case given the common confusion this post addresses.

    In fact, the incorrect usage of etymology in (some sectors of) Chinese studies is ultimately a symptom of this confusion. Perhaps ~flow's impression of "similar motivations […] similar techniques [and] similar narratives" would change under the influence of accurate terminology? And no, I can't imagine serious discussion of the "etymology" of the letter form "G", or of the different "etymologies" of the forms "1" versus "one" of written English, for instance.

    In speaking and writing about, of all things, language and writing, it's important to have one's names straight.

  25. Jonathan Smith said,

    November 22, 2016 @ 2:28 pm

    And to Chris Button's argument, I would say it's definitely not the case that Chinese terms such as ciyuan and ziyuan are usefully disambiguating. In practice, zi means 'word written with a single character and/or a single written character," while ci means 'word written with multiple characters and/or the written characters so composing'. As a result, the critical distinction between a claim about the origin of a written form and one about the origin of a word is, to be brutally honest, nowhere more muddled than in Chinese-language scholarship…

  26. Mark Young said,

    November 22, 2016 @ 2:29 pm

    After reading this post and most of the comments, I'm still a little confused. You say that we should be "constantly on the alert to confusing language and script", but later speak of di- and poly-syllabic characters. Wouldn't the number of syllables be a feature of the language rather than the script? For example, following John Thayer Jensen's example, the numeral 7 doesn't have any syllables at all, tho' the number words seven, sept and siete do. Wouldn't it be confusing script and language to say that the character 7 is disyllabic? It's confusing me….

  27. Victor Mair said,

    November 22, 2016 @ 3:28 pm

    @Mark Young

    I don't blame you for being confused.

    The phenomenon of "di- and poly-syllabic characters" is an instance of the language impinging on the script. The refusal to accept the existence of occasional "di- and poly-syllabic characters" is an instance of the script impinging on the language.

    Jonathan Smith's comments are pertinent in this regard.

  28. flow said,

    November 22, 2016 @ 4:22 pm

    @Jonathan Smith—I see that I should take the 'logy' that is in 'etymology' more seriously, and I concur that when I force myself to do that, then 'the etymology of a written sign' does sound wrong.

    Is your proposal, 'etymography', meant in earnest?

    One must admit that the very formation of the word 'etymology' is somewhat fraught with a particular history and a particular cultural setting (interpreting the Holy Scriptures in The One True (purportedly, Original) Way, if I understand correctly).

    'Etymography' doesn't sound so bad to me. Then again, 'historical grammatology' is undoubtedly more transparent.

  29. Chris Button said,

    November 22, 2016 @ 5:05 pm

    @ Jonathan Smith

    Good point regarding the existence of the term "grammatology". However, wouldn't that be more to do with a typology of writing systems than a specific investigation into the evolution of individual Chinese characters that belong to one system essentially unchanged since its earliest known examples?

  30. SO said,

    November 22, 2016 @ 5:57 pm

    Isn't "etymography" (for characters) as opposed to "etymology" (for morphemes) a good choice and a sufficient solution after all? I think I've first met the first time in Abel Rémusat's 1811 _Essai sur la langue et la littérature chinoises_ (p. 19) several years ago — and have never stopped liking the word. It's almost self-explanatory and in any case good enough to make that crucial distinction. (And there are of course also more recent authors who do make use of that pair of technical terms, not just J-P A R two centuries ago, but he was a bright guy already back then.)

  31. Jonathan Smith said,

    November 22, 2016 @ 6:37 pm

    I agree with SO re: "etymography" and am interested to know the term is that old, but can't speak its more recent use in Assyriology/Egyptology — e.g., Eckhart Frahm says here (p. 96 note 9) that "the term 'etymography' was introduced by Assmann (2003) in reference to ancient Egyptian hermeneutics. It should be noted that I am using it in this article in a restricted sense. Etymography, for me, is a method of producing or discovering additional levels of meaning by bringing into play the multitude of readings a specific grapheme can have within the writing system to which it belongs." The ref is to Assmann, Jan, 2003,"Etymographie: Zeichen im Jenseits der Sprache," in Hieroglyphen: Stationen einer anderen abendländischen Grammatologie, ed. by A. Assmann and J. Assmann, pp. 37–63. Munich: Fink. The concern named by Frahm is certainly one of those which enter into the equation in the study of the history of Chinese writing… but don't know at the moment what J. Assmann had to say, or have a strong opinion about whether it should matter.

    Studies of Chinese that I'm aware of have used "grammatology" (Branner comes to mind), and I am happy to go along to get along since that term should be big enough to accommodate historical concerns and since the matter of typology isn't immaterial to historical investigations… but if a trend develops toward "etymography," I will join the wave.

  32. Bathrobe said,

    November 22, 2016 @ 7:03 pm

    @ Jonathan Smith: In speaking and writing about, of all things, language and writing, it's important to have one's names straight.

    Very Confucian!

  33. David Marjanović said,

    November 22, 2016 @ 7:08 pm

    Don't 凤 and 凰 refer respectively to different types of phoenix, and can therefore be understood without being paired together? Similarly for 蝶 which shows up by its lonesome I believe in Zhuangzi and also in names of contemporary starlets such as 蒋梦蝶.

