Toponymic uncertainty: bǎo / bǔ / pù // burg / burgh

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The ambiguity of how to pronounce 咀 (jǔ, zuǐ) in toponyms (see this recent post) is mirrored by the situation regarding 堡.  Is it bǎo, bǔ, or pù?


  1. (often in placenames) town or village with walls
    /   ―    ―  Wubu (county of Yulin, Shaanxi, China)

Used in place names, as a variant of (, “courier station"

(Zhengzhang): /*puːʔ/


Note that 堡 is composed of the phonophore bǎo 保, which has a secondary semantic significance of "raise, rear; keep, maintain; protect, safeguard, defend; ensure, guarantee", and the primary semantophore tǔ 土 ("earth, earthen, made of earth").

I know the controversies over the pronunciation of this character intimately.  In the first instance, 五堡 ("Fifth Burg") is the name of one of the most important archeological sites for my work on the Bronze Age mummies of Eastern Central Asia.  It is where I found the famous Hami Fragment (diagonal twill plaid dating to around 1000 BC studied by Irene Good [see "Selected readings"]).  Fifth Burg is a small village in the middle of the desert about 60 kilometers due west of the city of Hami (Uyghur Qumul) — home of the famous melons — in the far eastern part of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR).  The people who live there are all Uyghurs; I don't think Hans would find it suitable for dwelling.  The local people call it Wǔpù (actually it sounded like Wǔpǔ to me) in Mandarin, but the farther away you go, non-locals tend to call it Wǔbǎo.  In Uyghur, it is referred to as Qizilchoqa ("Red Hillock"), after a conspicuous (though not very large) geological formation in the vicinity.

Another town with 堡 in its name that I'm familiar with is 四堡 ("Fourth Burg"), which is in a very different part of China.  五堡 ("Fifth Burg") is in the far northwest of China, 四堡 ("Fourth Burg") is in the southeast.  A rural book publishing center in the western part of Fujian province, it has been well studied in a monograph by Cynthia Brokaw (Commerce in Culture: The Sibao Book Trade in the Qing and Republican Periods [2007]), who refers to it as Sìbǎo.  Since I had already long since registered it as Sìpǔ in my own mind, just to be sure, I wrote to the local government officials in 四堡 ("Fourth Burg") and asked them how they pronounced the name.  Surprisingly, they varied in their opinion on how the name should be pronounced, with some saying Sìbǎo and some Sìpu.

I've always mentally translated 堡 as "-burg, -burgh", etc.  Indeed, "-burg, -burgh" are frequently transcribed as bǎo in Sinitic, e.g., Pittsburgh transcribed as Pǐzībǎo 匹兹堡, Harrisburg transcribed as Hālǐsībǎo 哈里斯堡, and Hamburg transcribed as Hànbǎo 漢堡. 

Incidentally, I love the Chinese word Hànbǎobāo 漢堡包, both its sound and its shape, where bāo 包 means "package; packet; pack; bag; bundle; bale; parcel". Cf. bāozi 包子 ("steamed stuffed bun"), which may be the goofiest food ever invented.  I don't want to make too much fun of bāozi, though, because they can be incredibly delicious, filling, and satisfying.  Xi Jinping gained notoriety for eating one in public.

My Shandong in-laws pronounced "hamburger" as hanbagejia. Except for the first syllable (Hàn 漢), I have no idea how that would be written in Sinographs, and I don't think they did either.  If they were clever enough, perhaps they would have written the last syllable as jiā 夹/ ("press from both sides").  Some of them were themselves consummate tǔbāozi 土包子 ("country bumpkin", lit., "earthen baozi" ["steamed dumpling"]).

Now for a little bit of comparative linguistics.

Indo-European root for "burg":


High; with derivatives referring to hills and hill-forts.

Oldest form *bherg̑h-, becoming *bhergh- in centum languages.

▲ Derivatives include iceberg, bourgeois, burglar, force, fortify.

a. barrow2 from Old English beorg, hill;
b. iceberg from Middle Dutch bergh, mountain;
c. inselberg from Old High German berg, mountain;
d. Germanic compound *harja-bergaz (see koro-). a-d all from Germanic *bergaz, hill, mountain.
2. belfry from Old French berfroi, tower, from Germanic compound *berg-frij-, "high place of safety" tower (*frij-, peace, safety; see prī-)
3. Zero-grade form *bhr̥gh-.
a. borough, burg from Old English burg, burh, byrig, (fortified) town;
b. burgomaster from Middle Dutch burch, town;
c. bourg, bourgeois, burgess, burglar; faubourg from Late Latin burgus, fortified place, and Old French burg, borough;
d. burgher from Old High German burgāri, townsman, from Germanic compound *burg-warōn-, "city protector" (*warōn-, protector; see wer-4) . a-d all from Germanic *burgs, hill-fort.
4. Possibly suffixed zero-grade form *bhr̥gh-to-. force, fort, fortalice, forte1, forte2, fortis, fortissimo, fortitude, fortress; comfort, deforce, effort, enforce, fortify, panforte, pianoforte, reinforce from Latin fortis, strong (but this is also possibly from dher-)

[Pokorny bhereg̑h- 140.]

