Revisiting ursine terminology in light of Sinitic cognates: semantics and phonetics

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From Chau Wu:

I have always wondered about the deep gulf of variations in the sounds of "néng 能 -bearing" characters, that is, the variations in the onsets and rimes (shēng 聲 and yùn 韻):

néng 能  n- / -eng (Tw l- / -eng)  [Note: 能 orig. meaning 'bear'; nai, an aquatic animal; thai, name of a constellation 三能 = 三台]

xióng 熊  x- (Wade-Giles: hs-) / -iong [熊 Tw hîm; the x- in MSM xióng is due to sibilization of h- caused by the following -i.]

pí 羆  ph- / -i  (the closely related p- onset is also seen in 罷, 擺)

nài 褦  n- / -ai  (the same onset n- is seen in 能)

tài 態  th- / -ai (the same th- onset is seen in 能)

Here is a longer list of characters derived from néng 能:

, X X , , , , , , , , , , X (see here for the three missing characters [marked by "X"])

If you click on the highlighted characters, you can access the complete Wiktionary entry for each one, including glyph origins and early forms, pronunciations (MSM, topolectal, and historical reconstructions from various periods), definitions, and so forth.

Néng 能 itself has seven different pronunciations in MSM and many corresponding meanings.

As for the etymology of néng 能, there are tantalizing suggestions of how this plethora of meanings and pronunciations are related:

"bear-like animal" Apparently an areal word of Austroasiatic origin (Schuessler, 2007; Zhang, 2019). Compare Kharia [script needed] (bɔnɔi), Santali [script needed] (bana, “Indian black bear”) & Lepcha [script needed] (să-na, “bear”), a loanword from Santali “be able to; can; ability” Shijing rhymes point to Old Chinese *, but the forms with * are also archaic (perhaps ancient dialectal variation?). Possibly Sino–Tibetan: compare Tibetan ནུས (nus, “be able to; capable; to withstand; capacity; strength; force; power; function; energy”), Burmese နိုင် (nuing, “can, be able to, may; master; win; prevail”). Schuessler (2007) also derives (OC *n̥ʰɯːs, “apparition, bearing, manner”) from this. Compare the old Sino–Vietnamese loanword nổi (“be able to; capable”).


Sinitic ursine terminology has been long and well studied on Language Log and in related publications, starting with "Dynamic stew" (10/24/13) and the comments thereto, where we had a vigorous discussion of words for "bear" in Korean, Sinitic, Tibetan, and Japanese, then exploring this word family in greater depth and breadth in "Bear words" (11/19/19).  In "Bear talk" (11/15/19), we dealt more with cultural aspects of bear terminology in northeastern China.  Finally, we were gifted with Diana Shuheng Zhang's densely philological study on “Three Ancient Words for Bear,” Sino-Platonic Papers, 294 (November, 2019), 21 pages (free pdf).

Considering that bears are awesome creatures, it is easy to see how words for them proliferate such a wide assemblage of meanings, images, and symbolism.  And sometimes, animals that people call bears aren't even really bears, such as koalas and pandas.  In doing bear research, one must be both linguistically and biologically alert.

Incidentally, I find the Russian word for "bear", medved' медведь, especially endearing (though if you met one in the woods it would be truly scary) because it derives from a Balto-Slavic word that means "honey-eater", which I find charming in and of itself, but also because the "honey" part of the word is evidence of a very old Tocharian borrowing into Sinitic, which we have repeatedly discussed on Language Log (see, for example, here and here)

From Proto-Balto-Slavic *medu-ēdis, equivalent to *medъ (“honey”) +‎ *(j)ěsti (“to eat”), hence literally the epithet "honey-eater". Cognate with Sanskrit मध्वद् (madhv-ád-, “eating sweetness”) (RV I 164,22). Presumably came into use as taboo avoidance of an earlier word, possibly something like *rьstъ (compare Lithuanian irštvà (“bear's den”), from Proto-Indo-European *h₂ŕ̥tḱos). Similar proposed examples of linguistic taboo for 'bear' are Proto-Germanic *berô (“the brown one”), Latvian lācis (“stomper, pounder”), Sanskrit भल्ल (bhalla) and Old Irish math (“the good one”).