    I have no idea about these in particular. However, while most words by far consisted of a single syllable in Old Chinese/Archaic Chinese/Old Sinitic, there were a few exceptions that had two syllables (even if we don't count reconstructed "presyllables"). I've read* that 蝴蝶 húdié and 麒麟 qílín were among those. Later scholars found these exceptions so puzzling that they tried to explain them away, in this case by claiming that 蝴 and 麒 meant the male and 蝶 and 麟 the female of the species (as if anyone would say "look, a bullcow" upon encountering random cattle). Naturally, these explanations gained a life of their own; poets and other authors took them and ran with them.

    I've even read* that 东西 dōngxi "stuff, things" is one of these ancient disyllabic exceptions, even though it is written 东 dōng "east" + 西 xī "west", and even though it is entirely imaginable that, say, "anything from east to west" came to mean "stuff". I wouldn't be surprised if this is correct (and the characters are misleading from a historical point of view); this kind of thing ("folk etymology", "reanalysis") happens all the time in other languages.

    * Sorry. I'm really bad at remembering sources, especially outside my field.

  34. Jonathan Smith said,

    November 22, 2016 @ 8:04 pm

    What David Marjanović says is definitely true about fenghuang (it's in the Er ya) and is indeed a larger phenomenon. But it's coming from a special kind of character-driven scholasticism… Reanalysis proper seems to me to involve recasting in terms of legitimate synchronic pieces of the language at issue, not stuff like "Huang is the female feng." Native speakers of course do the former all the time with words of contemporary Chinese, but certainly not the latter.

  35. flow said,

    November 23, 2016 @ 5:27 am

    @David Marjanović—"I've even read* that 东西 dōngxi "stuff, things" is one of these ancient disyllabic exceptions, even though it is written 东 dōng "east" + 西 xī "west", and even though it is entirely imaginable that, say, "anything from east to west" came to mean "stuff""

    The explanation that I find currently most believable is that the character 東 (dong) depicted originally a bundle of things, tied together in a net or a blanket, with a stick going through for people to carry, or drag behind them (with a horse maybe). 西 (xi), on the other hand, the explanation goes, depicted a basket, not unlike a bird's nest (which is how e.g. the Shuowen explains it, IIRC). At some time and in some place, the word for 'thing(s), stuff' was made up of these two morphemes, dongxi, in perfect analogy to the modern German "Sack und Pack" ('belongings'). This word did survive to this day; it is no more analyzable to the modern speaker into its constituents.

    It was only later that the character for 'bundle' came to be used to write 'east', and 'basket' for 'west', because, incidentally, the words for 'bundle' and 'east' both sounded like dong, and the words for 'basket' and 'west' both sounded like xi.

    At some point—in order to explain the very shapes of the characters that are now commonly thought to stand originally and primarily for 'east' and 'west'—people started to rationalize 東 as the 日 sun (still) behind a 木 tree (hence 'morning', hence 'east'), and 西 as a bird (symbolized by the top stroke, which is often a bent stroke in Seal script) that has (already) returned to its nest (the lower part of 西), (hence 'evening', hence 'west').

    I'd like to add two remarks to this (hopefully not too fancy) account;—one, it is only through the addition of 'still' and 'already', and implicit focus on daytime, that the rationalizations of 東 for 'east' and 西 for 'west' make sense. Without that framing, the explanations could just be exactly the other way round (the sun already behind a tree, the bird still sitting in its nest).

    Two, if the alternative account has any value, there's a grain of truth in the traditional one, namely, a 木 'tree', 'wood', 'branch' is in whatever is called dong (that's the branch around which the bundle was bound), and a 'nest' or 'basket' in whatever is called 'xi'. To me, that consideration makes the classical account look like the outcome of a long time folk narrative.

  36. Jonathan Smith said,

    November 23, 2016 @ 8:53 am

    @flow
    The problem here, and always, is where is the word dong1 東 'bag, sack', the lexical ghost whose written form is supposed to have been borrowed to write dong 'east'? Chinese-language accounts point on occasion to shu4 束 'bundle' (which gives us nothing more than a similar looking character) or to tuo2 橐 'bellows, bag' (which gives us not even that), together providing excellent evidence that the authors of said accounts have no idea what the problem is or how it might be solved, even in theory.

    On the other end is the rather preposterous notion that the first users of the script would have had a way to write the word 'bundle' before it occurred to them to write 'east'. No — the character 東 is old and its origin is sure to have been strange and wonderful, but it will not be sniffed by the cheap tricks our etymographical tradition, such as it is, has to offer.

    /rant

  37. Andreas Johansson said,

    November 23, 2016 @ 9:45 am

    On the other end is the rather preposterous notion that the first users of the script would have had a way to write the word 'bundle' before it occurred to them to write 'east'.

    Is that really so preposterous? A lot of early writing is basically inventory lists, where "bundle" seems a pretty likely word.

