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Han Character Lexicography: What is the State of the Craft?


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2 hours ago, LawrenceHowell said:

So as to avoid creating linkspam, articles are named but not hotlinked.

Please feel free to edit the post to add the links.  No-one likes spammy links, but helpful/useful links are always welcome.  Admin do a pretty good job of weeding out posts full of spammy links.

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@imron: Thank you for the invitation to hotlink. Rather than edit my post, I'll do the linking here.


Ideographic Myth: Inconsistencies in the Critique


Ideographic Myth: Logical Weaknesses in John DeFrancis' Critique


The Phantom Category of Chinese Characters


Etymological Dictionary of Han/Chinese Characters Supplement Two: Sample Lineage Charts


Then, while I'm at it, also links to the


Etymological Dictionary of Han/Chinese Characters Supplement One: Mandarin (Standard Chinese) Redaction


as well as a document comparing the phonesthemic tendencies in Old Chinese identified by Schuessler with those identified in my own work:


Kanji Etymology and the ABC Etymological Dictionary of Old Chinese


Finally, my reply to Victor Mair's post


Phonosymbolism and Phonosemantics in Chinese




Ideographic Myth: A Response to Victor Mair


I'll throw that link in here because of a remark in the Pleco dictionary post suggesting that some folks are still taking Mair's view uncritically. In a way, it's understandable because none of the contributors to the comments section of his post challenged Mair about his continuing advocacy of the logically unsustainable Ideographic Myth thesis of John DeFrancis. Gladly would I have done so, but as a condition for posting about my research, Mair had insisted that I absent myself from the comments section. That being the case, I uploaded my response elsewhere.

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  • 3 weeks later...

I was looking forward to a productive discussion of character lexicography here. I was especially hoping to exchange views with one particular forum contributor, a gentleman with a professional interest in the subject. Regrettably, however, it appears he will not be contributing at this time. Meanwhile, the absence of comments from other forum members seems to suggest that this topic lies on the outermost fringe of the interest spectrum. That being the case, I'll be moving along. In departing, I'd like to thank the poster here for supplying the motivation to look around and see what's been happening in the world of character studies, whether from a linguistically oriented approach or in video targeting a general audience. Thanks as well to all readers, and to the forum admins for their welcoming attitude. Cheers.

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11 minutes ago, LawrenceHowell said:

Meanwhile, the absence of comments from other forum members seems to suggest that this topic lies on the outermost fringe of the interest spectrum

Another possibility is that it's something people are interested in, but it lies on the outermost fringe of the expertise spectrum so people are interested in reading about it but feel they don't understand the subject well enough to comment on it (that is the position I find myself in for example).

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FWIW, I believe @OneEye is unusually busy at the moment - Outlier's in the middle of their big new Chinese character course, plus they just released the first beta of their Kanji dictionary. (actually in Pleco - the guy behind the Japanese app they had planned to use flaked out on them, and since we already had a converter for their data format and our dictionary makes a perfectly passable Kanji search engine we volunteered to help out; they're working on a standalone app, though, this is just an interim solution)


But I'm sure both he and Ash will be happy to engage you on this as soon as things settle down a bit, as you can see from other postings they're certainly willing/eager to step in and defend their work.

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  • 2 weeks later...

A month later and OneEye remains a no-show. To be sure, we got a proxy “He's busy,” but ain't we all?


Well, the Han/Chinese characters are thousands of years old, and won't be disappearing anytime soon. So, whenever one of the capable lexicographers on his team is ready to show up, that'll be just dandy.


But for you, OneEye, here's something beyond the already-tendered invitation: A challenge. That's right. To put it bluntly, sniping and hiding behind proxies is juvenile. It's time you man up and put your money where your mouth is.


Need a modus operandi? Keep it simple:


・ Detail precisely what it is about my work that is “fairly controversial.” Don't forget to quote academic sources.


・ Present in glorious contrast the controversy-free merits of your team's approach.


That's it. With all the crowdfunded manpower at your disposal, this should be a piece of cake.


The way I and possibly others see it, the longer you blow this off the worse you discredit the authority of your project. You OK with that?


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In the fairness of debate and better scholarship, I hope a reply does come from this. I have very much appreciated previous recommendations from Oneeye to read scholars like 李旭昇 here on chinese forums, and Outlier is no doubt very capable in their research. I do however, find the lack of activity regarding a scholar who has been knocked in previous threads on paleography slightly jarring. I'm not saying who is wrong and who is right by any means, I just wanted to continue to vocalise my support for an open debate in front of people such as myself, ie. customers of Outlier, so we can better understand the reasons why oneeye has stated Lawrence's work is controversial in the past.

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Thank you, Ash. I have much to offer by way of rejoinder, of course, but I'd like other forum members to have the opportunity to digest your presentation, confirm the details, compare what I have written and weigh in here with constructive comments before responding myself. Not all these individuals will have acquired the necessary speed reading skills or be naturally blessed with the ability to render judgment on complex subjects in eight seconds, so let's give it at least a few days, shall we?

