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


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On 3/6/2019 at 4:46 PM, LawrenceHowell said:

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


2 hours ago, LawrenceHowell said:

1) I do not claim nor have I ever claimed that phonesthemic tendencies in Old Chinese is uncontroversial.



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My comment in the other thread was not a personal attack against you. It was meant to help the OP, who was looking for an alternative to our product because he was unhappy with the pace of development (a fair complaint), by pointing out that your work is decidedly not mainstream. I stand by that, and you have yet to show otherwise.


Again, I never said anything about you personally. I criticized your work. But for some reason, you've decided to resort to ad hominems, name calling, and generally dragging me personally through the mud. But worse things have been said about me (though perhaps not more absurd), so I'll just ignore most of it.


The one thing I will defend myself against, for the benefit of others reading this thread, is your claim that I "don't do character studies." I've been very open about my credentials. I do not have a PhD, or any degree in the field. I took a year of graduate and undergraduate courses in paleography, linguistics, and excavated texts, and audited a few more, at 台師大. That's not quite the same as "not doing character studies." However, although I do some work on the dictionary (much less than I used to, since I'm more focused on the business side of things now), Ash is the lead researcher and makes the vast majority of the decisions regarding the character explanations, and he's a PhD Candidate in paleography at 台師大 and is well versed in various Old Chinese reconstructions, such as Baxter 1992, Baxter & Sagart, 李方桂, 鄭張尚芳, 王力, 陳新雄, etc.


I'm really not interested in engaging with you further. It's a pointless time sink. Your work is controversial and has not been accepted by the mainstream. Our work is very much in line with the mainstream. There's really nothing else to say.


Now, if you'll excuse me, my perfectly tanned, tuxedoed waiter has arrived poolside with a fresh rose for my lapel and a stirred martini (I'd never stoop to drinking a shaken one).

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Why did you come here to write such unpalatable comments for us to read? I was under the impression you were hoping to constructively move forward together with Outlier and others in this interesting field, overcoming previous working differences. It appears you were in fact dealing with some feelings of injustice and have instead decided to try to 'call out' the people responsible? You have done some fantastic work, can we the consumers perhaps benefit from more of your research, controversial or not, without having to read through unprofessional words towards outlier? They are clearly doing many things right, whether you like it or not. 

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@Tomsima: Regarding your impression of my reason for being here, yes, I was hoping to initiate productive discussion concerning the presentation of information about the ancient Han language in modern electronic dictionaries, whether with the Outlier people or others. I continue to hope for this outcome.


Regarding your inquiry, no I did not come here to write unpalatable comments. I can understand why you and likely others consider the tenor of my remarks unpleasant, and I am certainly not going to try to change anyone's impression.


Earlier, you had been kind enough to write, “I ... find the lack of activity regarding a scholar who has been knocked in previous threads on paleography slightly jarring ...” and expressed hope for a response from OneEye. He responded no more to you than to me.


We can only speculate now, but things would have played out very differently had he offered an informative, Ash-like response in a timely matter, say, within a week or two. In that case, as there would have been no need for me to get testy, and we could have enjoyed a most courteous discussion of lexicography questions (or not, as he and Ash preferred).


But that's water under the bridge now. You yourself felt the systematic evasion of my work to be “slightly jarring”; for the author, the same applies one-hundred fold. That doesn't excuse the tone I adopted in the interest of obtaining a response, but it was certainly a factor.


Yes, I promise to be more professional. Thank you for taking the time to admonish me in a good cause!

@oneeye: Glad you decided to put in an appearance, however belated. So, are you telling us that your degree of expertise in the field of character studies allows you to address the particulars of the controversiality issue with the authority of your colleague? If so, why did you not do so yourself? BTW, just to be clear, the rose is in the waiter's lapel. Apologies for the misleading syntax.


@ash: It's disappointing to find you are so hung up on the label “controversial” (to which, it would appear, you assign the full damnatory force of The Scarlet Letter). I guess it must be hard to comprehend that, to some other people, the label means nothing. History is filled with controversial ideas constantly examined and reexamined. Where those of mine end up drifting amid the flux and reflux is beyond my power. Returning to the immediate subject under discussion, there are so many intriguing facets of the early Han language left unexplored here. The two proposed at the end of my long comments are but a starting point. I'm leaving Notifications turned on, so whenever you are ready to discuss things here, I'll be back to engage you.