  38. Jonathan Smith said,

    November 23, 2016 @ 10:19 am

    @Andreas Johansson

    On its face, no, the idea taken alone that a way to write the word 'bundle' might have been part of an early script is not preposterous. Certainly, my second point is far less essential than the first — that is to say, good linguistic and epigraphic evidence for a particular solution will always trump our concerns about what seems more or less plausible on generalist (or some other) grounds.

    So emphasis above is definitely on the first paragraph: the fact that there is no such evidence, not a shred, for the "bundle" solution to 東. The second paragraph presumes some sense of the shape of traditional "solutions" to the very earliest characters, as well as some sense of what the very first Chinese writing was really about. This was, in a word, time, and decidedly not "fish tails" (丙), "nails" (丁), "zithers" (庚), "houses" (南), or "bundles" (東).

  39. Bathrobe said,

    November 23, 2016 @ 10:30 am

    @Wang Yujiang

    Except that there are languages (like Mongolian) that are written with more than one script.

    It's not just a matter of confusing speech and writing, it's a matter of falsely identifying a language with its script.

  40. Chris Button said,

    November 23, 2016 @ 1:50 pm

    @ Jonathan Smith

    the fact that there is no such evidence, not a shred, for the "bundle" solution to 東

    The palaeographical evidence is very sound in terms of what the character originally depicted: a rod passing through a wrapped piece of cloth tied at both ends so as to carry things (Takashima has a nice analysis of the form in his 2010 Bingbian commentary).

    In terms of meaning, as Todo Akiyasu points out in his "Kanji Gogen Jiten", it does seem to belong to a word family involving ideas of penetration.

    It is therefore not entirely unreasonable to suggest that this notion of penetration (originally depicted as a rod passing through a bundle) can be extended to the rising sun penetrating the sky and then passing through it on its journey west (by the way, Sagart 2004 suggests that it then settles in the bird's nest 西). While the use of 東 to mean "east" may strictly speaking be a jiajie, it remains an etymologically related jiajie within the same "penetrate" word family.

  41. WSM said,

    November 23, 2016 @ 2:48 pm

    @David Marjanovic – thanks for the interesting comments. Now that I'm at a computer and have had time to google ctext.org , it looks that at least by the time of the Book of Odes (詩經) 鳳 and 凰 were distinguished as semantically distinct :

    《詩》曰:「鳳凰秋秋,其翼若干,其聲若簫。有鳳有凰,樂帝之心。」此不蔽之福也。(荀子)
    楚狂接輿歌而過孔子曰:「鳳兮!鳳兮!… (孔子世家)

    These examples seem particularly interesting since they come from slightly less literary contexts – folk songs on the one hand, and quoted dialogue on the other – which of course could have been condensed/prettified/etc, but even granting that these passages suggests that components of fenghuang were semantically distinct already in the minds of these early writers. Interestingly, there are other instances of 鳳凰 in early writing where the compound does seem pretty clearly to refer generically to "a phoenix".

    Now that I've had a chance to look things up it does look like 胡(蝴)蝶 only appears in early writing as a compound, so in that case it may indeed be that 蝶 was "backronymed" as a standalone component for other compounds like 蝶翅 or 夢蝶

  42. ~flow said,

    November 23, 2016 @ 2:55 pm

    @Chris Button—"palaeographical evidence is very sound in terms of what the character originally depicted: a rod passing through a wrapped piece of cloth tied at both ends so as to carry things […] as Todo Akiyasu points out in his "Kanji Gogen Jiten", it does seem to belong to a word family involving ideas of penetration […] not entirely unreasonable to suggest that this notion of penetration […] can be extended to the rising sun penetrating the sky"—yes, yes, and yes. Thank you.

    Incidentally, I'm right now reading 落合淳思 Ochiai Atsushi's 漢字の成り立ち (~ Origin of Kanji, 2014), and he remarks, on p44, (rough rendering) that although there are many theories about he origin of 西, and he doesn't want to settle on one, 東 depicts a bundle pierced by a stick to which it is tied on both ends, 南 depicts 'a musical instruments' (whichever one; I know one author who assumes it is a bell, and it does look like one), and 北 shows two people sitting back to back. My impression is that Ochiai is rather reasonable in his interpretations, and yes, quoting the views of some well-known writer is no evidence per se.

    @Jonathan Smith—"the fact that there is no such evidence, not a shred, for the "bundle" solution to 東. The second paragraph presumes some sense of the shape of traditional "solutions" to the very earliest characters, as well as some sense of what the very first Chinese writing was really about. This was, in a word, time, and decidedly not "fish tails" (丙), "nails" (丁), "zithers" (庚)" etc.—Well I think you're doing exactly what you reprimand others for. We have no shred of evidence that the Chinese first wrote down signs for all their first-principle concepts like World, Time, Earth, September, and only then, as afterthoughts, came to add more mundane characters for those gritty everyday things. The myths seem not to point into that direction; rather, the legendary creators of Chinese lore seem to have been rather practically oriented; they dealt with hunting, fishing, agriculture, regulation of the rivers and draining of the marshes, that kind of thing (OTOH, the calendar is indeed essential to agriculture and hunting alike).

