Trefoils across Eurasia: the importance of archeology for historical linguistics, part 4

« previous post | next post »

Hour-long video:  "A Sacred Emblem: Trefoil in Early Korean Metalwork and Beyond":

October 8, 2020 – Trefoil or “three-leaved plant” is a stylized form found in artifacts and architecture across culture and time. Dr. Minjee Kim begins the story with her first encounter with a gold headdress ornament of the Balhae kingdom (698-926) and traces the migration of its trefoil form throughout the 4th-6th century across Asia. Then, she travels to France, where “fleur-de-lis” adorned French crowns, clothing, textiles, and furniture as a symbol of royalty, leading to its wide contemporary appropriation by many Western institutions. The journey ends with the long and rich tradition in Kyrgyzstan where the motif is still strongly embedded in various realms of material culture of the people. While offering a view on Korean artifacts within a wider context of material resonance in human history, Dr. Kim highlights the way these artifacts adorned the body and how the craftsmanship was employed to articulate the social hierarchy.

This fascinating lecture on a single motif that has had royal / imperial significance
from Western Europe to East Asia is available on the website and YouTube channel of the Korea Society.

I bring the trefoil to the attention of Language Log readers because it shows, based on archeological, architectural, and art historical materials, unmistakable evidence of the transmission of a cultural phenomenon from one side of the Eurasian continent to the other, without any clear indication of the corresponding transmission of a word for this symbol.  This is in contrast to cases of long distance transmission of cultural artifacts and attributes that are accompanied by specific words that are associated with them (see under "Selected readings").

All the words for "trefoil" in the languages of various cultures where it is found seem to be translations of, rather than direct borrowings, of the Western word.

The Vietnamese word for "trefoil" is "hình ba lá", where the first syllable is a Sino-Vietnamese etymon (xíng 型 ["type"] or xíng 形 ["shape"]), while "ba" ("three") and "lá" ("leaf") are both indigenous etymons.  I recognize the latter as a very ancient Austroasiatic word with which it is cognate (it would perhaps be more accurate to say that it is the ur-etymon of the Sinitic word [and ultimately the English word]) for "tea".  I wrote about this in Appendix C of The True History of Tea (Thames and Hudson, 2009).

The Korean word for "trefoil" is "samyeophyeong sikmul 삼엽형 (三葉形) 식물" ("three-leaved plant"), where the first three syllables are all Sino-Korean and the last, two syllable word is indigenous.  Another possible Korean word for "trefoil" is "gaemi jali 개미자리", neither component of which is Sino-Korean.  There are other roundabout ways to refer to a three-lobed ornament in Korean.

The Japanese term is "mitsuba 三つ葉", which refers to a 3-leaved design or to a plant similar to parsley.

The usual Sinitic equivalent for "trefoil" is "sānyè(cǎo) 三葉(草)", the full form of which could also mean "clover".  There are other roundabout ways to refer to a three-lobed plant or ornament in Sinitic.

From Yijie Zhang:

I doubt if the English word "trefoil" has a specific Chinese counterpart. In dictionaries, "trefoil" is usually translated as "1. 三叶草; 三叶植物 (three-leaved plants) 2. 三叶形装饰(或图案) (designs or patterns in the shape of a three-leaved plant)", and the English-Chinese difference mainly lies in the latter, since there is no particular word for the actual graphic form in Chinese. While the English Wikipedia entry of “trefoil” is mostly concerned with its cultural connotation as a decoration or a design pattern used in Christian symbolism, "三叶草" in Chinese context normally refers to the botanical species with certain cultural meanings (see the entry in Baidu). 

Given the description "a graphic form composed of the outline of three overlapping rings", I would probably refer to it as "梅花" (as "clubs" in cards) in Chinese.

Since historically, neither the type of small plants nor the ornamental pattern of three-fold shape has profound cultural backgrounds in China in comparison with trefoil in the Western world (especially regarding the absence of Christian background, e.g., the Trinity), "三叶草" in Chinese is a relatively broad term, which could refer to shamrock, clover, and trefoil (and even the Adidas Trefoil series), among others. Although shamrocks (either clovers, medicks, or whatever botanical species with three-leaved sprigs) are quite common in China, its current cultural meaning as a motif is a result of limited cultural introduction and acculturation. I remember when I was a little girl, my friends and I sought among a cluster of shamrocks for four-leaved ones, which was believed to bring good luck according to what we heard :D, and we told shamrocks from other three-leaved plants by recognizing whether the shape of each divided leaf of the three was in the shape of the heart symbol "❤". However, "三叶草" would not directly remind me of architectural layouts or heraldic decorations if not in a Western context. In other words, the special cultural meanings of "trefoil" in the West were largely absent in China.

