A non-stigmatizing Chinese word for epilepsy

« previous post | next post »

In an article entitled “A new symbol for epilepsy in Chinese", Mind Hacks asserts:

The Chinese character for epilepsy has been changed to avoid the inaccuracies and stigma associated with the previous label which suggested links to madness and, more unusually, animals.

The new name, which looks like this 腦癇症 just makes reference to the brain although the story of how the original name got its meaning is quite fascinating in itself.

In the title and these first two short (sentence-long) paragraphs, in referencing epilepsy, the article refers to "a new symbol", "The Chinese character", "the previous label", "the new name", and "the original name". It almost seems as though the author were studiously avoiding referring to the Chinese term for epilepsy as a "word", which indeed it is. But this is a problem with Chinese language studies in general, in which there is an overemphasis on the characters and relatively little attention paid to words. Most egregious of all, referring to the trisyllabic word nǎoxiánzhèng 腦癇症 ("brain epilepsy") as a "Chinese character" is dead wrong, since three characters are used to write it, and calling it "a new symbol" is equally wrong on the same account, plus it is exoticizing and patronizing to boot. 腦癇症 is not a symbol, nor is any of the three characters of which it consists new. What is new is the bringing together of the three constituent morphemes in this particular order: brain-epilepsy-disease.

The Mind Hacks article continues with a portion of the announcement of the change from the medical journal Epilepsia:

Apart from the physical suffering and psychological stress associated with epilepsy, persons with epilepsy suffer from inequalities as a result of the old Chinese name for epilepsy 癲癇症. Epilepsy has long been so described in ancient Chinese writing. The disease was mentioned in one of the oldest medicine textbooks in China, which was firstly published more than 2,000 years ago as “Huang Di Nei Jing” 黃帝內經. This clearly described epileptic semiology under two terms: dianji 癲疾 and xian 癇. Not surprisingly then the two were eventually joined together as dianxian 癲癇. Unfortunately after many years, the meaning of the prefix word dian 癲 became corrupted and associated with madness. Furthermore, the Chinese name became transformed to have proximity to animals. Subsequent names described the disease as the bizarre movements of goats 羊癲癇 or pigs 猪婆风. The names of animals suggested links to animals and the word dian 癲 carried the strong implication of psychiatric illnesses.

Glossary of Chinese terms:

nǎoxiánzhèng 腦癇症 ("brain epilepsy")

diānxiánzhèng 癲癇症 ("epilepsy")

Huángdì nèijīng 黃帝內經 (Yellow Emperor's Inner Classic)

diānjí 癲疾 ("epilepsy")

xián 癇 ("epilepsy")

diānxián 癲癇 ("epilepsy")

yángdiānxián 羊癲癇 ("sheep epilepsy")

zhūpófēng 猪婆风 ("pig epilepsy")

zhèng 症 ("disease")

fēng 風 ("wind") fēng 瘋 ("craziness; insanity; wildness; madness")

The Mind Hacks article concludes:

If you’re wondering where the bit about the ‘bizarre movements of goats’ came [sic] I suspect it’s from a type of fainting goat that looks like it has seizures and falls over. You can see them ‘in action’ in this YouTube video.

However, the link is mistaken as the goats do not have seizures. The effect is caused by their muscles locking up, independently of their brain, by a condition called myotonia congenita.

The announcement in Epilepsia mentions that from 2008 an effort was made to promote the new term nǎoxiánzhèng 腦癇症 ("epilepsy in the brain"), but it didn't catch on until the Chairman of the Hospital Authority of Hong Kong declared that it would thenceforth become the standard name for epilepsy in hospitals under its governance.

The new name does support a less stigmatizing attitude toward epilepsy, since it removes the connection with mental illness and animal behavior of the earlier words that were applied to the malady. But it must be pointed out that, as of 2011, the new word became official only in Hong Kong, not in the whole of China. And, to reiterate, nǎoxiánzhèng 腦癇症 ("brain epilepsy") is not a "symbol" or a "character"; it is a "word", "term", or "name".