    Personally I'd be very careful to adduce any of the cyclical signs in a discussion like this. For all we know, the heavenly stems and earthly branches may have originated as clan signs, the connection to the calendar being that each clan was chosen to rule over or to guide the others in matters of sowing and reaping and warfare and peace. Maybe someone can chime in and give an overview what is, today, thought to be well-established knowledge as concerns the origins of the cyclical signs. As far as I can see, that's a collection of 22 figures whose etymographies are especially shrouded in mystery (btw. exactly what you'd think would make a good semi-magical house/clan/village mark: you'd need a guide to lead you inside, one that lets you in on the secret, hidden meaning of the figure).

    Lastly, when you write, "preposterous notion […] to write the word 'bundle' before […] 'east'. […] 東 is old and its origin is sure to have been strange and wonderful, […] cheap tricks our etymographical tradition"—I'm not sure we're playing in the same ballpark.

  43. liuyao said,

    November 23, 2016 @ 3:21 pm

    Many interesting discussions, especially on 東西. What's the earliest evidence of the word to refer to stuff? Could it have predated the concepts of East and West?

    Regarding language and script, how much of the confusion is due to the limitation of English? The word English, say, could refer to the English language (spoken or written), the English people (as from England). On the other hand, they are clearly separate in Chinese (英语, 英文, 英国人), and they are short. True that you do hear people say 讲中文 since modern Chinese is quite close to the spoken language (Mandarin), but in serious discussions they do help keep us on the alert all the time.

    English people are often simply called British, but other nations that happen to have a language are less fortunate. The worst confusion, of a different sort, is when people say or hear Indian, you could see their struggle and wish for an alternative. (Chinese has an easy solution, 印度人 vs 印第安人.)

    Regarding words, in English you also have phrases that should by all means be a single word (have to, used to), that any good dictionary also includes these under the initial word. Incidentally the Chinese call words in English 单词, or single ci.

  44. flow said,

    November 23, 2016 @ 4:44 pm

    @WSM—To me, 有鳳有凰, could just as well be written 又鳳又凰, 有鳳又凰, or, indeed, 喲鳳喲凰, because (1) in old texts, 又 and 有 are often used interchangeably; (2) the respective syllables (you in MSM) do not necessarily represent lexical content here; rather, I suspect (3) they are used as an impressionistic means. If that is true, 有鳳有凰 does not prove that 鳳 and 凰 were indeed two distinct lexemes when the song was written down; rather, I think it is an example of a Sprachspiel (language game). But of course, all those 鳳凰, 駱駝, 蜘蛛, 蟑螂, 蝴蝶, 葡萄, 宇宙, 鴛鴦, 螞蟻 etcpp have to be considered in their own right, and some may be different from others. leoboiko informed languagelog readers a while ago that Richard Sproat's "Computational Theory of Writing Systems" p149f has a nice listing of many of those words and some analysis, so that might be one starting point (although that is not a historical account).

  45. David Marjanović said,

    November 23, 2016 @ 5:56 pm

    On the other end is the rather preposterous notion that the first users of the script would have had a way to write the word 'bundle' before it occurred to them to write 'east'.

    Not only is it not preposterous, it's exactly what I expect. The original purpose of writing is bureaucracy.

    Much like modern Japanese, the Linear scripts of Bronze Age Greece combined signs for syllables with signs for (often longer) words. There were many, many signs for specific types of clay jugs – but if any signs for such abstract concepts as "east" existed, they have yet to be discovered!

    A morpheme cannot stand alone in a sentence. In other word, there is not any morpheme in a sentence.

    …No. A morpheme is something that has a meaning and cannot be broken down into smaller units that still have meanings. For example, the word fisher is composed of two morphemes, fish (which also exists as an independent word, as it happens) and -er (which does not exist as an independent word, but regularly forms agent nouns when added to verbs).

    all Chinese characters are stand alone in a sentence

    Plainly not true even if we suddenly switch from talking about language to talking about writing systems. There are many characters that can't occur in a grammatical sentence without certain other characters directly in front of them, any more than -er can occur alone in English.

    You're right, however, that the radicals behave a lot like morphemes.

  46. Jim Breen said,

    November 23, 2016 @ 7:33 pm

    @Wang Yujiang
    What David Marjanović wrote is precisely correct. In the case of "fisher" (fish+er), "fish" is a free morpheme (it can function as a word by itself) and "er" is a bound morpheme (it can only be used attached to another morpheme.)

    Morphemes are not "the concept of the alphabet languages" (whatever that might be). They are alive and well in Japanese for example (形態素:けいたいそ:keitaiso:morpheme). Morphological analyzers such as MeCab, Kuromoji, Chasen, etc. play major roles in Japanese computational linguistics, and make use of extensive morpheme lexicons such as Unidic and IPADIC.

  47. Jonathan Smith said,

    November 23, 2016 @ 8:31 pm

    Forget the probable nature of early writing in China or anywhere; I was wrong to bring it up.

    As I said above, "the problem here, and always, is where is the word dong1 東 'bag, sack'."

    That is all.

