Another early Sinitic disyllabic morpheme: "(unopened) lotus blossom"

« previous post | next post »

I take great pleasure in finding morphemes in early Sinitic that are disyllabic, i.e., neither syllable of which means anything by itself, but acquires meaning only in combination with another morpheme to which it is customarily linked.  I have found hundreds of ancient terms composed of such morphemes and have written about many of them on Language Log ("grape", "coral", "lion", "reindeer", "macaque", "earthworm",  "spider", "phoenix", "sinuous, winding", "awkward", "knot", "pimple", "balloon lute", "harp", and so on and so forth).

There are two main reasons why I pay particular attention to such disyllabic morphemes:

1. Their numerousness certifies that early Sinitic was not exclusively monosyllabic (a widespread misconception), if we go by its Sinographic form in the latter part of the first millennium BC.

2. Many of these disyllabic morphemes have cognates (i.e., originate) in non-Sinitic languages (e.g., Iranian, Tocharian), which shows that Sinitic language (and culture) did not develop in isolation, but evolved in close association with other languages and cultures.

The topic of today's post is hàndàn 菡萏 (“[unopened] lotus flower”).  By itself, neither of these syllables means anything.  Both of them are of low frequency:

菡 ranks #6167 in a list of 9,033 characters

萏 ranks #6533 in the same list of 9,033 characters

The slight discrepancy between the frequency of these normally paired characters is due to the fact that 菡 occasionally is used by itself or is attached to some other character, usually the name of a flower, e.g., sháo 苕 ("vetch"), which looks like it is a mistake for 萏.

Despite its rareness, most people can guess the pronunciation of 菡 because there are a few more common characters that have the 函 phonophore (e.g. 函,涵,蜬 — all pronounced hán [the third one is very rare]), though most times they get the tone wrong (hán instead of hàn).  Few people know offhand how to pronounce 萏.

In English transcription of the MSM pronunciation for 菡萏, hàndàn, I cannot help but think of the place name 邯郸, an old city in southern Hebei province (I first learned about it in Zhuang Zi [Hándān xuébù 邯鄲學步, "awkwardly striving to copy the way people walk in Handan [idiom.]; slavishly copying others, one risks becoming a caricature"]), but the tones are different (Hándān vs. hàndàn) and the words belong to completely different xiéshēng 諧聲 ("phonetic series").


(Zhengzhang): /*ɡuːmʔ  l'oːmʔ/




(BaxterSagart): /*[ɡ]ˤa[n]  tˤa[r]/
(Zhengzhang): /*ɡaːm  taːn/



Etymological notes on 邯郸:

The city's name, Handan (Chinese: ), has remained unchanged for over 2,000 years. The name first appeared during the reign of King Zhou of Shang, in the chronicle Bamboo Annals.

A dictionary from the Tang dynasty explained that "Han" (Chinese: ) is the name of a nearby mountain (Hanshan), and "Dan" (Chinese: ) meant "the terminus of a mountain" with an added radical (Chinese: ) denoting a city. Together, "Handan" means "the city at the terminus of Mount Han". This explanation has been widely accepted until the discoveries of jade writings in Houma, Shanxi in 1965, where the "Dan" in Handan was spelt "", meaning red. This then lead [sic] to another explanation that Handan was named so because Mount Han appeared reddish-purple in color.

The different spellings of the city's name consolidated into the modern spelling in Qin dynasty.


The phonological distinction notwithstanding, 菡萏 and 邯郸 share the property of being two more in the long list of early Sinitic disyllabic morphemes.


Selected readings


[Thanks to Zihan Guo]


  1. AntC said,

    October 31, 2021 @ 1:18 am

    hàndàn 菡萏 (“[unopened] lotus flower”). By itself, neither of these syllables means anything.

    Thank you Victor, does the "[unopened]" mean budding? Or is there a different word for in-bud lotus flower? How about opened/blossoming lotus flower? How about lotus whole-plant?

    Are there cognates in other language(s) for hàndàn? Or for other states of lotus flower/plant?

    The hàn here is not related to Han peoples? Though in (汉人; 漢人; Hànrén), that first syllable has the same tone as in hàndàn ? Wouldn't that be a more likely explanation for the guess at pronunciation?

    I'm a bit confused what you're saying about the 函 phonophore: you're saying it usually signifies hán (?) So it's the _wrong_ phonophore to use in hàndàn (?) Is there a different phonophore that signifies hàn ?

    (I'm beginning to get an inkling of why AI finds it so hard to cope with the writing system, if you can't even rely on a phonophore to give a pronunciation.)

  2. David Marjanović said,

    October 31, 2021 @ 5:09 am

    Oh, you could rely on the phonophores when they were first used.

    That was up to 3000 years ago. A lot has changed since then. Unwritten prefixes have merged with initial consonants, unwritten suffixes have become tones or nasalizations or disappeared, and so on.

    There's a character that is pronounced lǜ in one meaning and shuài in another. Reconstruct far enough back, and you get *ruts and *sruts, respectively, i.e. the same thing without and with a prefix. In both forms, *-ts (containing a suffix *-s) became *-s, then *-h, and then the falling tone, and in both the vowel became fronted, but *s- combined with *r- into a retroflex (MSM sh) that modified how the vowel could do that. So if this character is used as, or contains, a phonophore (I don't know), that phonophore means *rut, which translates to several very different things 3000 years later.

  3. Chris Button said,

    October 31, 2021 @ 7:27 am

    The alternative spelling of 郸 with 丹 seems like another good reason not go with an -r coda:

  4. Chris Button said,

    October 31, 2021 @ 8:29 am

    @ David Marjanović

    Phonetic series aren't inviolable. Take a look at 翌 EMC jik ~ juwk from Old Chinese *ɣəːk ~ *ɣəːq , which goes all the way back to the oracle-bone inscriptions. Note that Baxter & Sagart reconstruct *ɢʷrəp (with a -p coda no less!) for my *ɣəːq .

    (BTW, a nasal prefix is by no means universally supported. A prefix that causes nasalization of onsets probably gets better support in the literature. Personally I think the evidence for nasalization is a surface articulatory response to inherently voiceless obstruents trying to maintain their voicing, but that's another matter).

  5. Andreas Johansson said,

    November 1, 2021 @ 5:22 am

    A claim I've seen is that all bisyllabics are loans, with the implication that Sinitic at some unattested primordial stage was purely monosyllabic. Is this plausible?

  6. Chris Button said,

    November 2, 2021 @ 6:19 am

    Speaking of unreliable phonetic series, the -n coda in 邯 is interesting. Zhengzhang’s “Old Chinese Phonology” book has *gaan ← *gaam

  7. Chris Button said,

    November 2, 2021 @ 6:30 am

    Shifts of -am to -an do occur in Old Chinese but it is usually conditioned by a bilabial onset. For example: 凡 *ᵐbaːm (deformed to 舟) is phonetic in 般 *panː .

RSS feed for comments on this post