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13 hours ago, LawrenceHowell said:

constructive comments


13 hours ago, LawrenceHowell said:

Not all these individuals will have acquired the necessary speed reading skills or be naturally blessed with the ability to render judgment on complex subjects in eight seconds


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Oh I'm not a speed reader, or too smart, or that informed (or TBH too bothered) about these specific issues (Ash's final two paragraphs in particular make a lot of sense though, even to non-specialists), I just know a popcorn-worthy forum fight when I see one, controversy be damned.


Ah, that'll be the microwave.

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Mr. Howell, there's no need for the showmanship. This is a simple matter. You're claiming that your work isn't controversial. Please post the list of mainstream scholars that accept your work, or even better, scholars that incorporate your work into their own. There really isn't anything else to discuss here.

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@Gharial: I know where you're coming from. Now and then I stumble upon old, long-forgotten threads of no direct interest to me only to find that hours have passed while I've been enjoying the rhetorical pyrotechnics.


@Ash: Showmanship? That's how my remark came across to you? OK, got that filed away for reference. Have anything else you'd like me to bear in mind while we await input from others? Now's your chance.

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All right Ash, let's get down to it. You say you're not here for a discussion, so I'm addressing you under the presumption that you won't be replying. For the same reason, I am tossing out everything germane to the present discussion here in one comment, so it's a looooooooong one.


Preliminary Point the First: Too bad you disdain online debates. Offline, online: What's important is how the debate is conducted. I believe lots of readers will concur that what you've presented here shines a light on fascinating aspects of the ancient Han language that rarely get explored in public venues. I'm equally sure that many among them are interested in your dictionary project. Factoring in those considerations, why on earth would you think that engaging here isn't a productive use of your time?


Preliminary Point the Second: Yes, in fact, there was a need for an aggressive tone. Your pal failed to respond to multiple requests that he elucidate his remark. He had a month, an amount of time that most impartial observers will, I believe, consider ample. Beyond that, as demonstrated by your (not his) appearance immediately subsequent to my pointed remarks, we all now see that he never had any intention of responding. We patient folks in the forum could have been left cooling our heels here for years, decades even! And it gets really drafty here at times; we could have caught something nasty.


Besides which, perhaps you'll agree that the aggressiveness paid dividends for all parties. Readers have profited from your input, which in turn creates favorable PR for your project. And I've benefited from the opportunity to juxtapose and highlight the distinctions between my approach and yours. Everyone's a winner!


All right then, I'll work in order of the points you raise. You think I'm upset about my work being described in this post as “fairly controversial.” Not in the least, my dear sir. Let me explain.


The poster expressed dissatisfaction with the progress of your dictionary. Your chum could have addressed the issue without commenting on my work, but chose to fling an animadversion out this ol' hound dog's way. When the post came to my attention, I asked him to flesh out his comments so that all the world would be positioned to judge whether he actually knew whereof he spake or was just blowing it out his … crevasse.


(Hits Pause for Side Note) Here, readers with no dog of any sort in the fight may be wondering, “Why the rabidity?” As another side note, I think I MAY have hit on the reason you, Ash, arrived at the entirely plausible but nonetheless entirely mistaken conclusion, “You're claiming that your work isn't controversial.” (BTW, what made you decide to drop the cautious “If” leading off the original form of that comment?)


I'm speculating here, so by all means do correct me if I'm wrong, but perhaps, to your mind, the only conceivable reason I'd be so tenacious about holding your buddy's feet to the fire is that I took umbrage at the contents of his remarks. In fact, something quite different was in play.


Perhaps you recall that, in the early days of your fundraising campaign, I contacted your project in connection with one of the claims being made about the proposed dictionary. To my mind, the claim fell somewhere on the fuzzy gray line between garden-variety Misleading and peccant False Advertising.


Your sidekick answered with a reponse that wasn't fully adequate, but persuaded me the matter wasn't worth pursuing. Whatever. The point here is that his message made it clear that character studies is not his thing, that field of endeavor being your bailiwick.


Sooooo, Ash, imagine my utter astoundment at discovering the whippersnapper who doesn't do character studies transmogrified into an urbane lexicographic homme d'affaires, chucking out the breezy, “Well, much of Howell's stuff is fairly controversial and doesn't seem to be based on much evidence.” !!!


What insouciant cheekiness! I pictured your cohort on a poolside chaise lounge as he delivered this line, a shaken not stirred martini in his left hand, his right arm extended toward savory hors d'oeuvres of only the finest and rarest ingredients painstakingly arranged on a silver tray proffered by an immaculately tanned and tuxedoed waiter sporting the very latest Parisian coiffure. With a lavender rose in his lapel.


My initial reaction was to fall into a prolonged and, toward the end, rather painful belly laugh. When at last the merriment died down I thought, “Right, old boy, and now you're going to tell us everything you know about the subject.”


I was mistaken, though: He did nothing of the sort. I believed it was morally incumbent on him to take responsibility for his words by favoring those of us participating in the post with a response. Apparently, he thought otherwise. The Waiting for Godot charade grew stale, and finally ended up raising my hackles. It's really pretty simple. Capisce?


But kudos to the two of you for not posting, under his name, comments prepared by you.