There is a folk etymology from *medъ and *věděti (“to know, to manage”), hence "one who knows honey" or "honey master".


It seems that Winnie the Pooh was genuinely addicted to honey, which makes him innately so sweet and adorable, no matter what others may say about him.


Selected readings


  1. rm said,

    January 2, 2022 @ 9:40 am

    It seems like you must surely know this XKCD comic about the "true name of the bear":

  2. David Marjanović said,

    January 2, 2022 @ 12:24 pm

    And sometimes, animals that people call bears aren't even really bears, such as koalas and pandas.

    Giant pandas are bears, most closely related to sloth bears (which also have "false thumbs").

    Red pandas are not bears.

    the "honey" part of the word is evidence of a very old Tocharian borrowing into Sinitic, which we have repeatedly discussed on Language Log (see, for example, here and here)

    The latest on that, by the way, is that the Old Sinitic form wasn't *mjit but *mrit, borrowed not from *médʰu but from the other PIE "honey" word, *mélid (*mélit-).

    Unfortunately I can't find the paper where I read that (just last week or so). :-(

    Similar proposed examples of linguistic taboo for 'bear' are Proto-Germanic *berô (“the brown one”)

    Not the brown one, but the wild one – the very concept of "brown" isn't that old.

  3. Denis Christopher Mair said,

    January 2, 2022 @ 12:34 pm

    It's very cool that the Baltic/Slavic "Med-ved" (eater of honey) is somehow related to Madhav- (taster of sweetness) in Indian languages. I wonder if the Indian surname carries any ursine resonance, or does it just carry associations of tasting spiritual bliss.
    Maybe bears tasting honey are tasting spiritual bliss along with their gustatory bliss. We as humans can relate to that.
    I have encountered people with the surname Madhavan.

    But I'm wondering why terms like "honey-eater" and "stomper" and "the brown one" are presumed to have been coined because of a taboo. It seems plausible that natural semantic drift happens simply because people like to coin fanciful expressions for a thing, not necessarily because of taboos.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    January 2, 2022 @ 12:43 pm

    "Mādhava (Sanskrit: माधव) is one of the primary names of Vishnu and his incarnation Krishna, the all-attractive. The word mādhava in Sanskrit (has been differently explained), a vriddhi derivation of the word Madhu (Sanskrit: मधु) which means honey. It, therefore, functions as an adjective describing anything relating to honey or sweetness. By extension, the word describes a person descended from the Madhu clan, just like rāghava, yādava and Kaurava describe a person descended from the Raghu, Yadu and the Kuru clans respectively." (source)

  5. Chris Button said,

    January 2, 2022 @ 1:15 pm

    I was just pondering this very topic a week or so ago. I go with the following:

    熊 wuwŋ ← *ʁəːm "bear" with phonetic 炎 wiam ← *ʁaːm whose *ʁ- onset helps account for the lateral onsets in its phonetic series with words like 淡 damʰ ← *lamːs

    Meanwhile 能 is a beaver/otter-like aquatic animal nəŋ ~ nəj ← *nəŋː ~ *nəɣː showing the fairly common velar ɣ ~ ŋ coda alternation (as attested in 于 and 往, 女 and 娘, etc.)

    As for the other aquatic animal 獺 ʈʰat ~ tʰat ← OC ʰrat ~ ɬat "otter", the rhotic/lateral alternation of the liquid onset suggests a loan origin. I'd tentatively propose Indo-Iranian udrás “otter”. For the correspondence of *-s with *-t, compare 糲 liajʰ ~ lat ~ lajʰ ← *raːts ~ *rat ~ *rats and 稗 baɨjʰ ← *ᵐbrats both from Proto-Austronesian *bəʀas “uncooked rice”

  6. Chris Button said,

    January 2, 2022 @ 1:18 pm

    @ David Marjanović

    The latest on that, by the way, is that the Old Sinitic form wasn't *mjit but *mrit, borrowed not from *médʰu but from the other PIE "honey" word, *mélid (*mélit-).