[A tip of the hat to Ben Zimmer]


  1. Michael W said,

    April 29, 2012 @ 11:35 am

    It seems interesting that a portion of the word was partly the impetus for change. Is the old word seen more as a compound (with the dian portion only having the 'madness' sense, so it's considered a madness of some sort, even if it didn't start that way) or is it more of a avoiding the association? I can think of a faint comparison, the way one might avoid 'hysterical' in English because we don't think the uterus causes madness.

    Also, is there any sensible reason why an article on Chinese "symbols" has a picture by a Japanese artist that seems utterly unrelated? (If you don't follow the link – it has Hokusai's "The Great Wave" next to the article). Between the text and the picture, all I can imagine is a woeful level of ignorance at this point.

    [VHM: Fixed; see my comment below.]

  2. Vaughan said,

    April 29, 2012 @ 11:48 am

    Thanks for the corrections – very much appreciated. But "studiously avoiding", "exoticizing," "patronizing"? I suspect the 'curse of knowlege' has struck whereas honest errors will occur in unfamiliar languages of any sort.

  3. John said,

    April 29, 2012 @ 1:38 pm

    Errrr Victor, the "new" (as of June 2010) HK Chinese name for epilepsy is actually 腦癇症, not 腦癲症. I suspect this was chosen because 癲 is often used as an insult in Cantonese, or in phrases where one might use 瘋 in Mandarin, and would therefore have been much more stigmatizing in Hong Kong.

    [VHM: Fixed; see my comment below.]

  4. Mark F. said,

    April 29, 2012 @ 2:34 pm

    Is this an example of what some people call the "euphemism treadmill"? If I understand the summary in the post right, the term in Chinese originally just meant "epilepsy", and then acquired its demeaning connotations because of attitudes people had about the condition itself. This is something that happens a lot. (I'm not one of those who things that this phenomenon makes it pointless to try to be sensitive in how you talk about medical conditions. But it does seem to be a real phenomenon.)

  5. wren ng thornton said,

    April 29, 2012 @ 3:12 pm

    How is it that 腦癲症 removes the connotations of 癲癇症? The difference is "brain-epilepsy-disease" as opposed to "epilepsy-?-disease"; which suggests that 癇 (or the 癲癇 combination) is where the bad connotations live. So what does 癇 mean exactly/etymologically, as compared to 癲疾? Or is it just that 癲癇 is used in 羊癲癇?

    [VHM: Fixed; see my comment below.]

  6. Victor Mair said,

    April 29, 2012 @ 5:31 pm

    @Michael W, John, and wren ng thornton

    Mea culpa. I have fixed the offending nǎodiānzhèng 腦癲症. Of course, it should be nǎoxiánzhèng 腦癇症. This was due to an unfortunate slip of the pen, as it were.

  7. Lulu said,

    April 29, 2012 @ 7:47 pm

    My mother went to medical school in China (at the now defunct 上海一医学院 or however you write that back in the eighties) and she says that medical students have always used 腦癇症, it's just that the general populace has kept using 羊癫疯 colloquially。 So technically, it's not that "new" as the article asserts.

    (Also, my mother is currently a pathologist in the States and hasn't had anything to do with the Chinese medical community for decades, so it's not as if she picked up the term recently and just came to believe that they've always used it.)

  8. Victor Mair said,

    April 29, 2012 @ 9:01 pm


    Thanks for pointing out that nǎoxiánzhèng 腦癇症 ("brain epilepsy") appears to have been used in China for quite some time. I though that I had heard this term back in the 80s and 90s and was actually going to question the newness of it in my post, but got so wrapped up in all the other details that it slipped my mind.

  9. Jim Breen said,

    April 30, 2012 @ 3:07 am

    It's 癲癇 in Japanese, but almost always written in kana (てんかん) as neither 癲 nor 癇 is in the set of kanji taught in school.

  10. Victor Mair said,

    April 30, 2012 @ 3:54 am

    @Jim Breen

    Thank you for telling us that. It shows the tremendous value of kana. If China permitted the use of pinyin in a similar fashion, it would greatly reduce the memory burden that weighs so heavily on Chinese writers.

