Another "variant" character

« previous post | next post »

If we come upon a glyph that we don't recognize and can't find in any dictionary, especially if we have half an idea what it might mean or what it might sound like, we are apt to call it a "variant character" (yìtǐzì 異體字) or calligraphic form of some standard glyph.  It happens all the time, e.g., here — in the comments.

Nick Kaldis sent in this character:


That was accompanied by the following note:

I've scoured the Academia Sinica's Yìtǐzì zìdiǎn 異體字字典 (Dictionary of variant characters) and have been unable to find a character Wang Wen-hsing 王文興 (1939-2023) uses in his novel Jiābiàn 家變 (Family catastrophe).

The character is "ke" 刻 with the 口 "mouth" radical on its left. It could also be described as the character "ka" 咳 with the 刂 "knife" radical on its right.

Do you think Wang may have invented it?

I think there's a good chance that Wang did invent this glyph.  Whether he did or didn't invent this unusual character, whoever did come up with it was being cleverly creative when they did so, because most people (if they're like me) would probably guess that it conveys the notion of a cutting, rasping cough.

All well and good.  The problem, though, is that — since this glyph is sui generis — it's essentially a private joke / reading.  Nobody except the author knows for sure what it's supposed to mean and what's it's supposed to sound like.

In fact, when I checked the context in the novel, I found out that I would have been wrong in my seemingly logical analysis of the character, because it turns out that it is being used purely onomatopoetically as one in a series of three representations of the sound of a camera shutter snapping a photo:

「 喀立」
「 喀嚦

i.e., all are something like "keli", with maybe a dialectal entering tone stop at the end of the binoms.


Nick added:

While you're in the "口“ section of your searches, here's another to keep your eyes open for, again from the novel Jiābiàn 家變 (Family catastrophe).:


For this one, I would have guessed that it is onomatopoeic for the sound of something whirring or whishing. In this case, context (a jet plane passing by very close overhead) confirmed that my intuition was correct.


Selected readings


1 Comment

  1. Jonathan Silk said,

    April 7, 2024 @ 11:28 am

    Just to remind you of what is well known: Buddhist texts are full of characters used solely for their phonetic value, and a favorite means of indicating that this is the case is precisely the addition of “mouth” on the left.

RSS feed for comments on this post