    I thought that was an individual proposal that was refuted and then retracted in favor of a reversion to the longstanding (and largely unassailable) original proposal

  7. Anthony said,

    January 2, 2022 @ 6:44 pm

    "Brown' in Turkish is kahverengi (kahve 'coffee' renk 'color'), so apparently a relatively modern word.

  8. Chris Button said,

    January 3, 2022 @ 7:02 am

    Thought I'd add a few more comments:

    I believe an etymological connection can ultimately be established between the slave 女 *nraɣːʔ ~ 奴 *naɣːʔ (discussed here and the beaver-like aquatic animal 能 *nəɣːʔ in its sense of "can, able" (compare the connection with 耐 *nəɣːs "endure")

    As for otters, the other one is 猵 *pjanː presumably from *pjamː via dissimilation of the bilabial coda from the bilabial onset (compare 般 *panː whose origin in *pamː is attested by its original phonetic 凡 *ᵐbaːm). Matisoff treats Written Burmese pʰjam "otter" (whose medial -j- rather than -r- would not otherwise be expected in this environment) as a combination of Proto-Mon-Khmer *bheʔ "otter" on Tibeto-Burman *ram "otter".

    As for "brown", I see no reason why it should receive any special treatment relative to the many other "non-primary" color terms.

  9. Chris Button said,

    January 3, 2022 @ 7:19 am

    Some typos in the reconstructions above. Corrected forms:

    女 *nraːɣʔ (although really *naːɣʔ without -r- as 奴)†
    奴 *naːɣʔ
    能 *nəɣː
    耐 *nəɣːs

    † Compare 荼/茶 *laɣː "bitter (plant) / tea", whose divergent middle Chinese forms might suggest an -r- in the latter, which is similarly unwarranted)

  10. Chris Button said,

    January 3, 2022 @ 7:26 am

    I wish there was an edit feature. Third time lucky:

    女 *naːɣʔ (possibly *nraːɣʔ)
    奴 *naɣː
    能 *nəɣː
    耐 *nəɣːs

    Hence the 能 *nəɣː ~ 奴 *naɣː connection via the basic OC ə~a nucleus alternation.

  11. Chris Button said,

    January 3, 2022 @ 7:32 am

    Scratch that. The -r- is needed in 女 since it's a type-B syllable unlike 荼/茶 *laɣː in type-A. Apologies for the confused posts:

    That leaves:

    女 *nraːɣʔ
    奴 *naɣː
    能 *nəɣː
    耐 *nəɣːs

    I think I need to stop posting now and get on with my life!

  12. Victor Mair said,

    January 3, 2022 @ 10:04 am

    From Randy LaPolla:

    In the 8th stanza of the 《道德经》the character 能 seems to be used in a rhyme that otherwise is 之部,so might have been pronounced that way here:


  13. Chris Button said,

    January 3, 2022 @ 12:45 pm

    I think the problem is that modern reconstructions of Old Chinese don't recognize a velar coda in the 之部. So we end up once again going down the slippery slope of treating Old Chinese as a language with complex affixation-based morphology. Here we can slap an utterly random -ŋ suffix on 能 to account for the alternation while solving nothing.

  14. Chau said,

    January 3, 2022 @ 2:23 pm

    @ Randy LaPolla.

    Thank you for citing the unusual pronunciation of 能 in 道徳經. 時 is pronounced sî in Taiwanese. 治 can be pronounced î, tî, and tī (the last one being the usual pronunciation today). Therefore, 治 in the citation can be either î or tî. Recall that the original meaning of 能 is 'bear', and 羆 'bear' is pronounced like 皮, Tw phî (MSM pí). Then, it is reasonable to deduce that in the 道徳經 cited here, 能 is pronounced phî to go with the rhyme: 治 î / tî, 能 *phî, 時 sî. [The asterisk * is there because I was not able to find that pronunciation in all the dictionaries plus zdic I consulted.]

  15. David C. said,

    January 3, 2022 @ 4:17 pm

    A curiosity with the character 羆 pí (a type of bear), containing 熊 xióng (bear), is that in the Hanzi Simplification Scheme, instances of 罷 bà are to be simplified as 罢, which results in 罴. Yet 熊 xióng (bear) is not simplified.