  11. joe said,

    April 30, 2012 @ 8:28 am

    癫痫 in chinese is not a single word. just as computer virus in english isn't. 癫 can come together with some words to form terms. just as the english word computer can come together with words such as scientist, science, etc, to form a term. most chinese characters can form terms with other characters. the idea that chinese characters are not words are not very convincing. saying these characters coming together as phrases and terms are just a single word looks scholastically and linguistically suspicious to me.

    probably it is not so correct to apply the word word to chinese language. after all, chinese is another language. whether linguistic terms of the english language apply totally to the chinese language is open to discussion. otherwise, most chinese dictionaries are just dictionaries of constituent morphemes?

    but, of course, i could be totally wrong about this as i am no linguist or any scholar in this field or other related fields. i just have the gut feeling that chinese characters are words and that characters that form a phrase, a special term, are not a single word.

    because 社会主义 happens to be socialism, 物理 happens to be physics does not necessarily mean that four chinese words in the former case or two chinese words in the latter case are a single word.

    what's the difference between 计算机病毒 and computer virus? the former is a single word and the latter two words?

  12. Joanne Salton said,

    April 30, 2012 @ 8:49 am

    You have a certain point about "word" Joe, but in any case three characters do not equal one character, so the terminology used by Mind Hacks is misleading.

  13. joe said,

    April 30, 2012 @ 8:52 am

    if we apply the constituent morpheme idea to ancient chinese texts, can we say that the ancient chinese scholars wrote poems with constituent morphemes? if chinese characters can be constituent morphemes, then is it logical to say that ancient chinese poems are just a forest of constituent morphemes? it would be extremely hard to determine which character is a word and which is a mere constituent morpheme in a poem form called 七绝.



    in my opinion, each one of these 28 characters is a word.

    when they appear in ancient chinese poems, they are words. and when they appear in modern texts, they are constituent morphemes. this does not sound very consistent.

    what is a word in chinese?

    [(myl) This is not an easy question to answer about English, either, where we also have compound words and modifier-noun phrases that may be more or less semantically opaque (spark plug, shoe tree, cold chisel, white house, sea change, nose candy, etc.). In fact, the term "computer virus" is also a compound noun, and thus on most linguistic analyses it's a "word", although it's a word that contains other words. The semantic connection is, as often, semi-opaque here: a "computer virus" is a virus only in a figurative sense, and the term might, in some parallel universe, have turned out to mean "a virus infecting humans that is spread by contact with shared computer keyboards and pointing devices".

    It's true that more recent terminological coinages in English tend to have parts that are more transparently word-like than the parts of the Greek and Latin neologistic compounds that used to be more popular, even if the meaning of the whole still includes some essentially arbitrary aspects. But the implication of your position is that e.g. 天花板 tiān huā bǎn is not the word for "ceiling" but rather the three words "sky flower board", which just happen to be interpreted as "ceiling" for interesting historical reasons. Similarly in English, is epilepsy really just a nominal form of ἐπί upon + λαμβάνειν to take?

    If it bothers you to call 天花板 a "word", just substitute "compound word" and get on with life.]

  14. Mr Punch said,

    April 30, 2012 @ 10:06 am

    "Term" is what I'd use – it's medical terminology. In English we frequently change medical terminology to avois pejorative implications, e.g., Hansen's disease (yes, I know, Hansen was Norwegian). An example of eliminating negative implications of part of a multi-word term is "magnetic resonance imaging" (MRI), formerly "nuclear magnetic resonance."

    [(myl) In ordinary-language usage, "term" is fine. But "word" takes on the status of a technical term in linguistic theories, and it's worth discussing whether Chinese has "words" larger than a syllable from this point of view.

    The prejudice that "Chinese has no words larger than a syllable/character" (and I've never seen an argument that would elevate this view above the level of a prejudice) has practical relevance as well, since it's part of the ideology that leads to writing the language without any spaces or other clues to word/term/compound level structure. Can people read this way? Sure. Would reading be easier to learn if spaces were used? Probably.]

  15. joe said,

    April 30, 2012 @ 11:48 am

    i can get on with life when the concept of three-word or four-word or five-word compound nouns is used. i will pause and wonder when a compound noun like 社会主义 is regarded as a single four-character word. i find it difficult to move on while four chinese words 社会主义 are linguistically identified as merely constituent morphemes or characters but by no means words.

