A Northeastern topolectal morpheme without a corresponding character

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A favorite expression of Dōngběi rén 東北人 ("Northeasterners") is zhóu.  It means "mulish".  The adjective zhóu describes a person who is stubborn, but not in an obnoxious, offensive way, rather in a cute, amiable, charming, or naive manner.

Despite its relatively high frequency in Northeastern speech, there is no known Sinograph / Chinese character that corresponds to this morpheme.  It is customarily or conventionally written as "zhóu 軸" ("axis; axle"), but that is only a borrowed makeshift.

This phenomenon — vernacular, colloquial, dialectal, topolectal morphemes lacking Sinographic (Hànzì 漢字) forms — is quite common.  Ironically, it is often high frequency morphemes that lack Hànzì written forms, including the very highest frequency morphemes such as the Taiwanese possessive particle pronounced ê [e].

Even the sources of very high frequency lexemes (including the absolute highest) in standard written Chinese (basically Mandarin) originally began with morphemes lacking suitable Sinographic form, but became attached to characters having quite different meanings.  Ultimately, the latter were bleached of their original meanings and became accepted as the proper way to write the morphemes in question, e.g.:

possessive particle and relative clause marker de 的 ("target")
adverbial suffix de 地 ("floor; ground")
marker of the verbal complement de 得 ("get; obtain; achieve")

proximal demonstrative zhè 這 ("to meet")

plural signifier men 們 ("door; gate" + radical for "human")

I think that all of this is telling us something profound about the mismatch between the Chinese writing system and the ever-evolving spoken Sinitic languages and topolects.  It is a question that has never been adequately addressed by Sinologists, philologists, and linguists.  By saying that, however, maybe I'm just being a tad zhóu.


Selected readings

"Dongbei Survival Guide:  You can be funny and emotional in Dongbeihua, but be careful," by Ginger Huang, The World of Chinese

"Northeastern Mandarin"

"Russian Loans in Northeast and Northwest Mandarin: The Power of Script to Influence Pronunciation" (1/23/11)

"Manchu loans in northeast Mandarin" (10/7/13)

"Varieties of Mandarin" (10/25/17)

"Triple topolectal reprimand" (5/29/16)

"Our Taiwan" (11/19/13)

"No character for the most frequent morpheme in Taiwanese" (12/10/13)

"Taiwanese Morphemes in Search of Chinese Characters", by Robert L. Cheng (Zheng Liangwei), Journal of Chinese Linguistics, 6.2 (June, 1978), 306-314.

[Thanks to Diana Shuheng Zhang]


  1. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    June 9, 2020 @ 12:50 pm

    I do not really know what "all of this is telling us about the mismatch".

    "Taiwanese Morphemes in Search of Chinese Characters": https://mega.nz/file/VVZTjYSJ#wtuKdd1K_EBBtahlNhJZ8gGkglOIZa9TZ-gTRBSGehg

  2. TOM DAVIDSON said,

    June 9, 2020 @ 3:36 pm

    My two cents: The Chinese character 稠chou2 (STC 4464) means thick as in thick porridge. Zhou and chou are phonetically close. The extended meaning of 稠is likely "thick-headed", or stubborn.

  3. Neil Kubler said,

    June 9, 2020 @ 9:50 pm

    Chinese characters are ultimately nothing more or less than attempts at the written representation of spoken Chinese words. It's common among languages of the world for orthographies to lag behind developments in the spoken language — both as regards colloquial terms that have no standard written representation and in retaining outdated written representations of spoken words that have changed. Do Chinese characters by themselves even have meaning? Or is it rather that a character represents a sound, and it is the sound (by itself or as part of a polysyllabic word) that has the meaning? I think it is essentially the latter case, though it is true that sometimes written representations can distinguish homonyms that in speech would need a context to be distinguished (for example, 是 vs. 事 vs. 試 or "to" vs. "too" vs. "two").

  4. Chris Button said,

    June 10, 2020 @ 7:27 am

    It's probably worth noting that the use of chinese characters for meanings other than their original sense goes all the way back to the earliest forms of the script in the oracle-bone inscriptions. Sometimes they even employed a small "mouth" radical to designate that the character was being used in that manner.

    proximal demonstrative zhè 這 ("to meet")

    … whose pronunciation no longer has any connection to its phonetic 言in its use as an old graphic variant of 遮. Qiu Xigui has a nice discussion of this in his Chinese Writing book, apparently based on a paper on the topic by Chen Zhiwen (1964)

  5. Victor Mair said,

    June 10, 2020 @ 8:58 am

    Many thanks to Neil Kubler and Chris Button for highlighting the fundamental disconnect between the allegedly biǎoyì 表意 ("ideographic") nature of the Chinese writing system and the actuality of its fundamentally biǎoyīn 表音 ("phonetic") quality.