  16. Chris Button said,

    January 3, 2022 @ 6:34 pm

    Some more random comments for what they’re worth:

    1. The supposedly originally aquatic 熊 *ʁəːm "bear" is close to Proto-Sino-Tibetan *ram “otter”. Coincidence?

    2. Khmer kʰla kʰmum “sun bear” (kʰmum is often tentatively associated with 熊 *ʁəːm) is a very small bear similar in size to a beaver. It also has a bright stripe that connects with the analysis of 羆 by Diana Shuheng Zhang.

    3. “Beaver” and “bear” are traditionally associated etymologically in Proto-Indo-European. That may or may not still hold, but I noted above that “brown” (supposedly connected to both) is no more special than most other color terms in being a derived form.

    4. 罷 has a net 网 as its top component. Beavers make dams. Just saying…

    5. The notion of beavering away seems to support the 能 *nəɣː ~ 奴 *naɣː association noted above.

  17. Victor Mair said,

    January 3, 2022 @ 8:44 pm


    I was mystified by that too. There are so many complicated characters that could easily have been simplified but were not, e.g., jiāng 疆 ("border") and jiē 街 ("street").

  18. Jonathan Smith said,

    January 3, 2022 @ 9:52 pm

    Haha, 'bear' again :D One should begin from the matter of first attestation of the antecedent of Mand. xiong2, no? Is it Shi jing?

    The Odes IMO contain not a lot but a bit more rhyming than is generally recognized or presented in say Wang Li / Baxter (a fact of much interest in and of itself); a case relevant to 'bear' may be 189 斯干 verse 6, with interlaced internal rhyme something like the below on a system like Schuessler's (details irrelevant):

    / 乃
    -an -əmʔ / -an -əmʔ

    / 乃
    -əmʔ -əŋ / -em -əŋ

    / 維
    -əŋ -aj / -əŋ -aj

    So the 'bear' word in question has -ŋ here, FWIW.

    If this kind of internal rhyme / its employment in this particular Ode / relevance to 'bear' has been discussed previously, excuse me; if not, cite this post :D

  19. Chris Button said,

    January 4, 2022 @ 7:57 am

    @ Jonathan Smith

    Thanks for sharing that. The OC -m coda of 熊 wuwŋ ← *ʁəːm "bear" isn’t really up for debate though. I follow the traditional Shuowen analysis in treating 炎 wiam ← *ʁaːm as phonetic. I think 能 makes a good semantic component as a beaver-like aquatic animal (as discussed above).

    Rather, the discussion is around the coda alternation in 能 nəŋ ~ nəj ← *nəŋː ~ *nəɣː . I reconstruct the alternation as velar ɣ ~ ŋ, which is attested elsewhere in the OC lexicon and isn’t therefore much of an issue. However, most OC reconstructions nowadays don’t recognize the velar coda in nəɣː and are left with a weird alternation between zero and -ŋ .

    In terms of phonetics, compare the intervocalic alternation of g ~ ɣ ~ ŋ in Japanese. Here we’re not talking intervocalically, but I do wonder, however, if cases like 能 and 女/娘 might involve spreading of the nasal onset. The phoneme /ɣ/ would have generally surfaced phonetically in coda position more like a velar glide/approximate [ɰ] than a fricative after all so would have been quite susceptible. That wouldn’t apply to cases like 于/往, but the secondary labialization associated with the uvular onset recalls the 鳥/娘 alternation discussed here: . Another oft-cited example is 於/央, where perhaps we might invoke “rhinoglottophlia”.

  20. Alexander Browne said,

    January 4, 2022 @ 11:38 am

    @ David Marjanović:

    "Pandas aren't bears" is a common "surprising fact" in the US for some reason. I think it's a holdover from previous decades before genetic studies. I seem to remember as a kid in the 90s being told they — both giant pandas and red pandas — were more closely related to racoons.