    [(myl) The general idea here is that "compound words", as the name implies, are words that are made up of other words. In some cases, the compounding process is completely regular and transparent; in other cases, the compound acquires a life of its own, and begins to drift in meaning (and sometimes in form) from its origin — sometimes quite far.]

    but if they have to be constituent morphemes or characters which in a world of linguistic order are always one status below words and it's their bad luck and misfortune that they can never be considered words, well, i guess it's life.

    [(myl) It's odd to bring the metaphor of social status into this discussion. Do you also worry that when words are combined into a sentence, they lose their sacred autonomy and become mere slaves of the syntax and semantics, veritable draft animals of discourse? Or is the status of "compound word" uniquely threatening to lexical rights?]

  16. joe said,

    April 30, 2012 @ 12:10 pm

    天花板 or any other multi-word nouns don't bother me because in chinese noun is called 名词. 词 here is different from 字 and almost always refers to multi-word structures.

  17. Mark F. said,

    April 30, 2012 @ 12:46 pm

    How do people talk about words in Mandarin? Surely Mandarin has a word for 'word'; does that term apply to multi-character words (I'm guessing yes, but I don't know Mandarin)? How would an article in Mandarin about the change in epilepsy terminology refer to the thing that is being changed?

  18. joe said,

    April 30, 2012 @ 1:31 pm

    no. i don't worry about these things. i just can't see the wisdom and justification in the effort to turn chinese words into mere constituent morphemes and declare chinese characters are not words.

  19. Matt Anderson said,

    April 30, 2012 @ 3:03 pm

    One of the main reasons I consider things like tiānhuābǎn 天花板 to be single (if not simple) polysyllabic words is that you can't replace their morphemes with others but still end up with the same meaning. That is, I don't think you can seriously use a phrase like "tiānkōng huāduǒ mùbǎn" 天空花朵木板 to mean "ceiling", even though that phrase, like the constituent morphemes of tiānhuābǎn, also literally means "sky flower board" (and even though it also contains all three morphemes used in tiānhuābǎn). Shèhuìzhǔyì 社會主義 ("socialism") is slightly trickier – I understand it as a single word, but I suppose it would be possible to take it as two – shèhuì 'society' paired with zhǔyì 'ideology', since it's possible to say something like "社會主義是一種什麼主義?" ("what kind of an ideology is socialism?) – but, of course, "socialism" is one word in English, and I could imagine the sentence, "What kind of -ism is socialism?", though it comes across, I think, as a little more informal. And shèhuì 社會 'society' by itself, like tiānhuābǎn, is certainly a single word – otherwise you could also call society something along the lines of jìtán jùjí 祭壇聚集, which, like shè huì if treated as two different words, means something like "gathering of altars."

  20. Matt Anderson said,

    April 30, 2012 @ 3:17 pm

    (And that last point is related to the fact that some characters are – at least often – treated as words when they appear in ancient texts but as constituent morphemes when in modern texts. If the characters 社會 were to appear together in an ancient text – though as far as I know they do not – they would in fact likely mean something like "gathering of altars", not "society".)

  21. joe said,

    April 30, 2012 @ 6:56 pm

    in china, educated people say 社会主义 is a 词 composed of four 字. no one would refer to 社会主义 as a word. if one does, people would very probably conclude she isn't a chinese and she does not have a proper sense of what the chinese language is . it's that simple.

    as far as i am concerned, chinese words have gone through a long process of simplifying not only in the way individual words are spelled, so to speak, but also in the total quantity. a lot of words have disappeared. compared with some ancient chinese dictionaries, modern chinese dictionaries carry much fewer words. it is also a simplifying process. while 词 have multiplied. for example, 社 in ancient chinese dictionaries may carry a few phrases. but in modern chinese dictionaries and in everyday use, this word plays a big part in creating phrases, that is, two or three word compounds or phrases or nouns or verbs. the number is much larger. it is the same case with 会, 主, and 义. each may appear in numerous phrases, compounds, compound nouns or verbs. and they will appear in phrases, compounds, nouns and verbs that do not exist but will sure be created in the future. each is a word and each plays an individual independent part in both ancient and modern texts.

    they do constitute 词 in various ways and they will constitute new 词 that are yet to appear, but because they are part of a 词 does not necessarily mean they are constituent morphemes. they are words that play a constituent part in forming a 词.

