Zoroastrianism between Iranic and Sinitic

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I've always been intrigued by this odd character:  祆.  It's got a "spirit; cult" semantophore (radical; classifier) on the left (shì 礻) and a "heaven" phonophore (tiān 天) on the right.  Read "xiān", it is customarily translated as "deity; divinity; Heaven" and is thought of as the central figure of Xiānjiào 祆教 ("xian doctrine / religion").  The traditional Chinese explanation of Xiānjiào 祆教 is Bàihuǒjiào 拜火教 ("fire-worshipping doctrine / religion"), which is rendered into English as "Zoroastrianism" or "Mazdaism".  According to zdic, Xiān is Ormazda, god of the Zoroastrians; extended to god of the Manicheans.

One of the things about 祆 that puzzled me the most is how to get from the pronunciation of its phonophore, tiān 天 ("heaven; sky"), to its own pronunciation, xiān.

(Zhengzhang): /*qʰliːn/


tiān 天

(BaxterSagart): /*l̥ˤi[n]/, /*l̥ˤi[n]/
(Zhengzhang): /*qʰl'iːn/


Chris Button remarks on the phonology of this mysterious glyph:

I’ve been thinking about 祆 and its Middle Chinese x- onset. As you probably know, I don’t buy the theory that it is a dialectal divergence from 天 via a lateral onset largely  because the oracle bone inscriptions suggest that 天 originally began with a plosive. I seem to align with Schuessler’s etymological dictionary in that regard. I also don’t think 忝 with its lateral onset but bilabial coda is related, but that’s another story.

Since 祆 (and earlier 天 for 祆) seems to have been being used with its fricative x- onset well before it was borrowed specifically for Zoroastrian purposes, it occurs to me that perhaps we are dealing with a fusion pronunciation of the broader term 胡天 (an attested compound) that was then given its own character as 祆. The Old Chinese *g in 胡 would have been in the process of shifting to a velar fricative articulation by Middle Chinese in any case, and the aspirated t- of 天 could have then contributed to its emergence as a voiceless velar fricative x-.

Thus spake Zarathustra.  What did the Chinese hear?

Selected readings


  1. Dan Romer said,

    November 18, 2022 @ 4:32 pm

    Is the Mazda referenced here also the inspiration for the popular vehicle here in the US?

  2. Jaime Marquand said,

    November 18, 2022 @ 4:43 pm

    @Dan Romer

    > Is the Mazda referenced here also the inspiration for the popular vehicle here in the US?

    Yes, according to their web page. The company was founded by a guy named Matsuda, which is a pretty common last name in Japan. He thought that the name of the Zoroastrian deity sounded similar to his own name and romanized the company name as "Mazda."


  3. Victor Mair said,

    November 18, 2022 @ 4:55 pm

    Cf. "Pleiades: From Sumer to Subaru" (4/5/22)


  4. maidhc said,

    November 18, 2022 @ 6:32 pm

    The trade name Mazda was also used by General Electric for tungsten filament light bulbs 1909-1945. Nowadays it's possibly best remembered for its advertisements featuring artwork by Maxfield Parrish.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    November 18, 2022 @ 6:39 pm

    Transliteration of Avestan ‎ (mazdā, “wisdom”).


  6. martin schwartz said,

    November 18, 2022 @ 10:38 pm

    Avestan Ahura Mazdā (Gathas Mazdā (…) Ahura more common;
    Old Persian A(h)uramazdā, Middle Persian Ohrmazd or Ohrmizd.
    No Ormazdā. Some think mazdā means wise, comprehending.
    In Sasanian Persian Manicheism, Ohrmizd is Prinal Man,
    nd not the ultimate divinity. One can put a macron on the O-,
    if one wishes.

  7. martin schwartz said,

    November 18, 2022 @ 11:23 pm

    Make that Primal Man, a specifically Manichean mytholegoumenon.

  8. Philip Taylor said,

    November 19, 2022 @ 4:15 am

    "The trade name Mazda was also used by General Electric for tungsten filament light bulbs 1909-1945" — light bulbs with the brand name "Mazda" were available in the United Kingdom long after 1945; they were manufactured, I seem to recall, by Siemens Edison Swan.

  9. Chris Button said,

    November 19, 2022 @ 8:21 am

    The lateral fricative *ɬ- proposal for 天 goes back in print to Pulleyblank 1983 based on his suggestion of a dialectal divergence in 1962. In 1991/1995, Pulleyblank has the velar fricative *x- as original and believes it was fronted to tʰ- by a palatal j component. That later idea seems to go as far back in print to Fowler's (1989) dissertation under Takashima, which discusses the idea of 丁 as phonetic in 天 and includes a personal communication from Pulleyblank.

  10. Dirk van der Estq said,

    November 19, 2022 @ 4:13 pm

    Maybe it's in some way derived from the Persian word for 'religion', 'din' (proncounced as /dēn/ in Middle Persian)? Not that familiar with Chinese sound changes, sadly.

  11. Victor Mair said,

    November 19, 2022 @ 5:10 pm

    @Dirk van der Estq

    Glad you made that comment. I actually thought about it quite a bit and came very close to making it part of my o.p., but didn't want to make the o.p. too long and complicated, so erased what I had written at the last minute.

  12. Chris Button said,

    November 19, 2022 @ 11:12 pm

    @ Dirk van der Estq

    Albert Dien “A note on hsien ‘Zoroastrianism’” (1957), which is cited by Pulleyblank in his original 1962 proposal, talks about a possible “folk etymology” association there with the tʰ- pronunciation. It would be far more convenient if it was suggestive of the x- pronunciation instead!

  13. Torsten the philosophy podcaster said,

    November 22, 2022 @ 2:16 pm

    1) The author suggests that "most people would not think of [linguists] as tools for solving communication problems." I would disagree with this statement – I think many people would consider linguists to be experts on communication and would therefore turn to them for help with communication problems. 2) The author claims that "the vast majority of linguists work on problems that have nothing to do with communication." Again, I disagree. I would argue that the vast majority of linguists work on problems that are directly related to communication, such as how language is used and learned. 3) The author asks, "If linguists are not interested in communication, what are they interested in?" I would answer that linguists are interested in many things, but one of the main things they are interested in is understanding how language works. 4) The author states that "the answer is that most linguists are not interested in solving communication problems; they are interested in describing and analyzing the structure of language." I would argue that many linguists are interested in both describing and analyzing the structure of language, as well as solving communication problems.

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