    Nothing could be more pointless than arguing about whether or not 東 looks like a bundle. Let's just say it does. A lot. And the sun. In a tree. A lot. OK? Bring an answer to the above problem. Bring related explanations for early graphs like 陳,重, 量, and their associated words. Or you have nothing.

    Or, and I am serious, tell me why the questions I am pointing to are irrelevant. Tell me about the "very sound […] paleographical evidence" for a depiction of "a rod passing through a wrapped piece of cloth tied at both ends so as to carry things," and about "penetration." There are, to an approximation, fourteen people in the world who care; I am one.

  48. Chris Button said,

    November 23, 2016 @ 10:21 pm

    Ok – I'll step up the challenge…

    Firstly the original "phonetic bases" (i.e. those that form the heads of xiesheng series) are not always used in a literal sense in the inscriptions. For example, 生 quite clearly depicts a sprouting plant, however it is used to encode a concept "life, beginning" which represents the semantic domain that runs through its derivatives (when written with the "correct" phonetic of course which is not always the case). So by literally interpreting 東 as a bag on a stick (is "bindle" the correct word for this?), you are missing the fact that it quite possibly actually encoded a concept such as "penetration" (the stick running through it being the operative principle). I haven't actually reached 東 in the dictionary I'm compiling yet, so I'm not sure how well Todo's interpretation will hold up, but the main point is that just because it depicts a bag or sack does not mean that it ever specifically meant "bag, sack". My suggestion about the association with "east" (through a sense of "penetration" via concepts like "daybreak" or a trajectory towards the west) was just idle speculation that as I said is "not entirely unreasonable", but might not ultimately prove to be the solution.

    In terms of the palaeographic evidence, it's really not up for debate. As Takashima puts it on p.55 "What the graph for dong depicted is not hard to establish". A familiarity with how such things were represented in the inscriptions should suffice (and it most certainly looks nothing at all like a sun behind a tree).

  49. Dave Cragin said,

    November 23, 2016 @ 10:25 pm

    A discussion by the Linguist John McWhorter on texting versus typical written language illustrates Yujiang's point that "written language is not spoken language's script." (And spoken language is not written language's script).
    https://www.ted.com/talks/john_mcwhorter_txtng_is_killing_language_jk

    In the talk, McWhorter examines whether testing is "killing language." He shows that texting is primarily spoken language written down and that it is much different than written text.

    In a couple of his courses on linguistics, he discusses this in more detail. Written text spoken in place of a normal conversation can sound boring and artificial. Similarly, spoken language would typically look quite rough if written down verbatim.

  50. Jonathan Smith said,

    November 24, 2016 @ 12:45 am

    @Chris Button
    Thanks so much for your response.

    Firstly the original "phonetic bases" (i.e. those that form the heads of xiesheng series) are not always used in a literal sense in the inscriptions. For example, 生 quite clearly depicts a sprouting plant, however it is used to encode a concept "life, beginning" which represents the semantic domain that runs through its derivatives.

    Characters (at least with regard to their application to writing) don't "encode concepts," they represent words. In this light, I propose to unpack your first sentence into two separate statements, both of which are certainly true: (1) in cases where a glyph G is a depictive representation of some thing(s) T, the word written by that glyph need not simply mean 'T' (e.g., the word written with 生 does not mean 'plant', that written with 大 does not mean 'person', etc.); (2) The fact that a glyph G was first designed to write a particular word W does not mean that G is necessarily found employed to write W in the earliest available material, or indeed in any available materials (e.g., 黃 is claimed to have been designed for a word 'shaman' or 'ring' [or etc.], even though in the OBI there is only clear evidence for it writing 'yellow'.)

    Applying these two points to the case of 東, I take you to mean that (1) 東 may be an iconic representation of a bundle, and yet never have written a word meaning 'bundle' — perhaps, instead, the word first written was 'penetrate' or some similar; (2) nonetheless, the glyph 東 may not be found to write the word 'penetrate' (or whatever) in the OBI, or at all. Perhaps we will find only evidence for the etymologically related(?) homophone(?) 'east'.

    Is this representation of your position fair? The reasoning is sound. But it just shifts the problem from 'bundle' to 'penetrate'. You have a ghost, dong1 東 'penetrate', and so must assemble as much evidence as possible that points to its erstwhile reality. Do you recall what words Todo points to in referring to a "word family involving ideas of penetration"? This suggestion is new to me. Are these words close to dong1 'east' in terms of sound? And the related glyphs 陳重量 remain a serious problem… etc.

    In terms of the palaeographic evidence, it's really not up for debate. As Takashima puts it on p.55 "What the graph for dong depicted is not hard to establish". A familiarity with how such things were represented in the inscriptions should suffice.

    I don't quite know what to say to this… are you suggesting that if I were only more familiar with the OBI, it would be obvious to me that 東 is a bundle penetrated with a stick, as there are clear and consistent conventions governing the representation of such things?

    And Takashima, like anyone, is great — and usually wrong. It's the nature of the beast. I have to say I'm disappointed that people's reactions here to traditional scholarship on these questions seems to be largely smiling and nodding. 東 as a "bundle" is nothing more than the latest fashionable character-dictionary solution, sun-in-tree version 1.1. We can do better.

