Sound over symbol (and meaning)

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Zach Hershey called to my attention a phenomenon about the relationship between speech and writing (and meaning) that I long suspected might well be true, and I even collected plentiful evidence in support of it, but I was never absolutely certain that it was true, namely, that in many cases speakers of Sinitic languages have in mind sounds over characters.  Now, with information provided by Zach, we have proof that Sinitic speakers in some cases are indeed thinking of sounds separately (apart from) hanzi.

I thought of you just now when I found out the name that a friend of mine chose for their newborn son, Yiming. As of right now, the son's name is Liú 刘 Yiming, because the parents have yet to "decide on the characters" for the name. So far, they have thought of using Yìmíng 翊鸣 ("assist-call / cry / make a sound"), Yìmíng 意鸣 ("wish / intention / meaning / sense-call / cry / make a sound"), or Yìmíng 意茗 ("wish / intention / meaning / sense-tea [buds / late-picked tea"). Maybe this happens more than I know, but I immediately thought that it was fascinating that, in their minds, they like the sound of the name, but haven't put a meaning, much less characters, to the sound yet. They are going to look at the shēngchén bāzì 生辰八字 ("birthday and horoscope", more precisely, "eight characters that indicate the year, month, date and double-hour of one's birth, used in fortune-telling") before they decide on the characters.

Any suggestions for the parents of the little boy?  If you give characters, please also provide tones for yiming and the literal meaning of the two characters.

Selected readings


  1. Jenny Chu said,

    March 31, 2024 @ 9:17 pm

    Is this evidence of a future trend in China that goes in the same direction as the Kaylee / Kailey / Kayli / Kaighly / Keighlee / Kayleigh phenomenon?

  2. Philip Taylor said,

    April 1, 2024 @ 4:49 am

    I cannot help with suggestions for parents of the little boy, but two related observations —
    1) Having learned Hanyu solely through the aural/oral route, I invariably "have in mind sounds over characters" when I speak Mandarin Chinese. And I am certain that I am not alone.
    2) At my wife's hotel we have a new member of staff called "Neve". Now I have never before encountered this spelling, invariably having seen it previously spelled as "Niamh" (or occasionally "Niabh"), so I asked whether she had adopted the anglicisation on moving to the UK or whether this was the name (and spelling) with which she was Christened. It turned out to be the latter — her parents, both Irish, had chosen to spell her name "Neve" so as to make it easier for we heathen English to pronounce it correctly !

  3. TonyG said,

    April 1, 2024 @ 7:28 am

    @Jenny Chu: Don't forget Cèilidh!

  4. Cervantes said,

    April 1, 2024 @ 9:27 am

    Of course, those of us with phonetic alphabets generally aren't thinking about the homophones of given names. When we meet Doug we don't think of a hole, Sally doesn't go forth, and Tom isn't a drum. Bridgit doesn't create a river crossing, and Harry doesn't pester people.

    Sometimes this is unfortunate, as a prominent Philadelphia family only realized belatedly when they named their son Doug Updegrave.

  5. mg said,

    April 1, 2024 @ 12:03 pm

    @Philip Taylor – as someone who was never christened and doesn't have any family members who were, may I suggest that instead you ask people if something is their birth name or the name on their birth certificate. England has many non-Christian citizens and residents, as does the U.S., none of whom are likely to have had christenings.

  6. Rodger C said,

    April 1, 2024 @ 3:28 pm

    There are also those of us who were baptized by dunking at age 11. And who already had oddly spelled names.

  7. Philip Taylor said,

    April 1, 2024 @ 3:33 pm

    mg — I studiously avoid "first name", "surname", "Christian name", etc., in most circumstances, since I know at first hand that (e.g.,) my wife’s "first name" is (a) not her first name at all but rather her last name, and (b) not her Christian name but her personal name, as opposed to her middle name which she shares with all siblings of her generation. However, when speaking to a white-skinned native of Ireland, the probability that they are not a Christian is so vanishly small that I see no problem at all asking if their current name is the same as that with which they were Christened.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    April 1, 2024 @ 6:02 pm

    From Zach Hershey:

    Another thing came up just now as I was talking about the previous Liú 刘 Yiming situation. One of my students told me the story of their name: Péi jiāxú 裴嘉徐. Her mother's surname is Péi 裴; her father's surname is Xú 徐. When she was born, her parents wanted to combine the name like Xú Jiāpéi 徐加裴, but decided to flip the surnames, and replace jiā 加 ("add") with jiā 嘉 so that the second surname would be the object of the verb, "praise" jiā 嘉, resulting in "Pei (surname) praises Xu (surname)". So the maternal surname carries on while maintaining a patriarchal dominance in the syntax when taken as a verbal sentence.

