"Configurations of the earth" and "patterns of the heavens" in Sinitic toponymy

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The latest issue of Sino-Platonic Papers:

James M. Hargett, "Anchors of Stability: Place-Names in Early China", Sino-Platonic Papers, 312 (April, 2021), 1-41.  (free pdf)

ABSTRACT:

The use of place-names in China predates its written history, which extends back at least 3,500 years. While the basic principles of toponym formation in ancient China are similar to those in other cultures around the world, early in its history a process took place that led to a standardization of the practices by which place-names were formulated. The central argument in this essay is that the essential features of place-name nomenclature in China were already in place before the Qin unification in 221 BCE.

Tíyào: Zài Zhōngguó shǐyòng dìmíng de lìshǐ yào zǎo yú qí shǐyòng shūmiànyǔ de lìshǐ. Gāi lìshǐ zhìshǎo kěyǐ zhuīsù dào 3,500 nián qián. Jǐnguǎn Zhōngguó gǔdài dìmíng xíngchéng de jīběn yuánlǐ yǔ shìjiè qítā wénhuà zhōng de dìmíng xiāngsì, dàn zài qí lìshǐ de zǎoqí què yǒu yīgè fāzhǎn guòchéng. Gāi guòchéng dǎozhì dìmíng zhìdìng de guīfànhuà. Běnwén de zhōngxīn lùndiǎn shì, gǔdài Zhōngguó dìmíng de jīběn tèzhēng zǎo zài xīyuán qián 221 nián Qín tǒngyī zhīqián jiù yǐjīng cúnzài.

提要: 在中國使用地名的歷史要早於其使用書面語的歷史。該歷史至少可以追溯到3,500年前。儘管中國古代地名形成的基本原理與世界其他文化中的地名相似,但在其歷史的早期卻有一個發展過程。該過程導致地名制定的規範化。本文的中心論點是,古代中國地名的基本特徵早在西元前221年秦統一之前就已經存在。

Keywords: diming 地名 (place-names), oracle-bone inscriptions, Shijing 詩經, “Tribute to Yu” (Yugong 禹貢), Fangma tan 放馬灘maps, Mawang dui 馬王堆maps

Now, when you start to study the origins of Sinitic toponyms in earnest, you will find that many of them are very hard nuts to crack.  For example, the name of Wúxī 無錫, a large city 84 miles northwest of Shanghai, ostensibly means "without tin", but many place names in that region inexplicably have wú 無 as a prefix, so one would suspect that it comes from a non-Sinitic substrate language, such as a Vietic or a Kra-Dai language.

Even more labyrinthine is the tale of the Taiwanese city name Keelung:

According to early Chinese accounts, this northern coastal area was originally called Pak-kang (Chinese: 北港; Pe̍h-ōe-jī: Pak-káng). By the early 20th century, the city was known to the Western world as Kelung, as well as the variants Kiloung, Kilang and Keelung. In his 1903 general history of Taiwan, US Consul to Formosa (1898–1904) James W. Davidson related that "Kelung" was among the few well-known names, thus warranting no alternate Japanese romanization.

However, the Taiwanese people have long called the city Kelang (Chinese: 雞籠; Pe̍h-ōe-jī: Ke-lâng/Koe-lâng; lit. '“rooster cage", "hencoop” or “chicken coop”'). While it has been proposed that this name was derived from the local mountain that took the shape of a rooster cage, it is more likely that the name was derived from the first inhabitants of the region, as are the names of many other Taiwanese cities. In this case, the Ketagalan people were the first inhabitants, and early Han settlers probably approximated "Ketagalan" with Ke-lâng (Hokkien phonetics).

In 1875, during the late Qing era, a new official name was given (Chinese: 基隆; pinyin: Jīlóng; lit. 'base prosperous'). In Mandarin, probably the working language of Chinese government at the time, both the old and new names were likely pronounced Kīlóng (hence "Keelung").

Under Japanese rule (1895–1945), the city was also known to the west by the Japanese romanization Kīrun (also written as Kiirun).

In Taiwanese Hokkien, native language of the area, the city is called Ke-lâng. In Hanyu Pinyin, a system created for Mandarin Chinese in Mainland China, the name of Keelung is written as Jīlóng (the shift from initial K to J is a recent development in the Beijing dialect*, see Old Mandarin).

[*VHM:  the palatalization of the velars in Pekingese / Beijingese topolect and other northern languages, which took place roughly within the last three centuries, which I've often written about on Language Log and elsewhere.]

And, no, the name "Taiwan" (台湾 / 臺灣)  does not mean "Terrace / Platform Bay", even though superficially that's what it looks like it means, which I've also written about on many occasions (see the Selected readings below).

 

Selected readings



3 Comments »

  1. AntC said,

    April 8, 2021 @ 4:03 pm

    The central argument in this essay is that the essential features of place-name nomenclature in China were already in place before the Qin unification in 221 BCE.

    Then I'm not seeing why mention toponymy in Taiwan: there were no speakers of Sinolects in Taiwan until much later. wikipedia: "Han Chinese fishermen began settling in the Penghu islands in the 13th century. Hostile tribes [non-Sinitic, believed to be Austronesian], and a lack of valuable trade products, meant that few outsiders visited the main island until the 16th century."

    As Victor mentions with Keelung; many names in Taiwan are re-interpretations of Austronesian names — then they'd bear only chance resemblance to Sinitic words for local geographic features. (There's a similar convoluted story with native Takau/Takow => Kaohsiung via Japanese.) A whole bunch more were created fresh in the waves of settlement C16th onwards.

  2. Michael Watts said,

    April 8, 2021 @ 11:31 pm

    As Victor mentions with Keelung; many names in Taiwan are re-interpretations of Austronesian names — then they'd bear only chance resemblance to Sinitic words for local geographic features.

    Well, I think the resemblance could easily be more than chance. There is an original form of the name that has nothing to do with any Chinese conventions. But reinterpreting that name is a long process, and the phonetics are not necessarily the only target for reinterpretation. The name must be adjusted to the new phonology, but it may also be adjusted in the direction of "this is what place names are like", to the extent that (1) there is a recognizable pattern for place names, and (2) the thing being named is recognizably a place. Both of those things seem likely to have been true.

  3. Michael Watts said,

    April 8, 2021 @ 11:37 pm

    (As an addendum, two observations that seem relevant:

    – I am often surprised by how little attention official Chinese sound-transcriptions seem to give to the original sound of a foreign word. Many opportunities for much closer phonetics seem to be missed.

    – A Chinese person once explained to me that the region known as Winterspring in World of Warcraft (it's snowy with hot springs) is known in Chinese as 冬泉谷, "winter-spring vale". She specifically stated that, in her opinion, the 谷 was likely added to the Chinese name because the name of a place should end in an obvious "place" category indicator.)

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