    Thanks again to all for engaging with me on these interesting topics.

  51. flow said,

    November 24, 2016 @ 5:03 am

    @Jonathan Smith—"東 as a "bundle" is nothing more than the latest fashionable character-dictionary solution, sun-in-tree version 1.1"—I do think we should take the 'ghost word' problem seriously, that is, (1) absence of a sufficiently old text that uses the character / morpheme in the proposed original meaning, and/or (2) absence of evidence for the proposed connection of meaning and sound in any stage of the language. Of course, absence of evidence is no evidence for absence, but then of course again, lack of evidence does make a seemingly self-evidential suggestion look rather lacking.

    I'd suggest that maybe 栋棟 dong4 is a candidate to fill that gap of the ghost. It is today most of the time used as a classifier for buildings (一棟房子), but the more original sense, according to zdic.net, is 屋顶最高处的水平木梁, translated as 'ridgepole'.

    Too bad we don't know what 許慎 Xu Shen based his explanations on.

  52. Chris Button said,

    November 24, 2016 @ 8:10 am

    @ Jonathan Smith

    Is this representation of your position fair?

    Yes, I can live with that.

    are you suggesting that if I were only more familiar with the OBI, it would be obvious to me that 東 is a bundle penetrated with a stick, as there are clear and consistent conventions governing the representation of such things?

    Yes, it's by no means a controversial interpretation based on other similar looking characters.

    Thanks again to all for engaging with me on these interesting topics.

    Yes – great discussion. Rather than speculate further on 東 here, I will let you know once I have specifically addressed the series in my dictionary. Life's other commitments have made it rather slow going of late.

  53. Jonathan Smith said,

    November 24, 2016 @ 10:24 am

    @flow
    Dong4 棟 'ridgepole' is an excellent word to think about re: possible etymologies of 'east'. Compare words like ji2 極 yu3 宇 zhou4 宙. I don't think a word 'penetrate' or 'bundle' will remain a useful part of this story, though…

    @Chris Button
    Understood; I look forward. Thanks.

    Re: "similar-looking characters": while squinting at early character forms is in general a poor way to generate answers, those who are interested should look carefully at how OBI 東 is rendered, esp. alongside what we see even slightly later, as on bronzes. Not only is there no "sun" at center, only in odd cases is the central form you think you are seeing (based on later character forms) there at all. And 木 or some similar is not involved here…

  54. WSM said,

    November 24, 2016 @ 2:07 pm

    @flow yeah I thought about whether 有 is being used as some sort of exclamatory particle e.g. 呦 as well. Unfortunately that particular passage is not present in modern version of book of odes. But here are some other examples of the 有X有Y(==X?) pattern from the Book of Odes, with quick gists of the much more exacting glosses:

    終南何有、有條有梅
    [[Gloss: 條(槄) is one Kind of Plant (like a Chinese catalpa?), 梅 is another Kind of Plant (probably a plum, like today)]]

    有驒有骆,有駵有雒 (《駉》)
    [[Gloss: a list of various kinds of horses of various colors.]]

    有萋有且。(《有客》)
    [[Gloss: 萋 and 且(苴) refer respectively to resplendent foliage and clothing. However at least one commentator thinks that 萋裾 together refer to resplendence, generically.]]

    So 1) 有 does not seem to be an exclamation and 2) of these three there is only one instance, namely the last, where the elements in the pattern are *not* clearly semantically distinct, and even in that case there is a good argument to make that the elements are in fact distinct.

  55. Jonathan Smith said,

    November 24, 2016 @ 2:57 pm

    @DSM Well, Shi jing 有X (in many of its occurrences) is considered equivalent to the dieyin 疊音 form: both 憂心有忡 and 憂心忡忡 occur, for instance; there are numerous examples. I'm guessing this would be the default way of treating Xunzi 有鳳有凰, elsewhere 有皇有鳳, especially as 有皇 and 皇皇 are another such pair found in the Shi. Also relevant is that fenghuang 'phoenix' is presumably a reduplicative form to begin with. Hard to rule out your analysis though…

  56. Chris Button said,

    November 25, 2016 @ 10:24 pm

    Ok, so I couldn't resist looking into 東 a little more.

    I'm not convinced by Todo's semantics who also seems to have some issues with OC *l- and *t/d-.

    Sagart's 2004 paper makes an interesting link with 動 "move" via the Shuowen gloss of 東 as 動也. He suggests that the East is where the sun starts moving (as opposed to the West where it stops).

    The interesting thing about a possible link with 動 "move" is that the word Orient actually comes from PIE *er- "to move". One can also compare derivatives like 童 with Old Saxon erl "male offspring" from the same PIE root. While 重 might not have a comparable form in *er-, one can note PIE *wegh- "go, transport" (operating in a similar semantic field to *-er "move") from whence English weigh and then weighty. The Old English origin of weigh is wegan "carry, balance in a scale" which is not far from the bindle (something wrapped in a blanket and bound on a pole for carrying over the shoulder) depicted by 東.