    This is something that our old friend and mentor, John DeFrancis, felt passionately about. Namely, there's no such thing as a purely ideogrammic writing system for living languages. See his books such as The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy (1984) and Visible Speech: The Diverse Oneness of Writing (1989). Also do a Google search on Language Log for his name and you will find many references to JDF, his ideas, and his writings.

    Do a similar search for his colleague and friend, J. Marshall Unger, where you will find references to the latter's Ideogram: Chinese Characters and the Myth of Disembodied Meaning (2004) and other relevant works.

    Also recommended is a search for William C. Hannas (my first PhD!), where you will find references to his Asia's Orthographic Dilemma (1997) and The Writing on the Wall (2003) and other relevant works and observations.

  6. cameron said,

    June 10, 2020 @ 9:45 am

    Given all that, if zhóu in this sense of "mulish" is "customarily or conventionally written as "zhóu 軸" ("axis; axle"), but that is only a borrowed makeshift", what is it about that custom or convention that makes it "makeshift" and unsatisfactorily "borrowed"? Is it just that this is a relatively recent convention, and doesn't have the weight of many years of usage behind it?

    A hundred odd years ago, when they first started writing Mandarin vernacular, didn't they have to adopt thousands of these "makeshift" usages? Aren't they the norm?

  7. Victor Mair said,

    June 10, 2020 @ 9:55 am

    Yes, "makeshift" is the norm.

  8. Chau said,

    June 10, 2020 @ 12:05 pm

    I happen to have two dictionaries on the Dongbei topolect, both of which list the vernacular morpheme zhóu under discussion in the o.p. The first one is 哈爾濱方言詞典/ Harbin Fāngyán Cídiăn “Harbin Topolectal Dictionary” (my translation), which is a monograph from an ambitious series (in traditional script!) of 現代漢語方言大詞典 Xiàndài Hànyŭ Fāngyán Dàcídiăn “Unabridged Dictionaries of Modern Sinitic Topolects” (ditto), published by Jiangsu Jiaoyu Chubanshe 江蘇教育出版社. On page 249 the morpheme is given primarily a fourth tone, zhòu, and ascribed a Sinograph [忄+ 芻] (the character is not available from the Microsoft Word character maps of PMingLiU and PMingLiU-ExtB). It is defined as 固執 gùzhí “stubborn”. It also mentions a variant form, “also written as zhóu 軸 (也作軸),” suggesting that the morpheme is also pronounced in the second tone, as indicated by Victor Mair in the o.p.

    The second dictionary (published in simplified script), 东北方言词典/Dongbei Fangyan Cidian “Northeastern Topolectal Dictionary” (ditto), is a revised edition published by Jilin Wenshi Chubanshe 吉林文史出版社. On p. 387, it lists zhòu with a simplified version of the above Sinograph [忄+ 刍] (Note: 芻 traditional; 刍 simplified). It does not give the variant form “zhóu 軸”. It gives three definitions. (1) “Not agile/nimble/flexible (不灵活).” (2) “Slowpoke/sluggish (性子慢).” (3) “An uncomfortable sensation of skin getting tightened (皮肤发紧的難受感覚).” None of them strictly matches the definition of “stubbornness”. However, definition #2 seems close to what Victor Mair describes as “stubborn… in a cute, amiable, charming, or naive manner.” Interestingly, definition #3 suggests a sign of panic attack. You are so overwhelmed by a sense of urgency that you don’t know what to do. You freeze. Although paradoxical, actually there is a traffic jam in your inner circuits, you think of so many options, only to result in inaction. The definition given for the Sinograph [忄+ 芻] by Kang Xi’s Dictionary, “心迫也 feeling urgent” seems to echo such a feeling.

    I don’t know the history of this particular character in China after Kang Xi’s time, but in Taiwan, it has become obsolete.

  9. tom davidson said,

    June 11, 2020 @ 1:07 pm

    in re: Chris Button's insightful comment: June 10, 2020 @ 7:27 am
    We have to tread carefully here. Bone inscriptions using the "mouth" radical (radical 30) are sometimes actually the 围 wei2 radical (*31) indicating a place name….

  10. Chris Button said,

    June 11, 2020 @ 7:06 pm

    @ Tom Davidson

    Are you perhaps confusing things with the 丁 square/rectangle?

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