    It reminds me of how I often hear it said that wild rice (which grows around here in the upper midwest US) isn't rice — it's a grass. Wikipedia says wild rice "is not directly related to domesticated rice (Oryza sativa), […] although they are close cousins, all belonging to the tribe Oryzeae." So wild rice is not rice if you are limiting "rice" to one species or genus. But either way, guess what rice is? To quote the Wikipedia Oryza article's first sentence, "Oryza is a genus of plants in the grass family."

  21. David B Solnit said,

    January 4, 2022 @ 5:07 pm

    Just want to mention that the -m final words likely go with Tibeto-Burman *d-wam 'bear'.

  22. Jonathan Smith said,

    January 4, 2022 @ 7:41 pm

    @Chris Button

    As is so often the case, the traditional framing — "did 'OC' '熊' belong to '侵部' or to '蒸部' ohnoze!!??" — is problematic… so you can forget about a definitive correct answer to the question "did 'Old Chinese' 'bear' have -m or -ŋ?" (I.e. this is two or more etyma, old doublets, or… etc.)

    Re: the Shi jing, it is easy to imagine objections to the rhyme sequences I suggest… but I'm afraid that 'thanks for the dashcam video but we've already determined what happened here' is not the answer :D As you know, SJ rhyme is on the traditional view the very essence of "OC"…

  23. Victor Mair said,

    January 4, 2022 @ 8:32 pm

    Quoting Jonathan Smith:

    "If this kind of internal rhyme / its employment in this particular Ode / relevance to 'bear' has been discussed previously, excuse me; if not, cite this post :D"

    I like that!

  24. Chris Button said,

    January 4, 2022 @ 10:37 pm

    @ Jonathan Smith

    Don't get me wrong. I'm not disputing the "dash-cam evidence" for a rhyme between 夢 and 熊.

    However, I will now very much dispute your overly literal interpretation of that rhyming evidence. Unfortunately, that's something all too familiar from analyses of Shijing rhyming that treat Old Chinese as some rigid monolithic entity devoid of any possible dialectal, idiolectal and–in the case of rhyming–aesthetic considerations.

    We know that *-əːm shifted to -uwŋ after labial onsets (e.g. 風 puwŋ ← *pəːm) and uvulars that triggered labialization (e.g. our case here of 熊 wuwŋ ← *ʁəːm). But *-əːm did not shift to -uwŋ all of a sudden for all speakers. That is not how a living language works.

    And when it comes to rhyming, there's always going to be phonetic latitude. What stage of the [mʷ] to [ŋʷ] continuum should we be talking about here? Might some speakers have had something close to a Hanoi Vietnamese [ŋ͡m] at some stage–perhaps [ŋ͡mʷ]?

    The evidence for an -m in 熊 is incontrovertible. It's supported within Sinitic in Min languages and across Tibeto-Burman (and quite possibly further afield, as discussed previously). A rhyme of 熊 with 夢 in the Shijing does nothing to change that.

  25. Jonathan Smith said,

    January 5, 2022 @ 9:58 am

    @ Chris Button
    Haha, again I feel like I'm being misunderstood as advocating for anything in particular :D I'm just pointing out that hey X rhymes with Y in SJ so chew on that… the fact that this and other evidence relevant to the problem can be combed over in support of any number of "rigid monolithic" narratives of the kind *you* are proposing is exactly the point.

    More devil's advocacy —

    Hopefully “熊” is not the only example in the whole of the history of Chinese writing of "炎省聲"?Another being…?

    Hopefully somewhere in SJ, 'wind' exhibits a bit of the flexibility you reasonably resort to to account for 'bear' : 'dream' and doesn't only rhyme with -m words throughout?

    Hopefully "*ʁəːm > wuwŋ" is not the only example on your OC system of dissimilation -ŋ > -m given *ʁ-? Another being… ? Or if none, how is this working as concerns say -p > -k?

  26. Jonathan Smith said,

    January 5, 2022 @ 10:00 am

    *dissimilation -m > -ŋ

  27. Chris Button said,

    January 5, 2022 @ 12:55 pm

    @ Jonathan Smith

    how is this working as concerns say -p > -k?