    generally speaking, most chinese words (方块字) themselves are composed of tiny morphemes if we look into their structures. in most cases, single chinese words are not smallest bits of language that have their single meanings. examine 社会主义 in their traditional written forms, we can easily see constituent morphemes.

    in the chinese language, creating a word (造字) and creating a 词 (造词) are totally different things. no one would get them confused. when we chinese say 仓颉造字, we are referring to individual words he created. all the 词 appear afterwards. it is a continuation process that started in ancient times and will go on as long as the chinese language prospers.

    in my opinion, to say chinese words are merely constituent morphemes is to ignore the history of the chinese language and the way the language was and is and will be used.

  22. joe said,

    April 30, 2012 @ 8:06 pm

    another way to examine chinese words and morphemes that constitute single individual chinese words is to look into chinese word riddles. i am no expert in this game, but i know there are complicated rules and ways to create riddles and unravel riddles. i was given a riddle that says a person walks over clouds and i was given a clue: this is a word. the word is 会. the riddle takes apart the word and uses the morphemes. another riddle for a word: 春雨绵绵妻独睡. the answer is 一. the thinking goes this way: take a look at 春. if it rains, there is no sun. so you take the sun out of this word. if the wife sleeps alone, the husband isn't present. so you take 夫 out. what remains is 一. word riddles can help us see what a chinese word is and what chinese morphemes are.

    if we look into 说文解字, a dictionary put together in 121, that is, nearly 1,900 years ago, we can better understand what a chinese word is and isn't.

  23. Matt Anderson said,

    April 30, 2012 @ 8:14 pm

    I don't have time to respond at length at the moment, but I think this is a clear example of confusing the written language with the spoken language. When Cangjie 倉頡 legendarily zào zì 造字 (created characters), he did just that – according to tradition, he is said to have created a writing system, not to have invented words (that is, the spoken language existed before the writing system was invented) – he was inspired by patterns he discerned in bird and animal tracks to devise a method for visually recording language. Classical and pre-classical Chinese certainly were not purely monosyllabic languages, but they were much less polysyllabic than Mandarin is – shè 社 'altar' and huì 會 'to meet' were definitely classical Chinese words (not just constituent morphemes), and, in some contexts, they are words today – but shè and huì are constituent morphemes, not words, in the context of the word shèhuì 'society'. And Chinese fāngkuàizì 方塊字 (tetragraphs, or square-shaped characters – this explicitly refers to the writing system, not the spoken language) are composed of discrete elements, each of which was originally (or was derived from) an independent Chinese graph – these structural elements (most but not all of which have no etymological connection to the words or morphemes they write), though, are not morphemes any more than individual Roman letters are the morphemes of English words.

  24. joe said,

    April 30, 2012 @ 8:29 pm

    by the way, riddles are a big recreation in lantern festival on lunar january 15. in the community where i live, lanterns are up and riddles are written on strips of paper hanging from strings like clothes drying on clotheslines . usually each riddle carries a hint. a hint tells if the answer is a 字, a popular 词, or an object, or a celebrity, or an ancient poet, etc, etc. once you get the answer, you go to the prizes station with or without taking the strip with you, and say the answer, if you are right, you get a small gift.

  25. Matt Anderson said,

    April 30, 2012 @ 8:31 pm

    Those Lantern Festival riddles sound fun, joe.

  26. Brian C. said,

    April 30, 2012 @ 9:30 pm

    I have something interesting to say about GKP's shark/New Yorker post that has to do with certain key differences between some features of syntax and semantics, but I'll never be able to because of his love of closing comments. Sincerely, someone who is making the rather obvious claim that your (GKP's) policy of closing comments only serves to make Language Log less valuable to those who love and frequent it.