To recapitulate: elements of culture may travel long distances and have major or minor impact where they end up. As they spread, they may or may not bring specific terms with them that are borrowed into the recipient cultures. It would appear that "trefoil" is a case of a cultural manifestation that is easily traceable, but does not have a specific term that transcends diverse cultures.


Selected readings

[Thanks to Alan Kennedy, William Hannas, Haewon Cho, Mimi Yiengpruksawan, Xiuyuan Mi, and Haewon Kim]


  1. Nick Kaldis said,

    October 12, 2020 @ 8:56 am

    I grew up in Southeast Ohio in the 1960s, and my mother taught us to identify trefoil as "bird's foot trefoil", b/c the seed pods look like a bird's foot (esp. like the foot of a coot, to my eye). It is ubiquitous in late summer and fall along the country roads where i live in upstate NY. I wonder if there is any history in Asia of this symbol ("bird's foot") associated with the plant?

  2. ohwilleke said,

    October 12, 2020 @ 4:18 pm

    What is Sino-Korean?

  3. Victor Mair said,

    October 12, 2020 @ 8:00 pm

    From Shuheng (Diana) Zhang:

    Trefoil I've heard of, but in China the young netizens especially value "four-leaf clover" 四叶草 because that's the lucky grass. So whilst we all know that trefoil is a plant, what really appears on decorations and designs on everyday articles are 四叶草, rarely 三叶草.

  4. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    October 12, 2020 @ 8:47 pm

    Plants with leaves similar to trefoils, shamrocks, or clovers include oxalis, which is often sold in the spring in the U.S. as a houseplant. Some more information:

    More photos and information, once you get past the annoying pop -up:

    Bird’s foot trefoil, which I tend to recognize based on its distinctive yellow flowers:

    Do any South American art traditions use trefoil-type designs? Apparently a number of oxalis varieties come from South America.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    October 12, 2020 @ 9:34 pm


    Sino-Korean is essentially Korean vocabulary borrowed directly from Sinitic, or based on Sinitic morphemes. Ditto for Sino-Japanese and Sino-Vietnamese.

  6. AntC said,

    October 12, 2020 @ 11:28 pm

    It would appear that "trefoil" is a case of a cultural manifestation that is easily traceable, but does not have a specific term that transcends diverse cultures.

    Traceable … diverse cultures? I see no such claim from Dr. Kim. She traces the trefoil/fleur-de-lis -alike form through _Korean_ cultures from the (Korean) 'Three Kingdoms' period. I see no tracing across "diverse cultures" — at least not as diverse as Sinitic cultures and Mediaeval Europe. She mentions a motif in a C7th BCE relief from what is now Syria. She demonstrates no trace forward in time from that to Merovingians nor to the Sinosphere. There's illustrations of foliate motifs in Kyrgyzstan — which could just as easily be Art-Nouveau or Ogham or Pacifica naturalistic decoration.

    A three-lobe or three-frond motif strikes me as sufficiently naturalistic it might be independently invented in multiple cultures. Then no reason to expect those cultures would 'borrow' any term: they're not borrowing the artefact.

    These are just decorative lookalikes. There's nothing here of any linguistic interest any more than there is in accidental soundalikes in disparate languages.

  7. AntC said,

    October 13, 2020 @ 12:14 am

    architectural layouts

    The most common place I see a trefoil in Gothic architecture is the inner face of a spandrel (that is, facing into the nave). Just such a one is the first illustration in the wikipedia article on trefoils.