(Releases Pause, Does the Voltairean Return to Our Sheep) Very well then, moving along. Your presentation of both the uncontroversial and newer, more controversial aspects of my work is welcome. It seems these notions have yet to penetrate into general awareness, so you have rendered students of the characters a useful service.


Alack and alas, the “Very controversial” section is a different bird altogether. Perhaps your haste to return to what you consider productive activities is to blame for the regrettably slapdash treatment.


Quoting you. 1) “If you're claiming that phonesthemic tendencies in OC is uncontroversial, that is simply false.” 2) “And, (Schuessler) is not making anywhere near as strong of a claim as you are. In fact, he said, 'Occasionally, certain meanings were associated to certain sounds.' That is a very weak claim.”


Had you taken the time to read what I have written on the subject, you would have known that, no, 1) I do not claim nor have I ever claimed that phonesthemic tendencies in Old Chinese is uncontroversial. What I have stated in many venues is that the proposition gained a degree of mainstream academic recognition with Schuessler's 2007 publication. Not to mention that, as I have also stated repeatedly, Gilbert Roy anticipated Schuessler by decades, but his work has yet to be accorded the attention it deserves.


As for 2), it's truly a shame you expended valuable time reinventing the wheel: I made your point for you here, years ago. Further, over yonder and less than a month ago I stated, “Schuessler spoke of phonesthemic tendencies in Old Chinese, giving several broad examples without however linking any of them to particular terms or the corresponding characters expressing those terms in writing. Until a reliable source does that, (Wiktionary) editors are limited to the “phonetic + semantic” presentation format. If the connection between that information and the character's meanings is opaque, that's just how it has to be.” (What you call mainstream scholars I call reliable sources.)


So, yes, my claims about phonesthemic tendencies in Old Chinese exceed those of Schuessler. Were this cinema, here is where the folks swayed by appeal to authority gasp on cue. All together now: A-one and a-two and a-...


Next up: Specificity of claims.


As far as I am aware there are no OC terms indicating “split top to bottom” or “split at a right angle,” nor anything to suggest that these nuances were conveyed by a single term. The reason I talk about 八 (in OC, featuring terminal *-t) as conveying the concept “split right and left” arises from years spent considering what, if any, commonality exists between all OC terms with terminal *-t (excepting terms of onomatopoeic origin or loan words).


I italicize “if any” because my late research collaborator and I did not set out with the premise that phonesthemic tendencies must exist in OC. Rather, these tendencies began to manifest themselves in the course of analyzing hundreds of phonetically related terms. Sticking with the example raised here, terminal *-t, we found that such terms invariably had something to do with cutting, division or reduction. With respect to 八, the particular manifestation that appears to apply in all cases is none of the ones you suggest but rather “split right and left.”


Your remarks concerning 穴 and 敝 are duly noted. Regarding 分, see above.


By the by, you seem fixated on the term paleography and its adjectival form. I commiserate. My old craze was “homeostasis.” But, judging from the frequency of the p-word in comments made by your supporters, I really must commend you on having hit upon a mezmerizing piece of marketing nomenclature. I'll bet the p-word alone is responsible for a quarter of your revenue stream.


Be that as it may, the thing to remember about my interpretations is that what is primary is not the form but the OC pronunciation and, specifically, the phonesthemic tendencies the pronunciations convey (as I propose). When an original form has changed, yet the replacement phonosemantic element is either identical or extremely close to the contemporaneous pronunciation of the original phonosemantic, I'll argue that the original conceptual scaffolding remains in place. Can't prove that with the data currently available, but I believe future research will end up confirming it. Just a hunch.


Regarding 氐 (Concept: Press the low point of an object). You ask: “There is a specific word for 'pressing the low point of an object'? Really? Where does this come from?”


What I am saying is not that there was a specific OC word with that meaning (though the possibility exists), but rather that when we examine extant characters in which 氐 is the phonosemantic, we find that the concept “Press the low point of an object” accounts for why the primary meaning originally borne by all of those characters is what it happens to be.


We reach the final stretch. As you are aware, there's no general agreement on what 氏 depicts, but if you favor the interpretation of 季旭昇 and choose to use it in your dictionary, who am I to argue? No skin off my nose.


Nor will I argue with what you, Ash Henson, find easy to believe, or not to believe. The same applies to whatever it is that, say, aspiring dragonfly whisperer Bettina Rae Malinsky (née Tomlinson) or the jetsetting Armando C. Philippoussis IV find easy or not easy to believe. I will however say that to my ears, this subjective line of approach is bound to result in stultifying and circular debate, the unproductive sort of time killer you are so eager to avoid. Who needs it, right? But wait! Methinks I hear Hamlet: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."


All right, we've reached the finish line. Only you can decide whether your project goals are better served by confabulating with me or by rejecting the invitation, but I'm certain that many others here in this forum join me in hoping to hear from you again. There certainly are other topics upon which you can enlighten us. My choices start with your take on the traditional 六書 classification system, particularly vis-à-vis what I say about the so-called 會意字, along with how you respond to the dissatisfaction of the poster who started this whole thing off (you know, the number of split key + phonetic definitions in your work). So c'mon Ash, I exhort you: Do us all a favor and don't be an outlier.



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