  27. julie lee said,

    May 1, 2012 @ 1:11 am

    Victor Mair’s point about people being fixated on characters and forgetting words cannot be stressed too much. It happened embarrassingly with me recently in Victor’s recent (Apr. 4) Language Log article, “Stream-of-Consciousness Blather". As an illustration, Victor quoted a long speech by a neighborhood-committee official in a Wang Shuo novel, a speech which I had translated. In the blathering spiel, I translated a medical term, FENG SHI 風濕, two characters, as “wind-wet". Actually FENG SHI (FENGSHI) is a word meaning “rheumatism", as just about everyone who speaks Mandarin knows. And actually, I have known the word FENGSHI as “rheumatism” ever since childhood because my mom was always talking about it. It’s a very very common word in Mandarin. I’ve spoken Mandarin since childhood, and know Chinese very well, yet I still got fixated on characters and forgot all about the word FENGSHI “rheumatism". I found out when I looked up Wang Shuo on the Internet and somehow came across Howard Goldblatt’s translation of the same passage, and he translated FENG SHI as “rheumatism". Of course I realize too that FENG “wind” and SHI “wet” are terms in Chinese medicine, which is also why I got fixated on the characters and forgot the word—-fixated on leaves and forgot the tree.

  28. J. Goard said,

    May 1, 2012 @ 1:23 am

    In Korean, the primary word for epilepsy uses the second and third roots in 癲癇症 (간질), but it also has a word with the first and second roots (전간). The former seems to have a broader sense of a condition (like English epilepsy) and the latter the sense of a single event (like seizure). However, the latter seems like it's getting thoroughly replaced by the word 발작 (發作) which can be used for many kinds of convulsions or "attacks" (from asthma, for example) but presented without context would seem to suggest epilepsy. This page of medical information on epilepsy, for example, uses 발작 15 times and 전간 not at all. Te Korean friends I just asked have all said that 전간 is "part of 간질", that 전간 is seldom used, but had no feeling that this was because it would be offensive or non-PC.

  29. Kris said,

    May 1, 2012 @ 3:22 am

    J. Goard:

    癇症 would be 간증. 간질 is 癎疾.

    Regarding the word debate, I also don't have time for a comprehensive answer, but I always use 词 (or 字词) for word and 字 (or 文字) for character in Mandarin Chinese. I also don't see "computer virus" as a counterexample or that wordhood is a concept that wouldn't work in Mandarin Chinese.

  30. Victor Mair said,

    May 1, 2012 @ 7:11 am

    From Bob Ramsey, regarding the debate over word vs. character in Mandarin:

    You know what troubles me about much of what Joe says? It's that he seems to be unaware of the extent to which the Chinese "language" has a history. He speaks with confidence about "Chinese" as if it were one unchanging, monolithic entity across space and time. And so, for example, he cites that Li Bai poem as if the great poet had written in the same language that he knows from the speech he hears around him, that the syntactic units the characters represented in the poem then were the same as the ones he knows now from modern Mandarin. And you know what? It all boils down to the writing system. It's the writing system that has masked all the radical changes and differences in sounds that have taken place in speech in northern China since Li Bai last chanted that poem. When you think about it, it's downright bizarre that people today read the poem in modern Mandarin. What makes a poem a poem, after all, are its sounds just as much as the thoughts it expresses–in most languages, including all varieties of Chinese, poems are chanted, sung–and it's absurd to imagine even for a moment that Li Bai's poem would have sounded like Mandarin!

    It's the characters that create the illusion that Li Bai spoke the same language that Joe now does. And many Chinese think that Confucius also spoke that same language. (A Chinese colleague of mine once told me just that, that he and Confucius share the same language, that, unlike Western languages, the Chinese "language" hadn't changed from Confucius's time down to his.)

    We know quite well, at least at an intellectual level, that Chinese sounds have in fact changed greatly, and so have its syntactic and lexical units–its words. Those facts are well documented. (Speaking of which, I believe Victor Mair himself has done quite a bit of work on the colloquialisms, the baihua expressions, that were documented in Dunhuang manuscripts.) Of course, the changes in Chinese lexical structure are exactly what Matt points out most cogently in his penultimate note; that note was impressive. (I hope the readers of the string realize how well stated it was.) But the Chinese writing system has done a remarkable job of masking those changes in how people think of Chinese.

    There's also one more, somewhat minor point about history that I want to mention. It seems to me somewhat ironic that Joe would use as his illustration of the structure of Chinese vocabulary "社会主义". As most Sinologists know by now, that particular word, like many of the words of modern Chinese life, was actually coined by Meiji Japanese. (After all, the complete works of Marx were translated into Japanese even before they were into English.) And so, it's no accident the structure of such vocabulary has features of Classical Chinese, since that's what those elitist Meiji intellectuals intended it to be.