    But this is not particularly naturalistic, nor oriented as the fleur-de-lis -alike pattern Dr. Kim is discussing. It's not like the column is a stalk and the trefoil is a clover leaf 'sprouting' above it. Rather, a row of columns supporting the roof/clerestory, with Gothic arches spanning the space between the columns gives a spandrel as a triangular shape — equilateral with a horizontal 'base' at the top and the symmetrical (curved) edges pointing down. The trefoil then fills the triangular space, with two lobes 'across' the top, one lobe below. IOW almost totally unlike a fleur-de-lis.

    BTW it's not clear whether those trefoils are original features. The spandrel is a nice flat space up high above the nave, where a Medieval congregation's gaze might drift in rapt contemplation (or out of sheer boredom at some long sermon in a dead language). IOW a good place for an advertising hoarding. The archaeology Prof. Mair has bid us pay attention to has identified that at least in parish churches, those spaces teemed with biblical illustrations in gaudy colours.

    The trefoils might only date from those Victorian vandals known as 'restorers'.

  8. AG said,

    October 13, 2020 @ 12:39 am

    Shouldn't we skeptically examine the claim that drawing a plant with three leaves requires cultural transmission? there aren't any in mayan carvings or anything? we're sure that kids don't spontaneously rediscover this symbol in their doodles all the time?

  9. Thomas Rees said,

    October 13, 2020 @ 5:37 am

    Just to add to the confusion, "bird's foot trefoil" is the genus Lotus L., which has nothing to do with "sacred lotus" (पद्म padma; 莲 lián)

  10. Scott P. said,

    October 13, 2020 @ 9:20 am

    BTW it's not clear whether those trefoils are original features.

    I am an art historian, and have never heard of such a thesis. Do you have a citation?

  11. Victor Mair said,

    October 13, 2020 @ 9:45 am

    From Francesco Brighenti:

    As regards the Indus Valley civilization, trefoil motifs are carved, for instance, on the robe of the so-called “priest-king” statuette from Mohenjo-daro as well as on several other artifacts from that civilization. Asko Parpola has discussed the trefoil motif, interpreted by him as an “astral” motif, in some of his publications – see. e.g., at

    (“…the trefoil motif… almost certainly had an astral significance in both the Indus Valley and Mesopotamia.”)

    Trefoil motifs are also known from contemporary sites in Afghanistan, southern Central Asia, Mesopotamia, and Egypt. See the pictures reproduced in this webpage by Dr. Kalyanaraman (which means you should only look at the pictures, not at the text which is unreadable):

  12. Philip Taylor said,

    October 13, 2020 @ 10:06 am

    The text is perfectly legible here, Victor — below is copy-and-paste of the first para, which Word tells me is 11pt Verdana. Admittedly the grammar is somewhat idiosyncratic, but I would not deem it "unreadable".

    What is the decipherment of the trefoil hypertext on the garment of Mohenjodaro statuary of a seated person? Over 8000 documents (inscriptions) of Indus Script have been deciphered as wealth-accounting ledgers, metalwork catalogues. Does this context provide a reading and explanation of the trefoil hypertext? I submit that the decipherment of Indus inscriptions explain these trefoil hypertexts also, which are composed of one dotted circle, two dotted circles, three dotted The circles.. The frequently occurring fish-looking signs of the Indus Script signify aya 'fish' rebus: ayas 'alloy metal'. Thus, fish hypertexts signify alloy metalwork related terms. Similarly, do the dotted circles fusing into a trefoil signify some type of metalwork? The answer is yes using the logo-semantic cipher of the Indus Script: dotted circle signifies dhāu 'strand' rebus: 'ore' PLUS vaṭṭa 'circle' rebus: dhā̆vaḍ 'smelter' .

  13. Victor Mair said,

    October 13, 2020 @ 10:54 am

    By "unreadable", Francesco means that it doesn't make sense.

  14. Victor Mair said,

    October 13, 2020 @ 10:54 am

    Regarding trefoils depicted in the Kyzil caves (ca. 300-early 8th c.) of the Tocharian kingdom of Kucha, Monika Zin says:

    They are there. Most often in the ornament Grünwedel calls "Kreuzblume" (cross-flower), which is the most common ornament of the co-called 2nd Indo-Iranian Style (after 550, example from Kizil 17). The ornament might perhaps have Indian prototypes (see some examples from Ajanta, 5th century).

    Earlier, in the 1st Indo-Iranian Style, the trefoil motifs appear in vines – like in Kizil 207 – but they do not look like "fleur-de-lis".