  57. Jonathan Smith said,

    November 26, 2016 @ 2:28 am

    Ah, interesting. I didn't find Sagart's arguments in that paper super convincing, but sure, I accept that dong4 動, like dong4 棟,could wind up being part of a good etymology of dong1 東 'east'. Certainly, whatever one makes of your IE parallels, 'move'-'heavy'-'carry [a bindle]' has more going for it than 'penetrate'… but did you have a chance to look at OBI 東 again?

  58. olguin said,

    November 26, 2016 @ 2:37 pm

    very well done. i hope it's ok for us to refer to this content.

  59. James Wimberley said,

    November 27, 2016 @ 1:33 pm

    Did Borges write a story on the disputes among Chinese scholars over the number of species of the phoenix? Since reproduction is asexual by fire, each immortal phoenix line can perhaps be regarded as a species by itself.

  60. Chris Button said,

    November 27, 2016 @ 10:23 pm

    @ Jonathan Smith

    but did you have a chance to look at OBI 東 again?

    Well, there's not much else to look at; it depicts a "bindle" and means "east". It has been noted to occur more frequently than the other 3 directions which could represent a predilection for the east, or it might also have been a place name (although there are a lot of supposed OBI "place names")

    @olguin

    very well done. i hope it's ok for us to refer to this content.

    Thanks for the kind words. As I said before, I haven't reached this part in my dictionary yet so haven't been able to analyze it in detail beyond some initial speculation offered here. Feel free to e-mail me with a dot between my first and last names at hotmail dot com.

  61. Bathrobe said,

    November 28, 2016 @ 2:08 am

    @James Wimberley:

    I thought it was only the Western phoenix that reproduced by fire.

  62. Jonathan Smith said,

    November 28, 2016 @ 8:11 am

    @ Chris Button

    Fair enough. As I said, the OBI glyph doesn't contain 木; rather, a (very early) reanalysis of structure, apparent even in Western Zhou, produced such forms. So it's necessary to look at everything OBI with fresh eyes. My advice is to regard the whole of the "etymographical" tradition to date as you would Shuo wen: a fathomless source of erudition, but all to be passed through a very fine filter of critical reflection prior to consumption.

    Dong 東 turns out to be more interesting than I gave it credit for. Re: "bindle," I will try to FTFY and get back :P. How long do I have if I want to get in the dictionary?

  63. Chris Button said,

    November 28, 2016 @ 4:16 pm

    @ Jonathan Smith

    No serious palaeographer has suggested that 東 originally contained 木 for a very long time now. However, this whole thing is connected to one of my biggest gripes. Many academics reconstructing the sounds of Old Chinese often don't know much about palaeography. Conversely many palaeographers often don't seem to know much about Old Chinese reconstruction (there are some notable exceptions of course).

    To give an example using a character you mentioned earlier, 丁 is often given a traditional gloss of "nail". However, one look at its OBI form shows that it depicted a quadrilateral that looks nothing like a nail at all. When one looks at its word family, all its derivatives have a sense of "regular", "regulate" etc. We get "rectangle" from this which is something John Didier and David Pankenier have written about in an astrological sense (it is most likely no coincidence that this 4 sided shape is also the 4th heavenly stem). The character 丁 itself is unequivocally the phonetic component in the OBI form of 天 (which is essentially composed of 丁 above 大). Unfortunately this is often ignored/rejected in treatments of 天 that nowadays often assign an OC lateral initial *hl- to 天 due to it supposedly having shifted to Middle Chinese th- (as in 天) or x- (as in 祆 or in Hinduka) as noted in the oft-quoted Shiming passage. However, 丁 could never have had anything but OC *t- as an initial which cannot support a reconstruction of 天 with anything but original *th-.

    So we have 丁 *taŋj as phonetic in 天 *thəŋj (ə/a ablaut relationship). As for 祆, it actually comes from *hljəm (phonetic in words like 忝 *hljamʔ – again via ə/a ablaut) which is completely unrelated to 天 in spite of its graphic composition. This seems to be due to the fact that the Zhou borrowed the graph for 天 *thəŋj (which only played a very minor role in the Shang dynasty since 帝 was the principle deity) and used it to write their deity *hljəm. In short, this is an isolated case of polyphony which (as I showed in my "phonetic ambiguity" book) is not something that played any major role in the development of the script, but did very occasionally occur.

  64. Jonathan Smith said,

    November 28, 2016 @ 10:55 pm

    The usual argument is "bag on a stick," just as you and flow said above (often "木棍" in Chinese accounts). And the common (ubiquitous?) reference to 束 & 東 as of common origins also implicates 木, obviously. As does equally common reference to 橐. So yes, 木 is very much a part of current (wrong) interpretations, and not just of old (wrong) sun-tree interpretations.

    Then again, I see you also referred to a "rod passing through a wrapped piece of cloth tied at both ends," which is also a familiar formulation to me. So perhaps on this interpretation the character's vertical line alone is a "rod," and you reject the association with 木/束, etc.? Fine. Though in that case, what you mean above by the dismissive reference to "similar looking characters" is no longer at all clear. The idea of a "bindle" tied at two ends, tootsie-roll style, is odd to begin with — where else in OBI could you be seeing this?