Appendix of Indo-European roots, in American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition.

Proto-Indo-European root meaning "high," with derivatives referring to hills and hill-forts.

It forms all or part of: barrow (n.2) "mound, hill, grave-mound;" belfry; borough; bourgeoisie; burg; burgess; burgher; burglar; faubourg; iceberg.

It is the hypothetical source of/evidence for its existence is provided by: Sanskrit b'rhant "high," brmhati "strengthens, elevates;" Avestan brzant- "high," Old Persian bard- "be high;" Greek Pergamos, name of the citadel of Troy; Old Church Slavonic bregu "mountain, height;" Old Irish brigh "mountain;" Welsh bera "stack, pyramid."

(Online Etymological Dictionary)

This phonetic and semantic correspondence between -burg and bǎo is one that I had noticed long ago (more than half a century) and am happy that I now have the opportunity to share it with others, all because of the serendipitous association mentioned in the first sentence of this post.


Selected readings


  1. KeithB said,

    June 2, 2022 @ 11:15 am

    If you want a goofy stuffed bun, how about the cheeseburger ones at Disney World. Nominally a food from "Pandora":

  2. Victor Mair said,

    June 2, 2022 @ 5:53 pm

    From an anonymous colleague:

    Although you don't force the conclusion, your evidence convinces me that the Indo-European "*bherg̑h-" probably bled over into the Sinitic "bao," or maybe vice-versa.

    What fun to imagine a stuffed dumpling looking like a pillbox. Oh wait, maybe that image in my mind's eye is a grave mound on the edge of town.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    June 2, 2022 @ 6:16 pm

    @an anonymous colleague

    The image in the final sentence of your comment is uncannily apt.

      A note on mántou 饅頭 / 馒 头 ("steamed bun / bread / roll").

    As late as the Ming period (1368–1644), this term still referred to a meat-filled dumpling. See, for example, the 27th chapter of the novel Shuǐhǔ zhuàn 水滸傳 (Water Margin; All Men Are Brothers). It already had this meaning as early as the Tang period (618-907), where we find it being used as a metaphor for a tumulus in the vernacular poetry of Wáng Fànzhì 王梵志 (Brahmacarin Wang). The word mántou 饅頭 also occurs in the Dunhuang vernacular story misleadingly given the title "Hán Qínhǔ huàběn 韓擒虎話本" ("Prompt book for the Tale of 'Catch-tiger' Han") by modern scholars (see Victor H. Mair, T'ang Transformation Texts (Harvard, 1989). The second syllable of the word, –tou (lit., "head"), is a vernacular noun-forming suffix which would probably not have been present in Sinitic much before the time of Wang Fanzhi, at least not in written sources.

    Already in the Song (960-1279) and Yuan (1271-1368) periods, we have the word bāozi 包子. As mántou 饅頭 over the centuries evolved from being a dumpling with meat filling to merely being steamed bread, bāozi 包子 has come to serve as the word indicating a steamed stuffed bun.


  4. Chris Button said,

    June 3, 2022 @ 5:11 am

    Although a nice comparison, I suspect that there is not any underlying phonological connection between 堡 and PIE *bhergh-. The later transcriptional use of 堡 for "burg(h)" largely creates the illusion of a connection.

    堡 seems to ultimately go back to the concepts associated with 保 and its associated word family–the phonetic component of the Chinese character carrying across nicely with the semantics. And "burg" goes back to the concepts associated with *bhergh- and its associated word family. Both are then used in a similar way for place names, but that's more about common application than primordial connection.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    June 3, 2022 @ 6:11 am

    "burg" goes back to the concepts associated with *bhergh- and its associated word family.

    which include the notions of "strength" and "fortification"

  6. Victor Mair said,

    June 3, 2022 @ 7:36 am

    My favorite hymn during the Lutheran phase of my upbringing, and still one of the most powerful musical monuments I know of:

    "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" (German: "Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott") is one of the best known hymns by the reformer Martin Luther, a prolific hymnodist. Luther wrote the words and composed the melody sometime between 1527 and 1529. It has been translated into English at least seventy times and also into many other languages. The words are mostly original, though the first line paraphrases that of Psalm 46.


  7. Victor Mair said,

    June 3, 2022 @ 7:59 am

    A Chinese translation of Luther's hymn is "Shàngzhǔ shì wǒ jiāngù bǎozhàng 上主是我堅固保障" (The Lord is my stronghold). (source)

    Note the use of bǎo 保, the semantic significance of which I discussed in the o.p.

  8. DDeden said,

    June 4, 2022 @ 3:10 am

    Not berm nor barn?

  9. Chris Button said,

    June 4, 2022 @ 8:12 am

    @ Victor Mair

    It appears that there is a PIE root *bhergh- "keep, protect" (which Watkins gives the same palatal velar as *bherg̑h- "high", although I'm in the camp that believes the palatal series is secondary in any case). Mallory & Adams note its restriction to the north west.

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