    But in these quibbles, I shouldn't be excessively critical. That's because, even though he pushes it way, way too far, Joe makes an important point. He is not completely off the mark in talking about the squishiness of the "word". That term does not have an easy definition in English, either. Dwight Bolinger used to write about that point a lot, with some really interesting examples. (Why is "the", for example, a word and not a prefix?) We only think the word is a clearly defined linguistic term because we happen to write spaces between the "words". And so, our writing system has affected our perceptions, too, hasn't it? But coming back to Chinese, I certainly don't know how well documented the origin of this particular character usage is, but the Chinese use of 词 that Joe cites is, I'm pretty sure, an adaptation Chinese intelligentsia came up with to deal with the Western concept of "word". Otherwise, a "word" wasn't something they were culturally prepared to deal with in translating English, for example.

  31. Nathan said,

    May 1, 2012 @ 12:42 pm

    In order for the to be a prefix, wouldn't attributive adjectives have to be as well, so the big black rock would be one word?

    [(myl) That separability is no doubt why English (and German, Dutch, French, Italian, etc.) articles are traditionally written as separate words, while e.g. Arabic articles (where the equivalent form would be the-rock the-big) are written together with nouns and adjectives.

    But phonologically, English articles form part of adjacent (following) words. Thus the usual pronunciations of "a tack" and "attack" are phonologically and phonetically identical; and similarly "a just settlement" and "adjust settlement". English articles therefore fall into the category of clitics, i.e. formatives that are syntactically independent words but behave phonologically like affixes.]

  32. J. Goard said,

    May 1, 2012 @ 7:51 pm


    Thanks. Funny — I type in Hangeul and use the Hanja substitution key, so I must have typed 증…

  33. Apollo Wu said,

    May 2, 2012 @ 9:59 am

    Yes, many Chinese wrongly translate word into character 字, which should be correctly translated as 词。 As a UN document stipulating 750 words was translated as 750 字. It should be translated as roughly 1500 字。 Also word-processor is translated as 文字处理机 instead of 语词处理机。 The proliferation of Chinese characters was a result of 字本位 concept. In fact, the development of disyllabic words has already accounted for some 80% of Chinese words. This fact is masked by the separateness of the Chinese characters.

  34. Lugubert said,

    May 2, 2012 @ 10:23 am

    I think that I have read (Chao Yuen Ren? John DeFrancis ?) that the "word" concept was first applied to Chinese after Chinese linguists had encountered scholars of English and other IE languages, in a similar way that inspired the creation of a feminine pronoun.

  35. Kris said,

    May 2, 2012 @ 10:57 am


    I'd like to know more about the linguistic history of 词…

    If I remember correctly, 词/辞 meant "speech, words (言辞)" in Classical Chinese..

  36. Michael Rank said,

    May 2, 2012 @ 2:59 pm

    FWIW the simplified version of 癎 is 痫.

  37. Michael Rank said,

    May 2, 2012 @ 4:23 pm

    Incidentally when I was at Peking University in 1975, the daughter of the shifu (janitor) of the male foreign students' building, 26 lou, was epileptic. She was a sweet girl of 11 or 12, enjoyed chatting to the foreign students and her father/authorities were relaxed about this even though most parents would not wanted to have their kids hang out with foreigners in those days. I don't remember what Chinese word she used for epileptic (she used to mention it quite often), but I'm sure it wasn't anything as esoteric as 癲癇症/腦癇症. I never saw her have a seizure, btw.

  38. joe said,

    May 6, 2012 @ 6:57 pm

    i was aware of chinese language did have a history. i meant to respond to this point and analyze what i understand the way words get created and 词 get formulated. but i wrote a few paragraphs, but as i am no linguist, i felt i was not up to the big task.

    just a few points.

    china unified the writing system when the first emperor of the qin ruled. the language was largely created and expanded and taken care of by scholars. local dialects never had a chance to get written perfectly. the local dialect i speak does have words and pronunciations that i can not find in any standard chinese language dictionary.