    Looks like you’ve been reading Baxter & Sagart on 翌. I actually addressed that recently here:

    I treat 翌 as EMC jik ~ juwk from Old Chinese *ɣəːk ~ *ɣəːq , which goes all the way back to the oracle-bone inscriptions. I don’t buy Baxter & Sagart’s *ɢʷrəp .

    Separately, regarding my *ʁ-, it best overlaps with Baxter’s 1992 *w-. More generally, I have uvulars where he has labiovelars (e.g. *q- versus Baxter’s *kw-, etc). In that regard, my approach coincidentally seems to overlap considerably with that of Jin Lixin.

    As for 炎省聲, I don’t think anyone disputes that 炎 wiam ← *ʁaːm works as a phonetic, regardless of whether it really was 省‘ed or not.

  28. Jonathan Smith said,

    January 5, 2022 @ 10:06 pm

    …the upshots are thus that there is no other claimed case of "炎省聲" (you usually see through such antiquated notions I feel… "熊" uses "火" period, however one wishes to explain it); that FWIW in SJ 'wind' rhymes only with -m words ('heart', 'woods', etc.) but 'bear' only with the -ŋ words 'dream' and 'arouse'; and that 'bear' is your only suggested case of labial > velar coda "dissimilation" given onset *ʁ-.
    But who cares; my main worry is as always is not any particular idea (all of your suggestions could be right) but the larger (smaller?) navel-cosmoses into which OC workers again and again are drawn, never to emerge…

  29. Chris Button said,

    January 5, 2022 @ 11:13 pm

    So find me another case of -əːm with a labial onset and—either bilabial or derived from a uvular (labiovelar in Baxter 1992)—and no medial -r-, and I predict its EMC reflex will be -uwŋ . However, I’m not aware of any other cases outside of 風 and 熊. So the rule stands until some undiscovered new evidence falsifies it: OC -əːm regularly becomes EMC -uwŋ when conditioned by labialization of the onset. To be clear, I’m not saying anything particularly new here. Take a look at one of the tables in Schuessler’s minimal OC.

    The conditioning environments of 風 and 熊 are nonetheless different. The ʷ conditioned by the uvular will likely shift the coda of 熊 first since it is the velar component of ʷ, which does not exist in the p- by itself of 風, that is conditioning the shift of -m to -ŋ. There is an article by John Ohala on how nasals assimilate to the velar feature rather than the labial feature of a labiovelar. So, to be clear, this is less about dissimilation of the onset from the coda and more about spreading of a labiovelar component to the coda. For straight up dissimilation, we have to go to cases like 凡 *ᵐbaːm (phonetic in 風 *pəːm), which is also phonetic in 般 *panː where -m has dissimilated to -n. But that requires oracle-bone evidence to identify a shift that occurred before the time of the Shijing.

    As for the Shuowen statement that 炎 is abbreviated phonetic in 熊, it doesn’t really matter whether it’s graphically correct or not. What matters is that the Shuowen identifies the sound with an -m coda.

  30. Jonathan Smith said,

    January 6, 2022 @ 12:40 am

    Again, nothing wrong with the particular narrative above per se, which now grows increasingly intricate to account for the (possible) Shi jing rhymes. It's the overall Merzbau mindset which is mystifying on a couple levels.

    BUT since you like OC -m in 'bear', which is fine IMO if we adjust to "some early word bear" (cf. phonetic "今" in bronze inscriptions naming Chu royal family I think), here is a far more productive way to think about the graph "熊": Shi jing has ye4ye4 爗爗 'glittering', for which MC hj- + -ip and perhaps OC *wəpwəp (or use your uvular but do note no ~"dissimilation"), also cf. yan2 炎 I suppose which I see Schuessler 2007 already points to at 爗. So maybe "熊" was created for a related ideophone, i.e., it was first "phonetic" "能" + "classifier" "火" to write a speculative OC *wəmwəm 熊熊 'glimmering' which graphic form is attested. This allows you to avoid the notion of "semantic 能 … as a beaver-like aquatic animal" with made-up phonetic "炎", an idea which …no. Of course there are countless loose ends… you could fiddle with the narrative above re: OC > MC changes although let me again fruitlessly emphasize that there are *supposed* to be loose ends which is why it is nice to just work a bit and then write up something like say ZHANG Shuheng (2019) — this way others get a look-in at what one is up to in the old 腦洞 and one gets some fresh air in there for heaven's sake :D.