  9. Andreas Johansson said,

    April 2, 2024 @ 5:18 am

    @Philip Taylor

    I've run into that name spelled "Neave", but googling a bit it seems rare.

    Er, and FWIW, mg's suggestion was "birth name", which none of your objections would seem to apply to.

    (I can think of others though – I know people who've waited a couple of months before giving their child any personal name at all. Is it really a "birth name" if you were two months old when you got it?)

  10. Philip Taylor said,

    April 2, 2024 @ 6:58 am

    I have no objection at all to "birth name", Andreas, although I would myself use "given name" but it seems an unnecessary circumlocution when one is talking to someone whom one is confident will have been Christened. As a child, the only phrase I ever heard or used in this context was "Christian name", but Google N-grams suggests that usage thereof is declining, with "first name" being maybe ten times as common as "christian name" in or around 2008 but now declining as we come to accept that not every race puts the given name first …

  11. Philip Taylor said,

    April 2, 2024 @ 7:05 am

    Incidentally, if we have any Goidelic experts reading this, I for one would much appreciate a full explanation of how "Niamh" came to be pronounced /niːv/ and "Siobhan" pronounced / ʃɪ ˈvɔːn /, and the extent to which this has changed over time. It would (of course) be quite wrong to expect every language that uses the Latin alphabet to assign the same ("English") sounds to each letter and group of letters, but I have always felt that the Goidelic family is less intuitive than many (and more counter-intuitive than Hanyu Pinyin, for example).

  12. Rodger C said,

    April 2, 2024 @ 12:12 pm

    Tolkien, IIRC, speculated that the husband of his aunt Jane Neave was descended from Hnaef, the illustrious son of Hoc. I'm not sure how serious he was about this.

  13. Tom Dawkes said,

    April 3, 2024 @ 6:56 am

    @Philip Taylor: for a reasonable explanation of why Irish is spelled as it is, see In essence, since the Old Irish period c. 700-1000, vowels have been written so as to indicate consonant quality as either palatal or non-palatal. The consonants in intervocalic position underwent lenition in the pre-OI period, so that [m] became a nasalised bilabial continuant which later developed into [w] or [v] first with nasalaization, later lost: similarly [b] became [w] or [v]. The Irish linguist Brian Ó Cuív mentions how his father sought to promote simplified spelling: seeÓ_Cu%C3%ADv

  14. Rodger C said,

    April 3, 2024 @ 1:53 pm

    @Philip Taylor: Another way to put it might be that Irish spelling is not phonemic but morphophonemic, adapted to some strange-to-a-non-Celt morphophonemics and expressed in a clever orthography.

  15. Philip Taylor said,

    April 3, 2024 @ 2:53 pm

    Thank you both, much appreciated. I have long known that lenition plays a significant rôle here, but try as I might I have never really managed to understand exactly what lenition is or exactly what rôle it plays. My familiarity with other languages helps me to understand how "b" can be pronounced /v/ when followed by an "h" because, for example, I believe that most native Catalan speakers cannot distinguish between /b/ and /v/ (I once asked a Catalan speaker whether she was saying "ben" or "ven" when calling her son, and she answered "yes"), but this does not explain how "m" can become /v/ when followed by an "h" …

  16. Vampyricon said,

    April 11, 2024 @ 11:10 am

    @Philip Taylor

    This happens to all consonants in Old Irish (or Old Goidelic): Each consonant has a lenited equivalent that has been phonemicized by its first attestation. /p/ becomes /ɸ/, /b/ becomes /β/, /m/ becomes /β/, each with their own velarized/rounded and palatalized/compressed variants. The nasalization was later lost among some Goidelic descendants, although it confers nasalization onto the vowel for certain dialects of Irish.

    So ⟨mh⟩ for /β/ makes as much sense as ⟨bh⟩ for /β/: It's just incomplete closure of the lips. Those spellings don't indicate their historical origin. It's just a way of writing out the difference.

  17. A Chun said,

    April 11, 2024 @ 8:45 pm

    Once I was trying to say ‘coffee’ in Mandarin but visualized the characters 加啡 and so said “jiā fēi” out loud. But since it sounded wrong to me, I backtracked, realized that I thought of the wrong character, changed the character to 咖啡, and then pronounced it correctly.

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