    Re: other stuff, sure, 丁 could at times be "phonetic" in 天, mentioned at least by Axel Schuessler… similar-sounding "top of head" words are relevant here; note OBI forms with 上. Your general point about the historical linguistics/paleography divide is of course a good one, and brings us back around to the main thrust of VHM's post.

  65. Chris Button said,

    November 29, 2016 @ 8:22 am

    @ Jonathan Smith

    I'd recommend taking a look at the palaeography of the OBI copula "hui" – essentially the top component of 專 (minus the bottom 寸 component).

  66. Jonathan Smith said,

    November 29, 2016 @ 11:29 am

    @Chris Button

    I will get out of your hair after this post so you can work on your dictionary, but want to paint the big picture again in terms of the topic of this post, if only for my own benefit.

    You said of the written character 東 that it "means 'east'," i.e., it is used to write the word dong 'east', and that it "depicts a 'bindle'."

    This is two separate statements, (1) a statement about the glyph's logographic function — in this case an established fact — and (2) a statement about the glyph's formal origins.

    If you are unable to show the compatibility of your statement in (2) with the fact in (1), you have nothing (ahem, "not a shred"), from now until the end of time. Indeed, the correctness or not of your statement in (2) is entirely irrelevant.

    You must begin from the facts (in many cases best-guesses) of logographic function, and make claims regarding formal origins on their basis. NOT come up with or recycle accounts of formal origins that you like — here, two-mouthed-bag-on-a stick — and hope at some later stage to hand-wave your way to a good explanation of why the glyph was employed the way that it was. Note you have already been through two candidate hand-waves in your comments above.

    I say this as someone who is also interested in both historical linguistics and paleography, but finds that much of the tradition is not grounded in the above principles — is, indeed, rather theoretically unmoored — and hopes sincerely that you will be awesomer. 叀? Yes, sure, in purely formal terms, much better. But stop with the formal side, and try to answer the linguistic question. If you can't, and we very often can't, move on.

    I am now imagining if someone were to go through guwenzi gulin, etc., and remove all the passages that didn't address the linguistic question. What was left would be one hell of a great, if short, dictionary…

  67. Chris Button said,

    November 29, 2016 @ 2:47 pm

    I'm afraid you're losing me now. Like I said, the semantic field superficially (i.e. based on the brief amount of time I have afforded to it) appears to be like that of PIE *er- (and by extension PIE *wegh-), but without looking into the rest of the word-family in more detail this can remain but speculative for the time being. I will try to get to the 東 series next, but my unrelated day job does not make for swift progress.

  68. Jonathan Smith said,

    November 29, 2016 @ 4:19 pm

    OK, 加油! I will send you a paper soon too I hope — Jonathan

  69. Norbert Francis said,

    December 3, 2016 @ 11:38 am

    Learning L2 Cantonese by speakers of L1 Mandarin (and vice versa):
    Are Cantonese and Mandarin dialects of the same language or different languages? -question that is useful to think about for second language learning, pertinent to this thread and other discussions on this blog. I talked about this in my recent book and had the chance to do an informal experiment this past July with a group of mainly undergraduate students at Shaanxi Normal University. One of the sessions of the lecture series presented a summary of a follow-up article to the book (reply to a critical review) that readers can check out: http://ling.auf.net/lingbuzz/003228. It is follow-up, in turn, to papers that Victor Mair, along with others, have written on the topic.
    We had a lively discussion on the issues in the debate. Anyway, here's the informal experiment (not controlled or presentable as research finding by any means; it was just for fun). All 40 students and teachers where L1 speakers of Mandarin who had never studied Cantonese, except one, who happened not to have came to class that day. (1) I played the audio sample from: http://www.omniglot.com/chinese/cantonese.htm
    (great fortune it was that the acoustic quality at full volume was excellent). (2) We listened a second time, now following the transcription in romanized script provided on the same Omniglot webpage. One last time, (3) students read the transcription written in Chinese characters.
    Informal results: None of the 40 listeners was able to make out even a short phrase of the short sample (1). For (2) no improvement in comprehension, interestingly not even recognition of a word or two, as we can sometimes do when reading the transcription of a text from a closely related language. As listeners reported: the language sample sounded completely "foreign." One student remarked that he recognized the sample as Cantonese (but to be fair he already knew this, from me, before listening). Not surprisingly, in (3), a number of students provided a summary in English of the passage. I don't know either Mandarin or Cantonese. Notable comments regarding (3): (i) students and teachers who study traditional characters (e.g. a history major) had an advantage, but (ii) in general, for young people, reading the traditional characters is "easy," once you get the gist from the context, (iii) students with extensive familiarity with the traditional characters pointed to five or so (perhaps Cantonese specific) that no one could recognize, this making the reading only a little more difficult, again because the context factors help (according to the students), but this ability was not uniform among all participants. I found this activity (not a true experiment), and especially the subsequent discussion, very interesting. One last time, to be absolutely clear: none of this that I am reporting can be taken as evidence in favor of the arguments I make in my book or in the Chinese Language and Discourse article.

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