    words were created during the first period of time of chinese language. i can't define the period, but it must have been there in history. we chinese no longer create words, generally speaking. but we have kept creating 词 for centuries, all on the basis of existing words, so as to cope with life. i suspect these 词 were all created by scholars in educated ways. local dialects never get a big chance to get their words and phrases to get into the standard chinese language.

    it is only in the last twenty or thirty years that the so called mandarin has begun dominating in speaking. that is, when television is everywhere, local dialects begin to die. i have been interested in this fact that boys and girls of people who come to cities from remote rural areas, even boys and girls of city residents, are speaking the standard mandarin. i have asked these parents, i know or i chat with. more often than not, parents speak to each other in a dialect, but parents speak mandarin with their children. that is, dialects are dying to some extent. this is the time when mandarin is unifying the spoken words for the first time in chinese history.

    one of my points is that chinese language, as far as i know, is a written language. local dialects, that is, the way ordinary people speak, do not affect the language. it is the written language developed and maintained by scholars that gets into the way people speak. whether you are educated can easily be detected. dialects never seriously shaped the mandarin. it is the standard mandarin as used by confucius, li bai, and other essayists and poets, all these centuries that has found its way into dialects. in the dialect i speak, i use the standard pronunciations when i feel it is quite awkward to pronounce them in the dialect. i have heard other people speak that way frequently.

  39. joe said,

    May 6, 2012 @ 7:24 pm

    from my limited experiences, even now some people who were not exposed to television and radio adequately and did not go to school when they were younger do no understand standard mandarin spoken in radio, television or by people around them. years back, i found people in rural areas who did not understand the chinese i learned to speak at school. the dialect was the only language they spoke and understood. the chinese language was a foreign language to them.

    i know my impression of the standard language and dialects is shaped by where i grew up, the south, the hotbed of hundreds of dialects. but that is a reality that must be taken into consideration when we talk about chinese 字 and 词 and written and spoken forms.

  40. joe said,

    May 6, 2012 @ 11:35 pm

    a battlefield tale i heard a long time ago, and it is still alive somewhere, is about the military communications back in the late 1970s when china and vietnam fought in the border areas. vietnamese military used chinese communications equipment and many vietnamese officers even spoke chinese. they listened in and understood what was being communicated between chinese battle units. chinese army suffered setbacks as the information in spoken mandarin was intercepted. officers soon found what went wrong and picked some soldiers who came from wenzhou, a port city in southern zhejiang province, to work as radio operators. the wenzhou dialect is infamously difficult to understand. the dialect was used for communications on battlefields.

  41. joe said,

    May 7, 2012 @ 9:02 am

    another point to ponder: scholars can't emphasize too much about the value and importance of reading chinese classics. the classics are more than culture. they offer beautiful words. the first time i went through 道德经, i was surprised to see so many phrases in the text that are used frequently today. over the last 20 years, educated people in china have been trying to create texts in the best chinese, believing that the language they have been reading is quite corrupted by politicians for political purposes. the movement, though not widespread, aims to bring back the beauty of chinese that can be found in ancient classics. it is widely believed that no one could write well if they don't expose themselves to the beauty of the ancient chinese language. for example, chinese 成语 are a big part of the chinese language, spoken and written. the way one uses them and avoids overusing them indicates how well one is educated and how well one can write and speak effectively and creatively. 字 and 词 from the texts of the past are tightly interwoven in the chinese language. it would be extremely difficult to pinpoint how many so called characters in a modern text are words and how many are morphemes. just sample 100 chinese texts randomly chosen and try to determine which characters are words and which are merely morphemes.

  42. Victor Mair said,

    May 7, 2012 @ 10:27 am

    From Hilary Smith

    The part about the "bizarre movements of goats" instantly brings to mind the most well-known piece on epilepsy in the history of Western medicine. The Hippocratic corpus includes an essay called "On the Sacred Disease," in which the author offers a naturalistic explanation of convulsive disease (something like epilepsy) to counter the common perception that it's a "sacred" condition that can by cured by priests and exorcists. One of the author's key pieces of evidence that the convulsions come from the brain, and not from gods or demons, is bizarrely-moving goats; when the goats' heads are dissected, one sees that their brains are rotting and foul-smelling. So apparently it was not only in China that observers made a connection between human and goat convulsions.

RSS feed for comments on this post