    [VHM: illustrations omitted here]

  15. ~flow said,

    October 13, 2020 @ 2:33 pm식물 appears to indicate that 식물 is the Sino-Korean reading of Chinese 植物 'plant' tho which would make 삼엽형식물 (三葉形植物) a Sino-Korean word altogether. FWIW I think Korean phonotactics turns sequences -g m- into -ng m- (i.e. velar stop + bilabial nasal becomes velar nasal + bilabial nasal) so 식물 /sig mul/ (or /sik mul/ if you will) is read [ɕiŋmul].

  16. Victor Mair said,

    October 13, 2020 @ 2:43 pm

    From Renata Holod:

    Regarding trefoils as ornaments and designs on objects and artifacts from Sogdiana (as a representative medieval Central Asian culture), in Sodia(na), there are silver objects galore, and textiles are depicted on wall paintings. See those found in Panjikent [Penjikent or Pianjikent]; begin with G. Azarpay, Sogdian Painting. As for silver, begin with Boris Marschak, Silberschatze des Orients.

    If you read Russian, see any other of Boris Marshak’s works on Afrasiyab, Panjikent, etc.

  17. Victor Mair said,

    October 13, 2020 @ 2:47 pm

    From Adrienne Mayor:

    As far as I know, trefoils do not figure much in Greco Roman art, but there are many Ancient Greek pottery jugs with trefoil shape openings.

  18. AntC said,

    October 13, 2020 @ 4:17 pm

    BTW it's not clear whether those trefoils are original features.

    This is specifically the trefoils on spandrels of the colonnade down the nave. Trefoils filling spandrels in other situations (such as rose windows) do seem to be integral.

    I am an art historian, and have never heard of such a thesis. Do you have a citation?

    Visiting various (originally Mediaeval) parish churches in North Yorkshire, the church histories occasionally mention that more sympathetic restorations have discovered traces of gaudy colours, and/or parish records of visiting artists who painted them. These are the poorer churches where the spandrels were merely whitewashed over, not 'restored' to the Victorian ideal of Gothic.

  19. Victor Mair said,

    October 13, 2020 @ 4:56 pm

    When decades ago I first encountered the celebrated Indus Valley "Priest King" (soapstone / low fired steatite) sculpture found at the Mohenjo Daro archaeological site, Sindh Province, Pakistan in 1927, the large, well-formed trefoils (originally filled with red pigment on his robe and the phylactery-like (though much smaller) amulets on bands (fillets or ribbons) tied around his forehead and upper arm made a very powerful impression that haunts me till today. He dates to 2200-1900 BC and is the iconic representation of Indus civilization.

  20. AG said,

    October 13, 2020 @ 6:03 pm

    It seems there are perhaps more hints of possible cultural transmission than I'd expected. But as a tongue-in-cheek example of the dangers of going too far, I present this exhaustive look at how the fleur de lis proves that the Mayans were … a Lost Tribe of Israel, I think

  21. AntC said,

    October 13, 2020 @ 7:55 pm

    the celebrated Indus Valley "Priest King" (soapstone / low fired steatite) sculpture

    Yes those sculptures are very fine. Yes they have a motif with three lobes. Yes an English word for that motif would be 'trefoil'. Yes English 'trefoil' covers both clover/shamrock and fleur-de-lis shapes.

    No the motif from the Indus valley is not the same as what Dr. Kim explores. Fleur-de-lis are sprouting upwards from a base, with bilateral symmetry. Whereas the Priest King motifs appear with no particular orientation and have 120-degrees rotational symmetry.

    If it weren't for the accident of English using the same word meaning 'three leafy bits', I don't think there'd be any connection. I remain entirely unsurprised there's no 'borrowing' of any terms for this motif; because I'm entirely unconvinced there's been any cultural transmission of the artefact. IOW why is "historical linguistics" appearing in the title of this post?

  22. Victor Mair said,

    October 14, 2020 @ 5:57 am

    Negative evidence: the whole point of the post.

  23. Akito said,

    October 14, 2020 @ 7:11 am

    My Korean is very limited, but 삼엽형 식물 sounds like a description rather than a plant name, if it parallels the Japanese word formation, that is.

RSS feed for comments on this post