  31. Chris Button said,

    January 6, 2022 @ 10:36 pm

    So maybe "熊" was created for a related ideophone, i.e., it was first "phonetic" "能" + "classifier" "火"

    能 *nəɣː is a phonetic in characters like 態, and it has a word family including things like 耐 *nəɣːs and 奴 *naɣː

    However, the idea that 能 could also be a one-off phonetic in 熊 strays into the realm of polyphony, which is an ill-advised wild card. Why don't we make it into a phonetic in 罷 too and do the same thing for all characters across the entire lexicon that serve as phonetics and classifiers in different situations? We've just explained the entire lexicon in one fell swoop!

    semantic 能 … as a beaver-like aquatic animal" with made-up phonetic "炎", an idea which …no

    Well, 能 originally represented an aquatic animal, and the pronunciation of 炎 *ʁaːm does make an ideal phonetic in 熊 *ʁəːm regardless of whether the Shuowen analysis of 火 as abbreviated 炎 is correct or not.

    So why does an aquatic animal 能 and a fire 火 give us a bear 熊 …

    Proto-Mon-Khmer person: "We call this beaver-sized bear a kmum. Some people call them 'sun bears' on account of their bright chest patches."

    Old Chinese person: "What's that you say? A ʁəːm? Hmm, how should i write that down…? I know, it sounds just like 炎 ʁaːm. Only I need one of those classifier things to distinguish it. I'll use our furry aquatic friend 能. And in the same way I abbreviate 聑 to 耳 in 耴, maybe I'll just replace one of the 火 in 炎 with 能. After all, who really knows how to distinguish 火, 炎, 焱 anyway?"

    Proto-Indo-European fur trader passing by: Hey that's cool how you're relating your furry aquatic friend 能 with the bear 熊. Our words "bear" and "beaver" are related too–some say it's just folk etymology, but that doesn't really affect my point.

  32. Jonathan Smith said,

    January 7, 2022 @ 8:23 am

    Hangon, I was trying to help :D — but you are waving away as "wildcard" the idea that a "能"ish form could have written the very OC 'bear' word you emphasize — *wəm or whatever — and thus been deployed in combination with "火" to write *wəm 'glimmer'?

    Incidentally, looking around, it seems that the idea that "熊" was created for ~'glimmer' is well-established, so no credit to me… can't see that others have referenced ye4 爗 ~'glitter' (maybe so) but it is good support. So this little piece of the puzzle looks pretty done. Imagining fuller accounts which incorporate this kernel is of course not hard…

    I simply must stop, but to rehash OP: "能"ish forms are certainly busy in the Chinese script! To rehash the comments: there sure are a whole bunch of narratives we might concoct to account for this versatility! As we do so, however, let's recall that there are enough confusing and contradictory *facts* to work with — there certainly won't be any need to make up any, like that "熊" was coined based on "炎".

  33. Chris Button said,

    January 7, 2022 @ 7:01 pm

    looking around, it seems that the idea that "熊" was created for ~'glimmer' is well-established

    Well established (and justified) where? A few cases of 熊熊 as a jiajie of sorts are hardly a solid basis. The idea is akin to suggesting that 燕 didn't originally mean "swallow-like bird" but rather "feast" (宴). Seems backward.

    But yes, as always, great discussion. I enjoy it.

  34. Chris Button said,

    January 8, 2022 @ 7:16 am

    (cf. phonetic "今" in bronze inscriptions naming Chu royal family I think)

    I neglected to comment on this earlier. Yes, i just looked this up in Haeree Park’ 2016 book. It appears to be 酓 as a variant of 㱃 (飲) *ʔəːmʔ. Not only does this support the -m coda, it also supports the ʁ- onset in 熊 *ʁəːm with any labial feature in the onset (Baxter’s *w- or the ʷ in Baxter & Sagart’s *C.[ɢ]ʷ-) to rather be a secondary development.

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