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Olive Branch moment.


OneEye, lampooning your ability to speak authoritatively on the subject of character studies was highly disrespectful. For that I apologize.


For your part, it was disrespectful to stonewall my request that you elaborate your precipitating remark. For that, will you apologize?

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@OneEye : Thank you. Seldom do messages consisting entirely of seven letters create the impact yours has.


@everyone: Let's extract an extremely positive element from among those mined thus far.


That is where [email protected] acknowledges, “(W)ords or groups of words in Old Chinese seem to have both related sounds and meanings.” He continues, “Even the most traditional scholars seem to admit that there are groups of words that are related both by meaning and phonology ...”


(I wonder what or how much importance should be attached to “seem to,” which appears in both sentences. Does [email protected] have reservations about this linguistic phenomenon, other than scope? If so, would he care to share those with us?)


All right then, what is so positive about Ash's statement? Well, it defines a particular piece of common ground between the Outlier team's understanding of the nature of the early Han language and my understanding of the same. The significance of this common ground cannot be overstated. And what is more, I believe that very few students of the characters were aware of this shared understanding before Ash laid it out for us.


A short digression before continuing. Earlier in this post, @imron suggested that many readers are interested in this subject but refrain from commenting due to a lack of background knowledge. I understand.


To that purpose, I'd like to steer the discussion into a sidestream where students of every level can wade in and make their ideas and opinions known with confidence.


To help prime the pumps of the discussion, let's clear away qualifiers and propose:


There are groups of words in Old Chinese that are related both by meaning and phonology.


Next, a preliminary question. That being the case:


Would you find it interesting/helpful for a character dictionary to present information on these relations?


For those who answer yes, now a follow-up question. Assume that the dictionary is electronic, one navigated by links rather than the turning of pages.


By what specific methods do you believe this information might best be formatted so that the relations stand out as clearly as possible?


I'll stop here and await comments. If none are forthcoming I'll return and carry on by myself, but I really hope for input from students of the characters at every stage of the process from “I'm starting today” to “Been at it for 20 years, pretty good with the characters now but always looking to learn more.” A true forum-like experience with many and various interested parties contributing ideas would be great.


Oh, one important piece of news. I have located and deactivated the button responsible for the recent tirade. There will be no more of that.

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In the same 'controversial' vein, I could prompt the Baxter-Sagart 2014 work after such reviews like:

- Christoph Harbsmeier (2016) "Irrefutable Conjectures. A Review of William H. Baxter and Laurent Sagart, Old Chinese. A New Reconstruction"; Monumenta Serica, 64:2, 445-504, DOI: 10.1080/02549948.2016.1259882;

- Axel Schuessler (2015) "New Old Chinese"; Diachronica 32:4 (2015), 571-598 doi 10.1075/dia.32.4.04sch;

- Ho Dah-an (2016) "Such errors could have been avoided"; The Journal of Chinese Linguistics vol.44, no.1 (January 2016): 175-230 ©2016 by The Journal of Chinese Linguistics;

- Nathan W. Hill (2017) "Old Chinese: A New Reconstruction - review"; ArOr – Issue 85.1 (135-140) © 2017 Oriental Institute (CAS), Prague ;

- Sergej Starostin (2016) "Old Chinese: A New Reconstruction - review"; Journal of Language Relationship • Вопросы языкового родства • 13/4 (2015) • Pp. 383—389

- and a reply from Baxter-Sagart "A response to Schuessler";  Diachronica 34:4 (2017), 559–576. doi 10.1075/dia.17003.sag


So it is more 'easy' to an amateur as I am, take advantage of so many views collecting them in points&pieces to drag on.



Answering to Mr. Howell, yes I am really interested.

I take the liberty to suggest easy-graphic approaches, like at "The Variant Structure in the Large Kanji Characters Set" database, from this link with connections at hand, to the possibility to dwelve in datasheets as here or here, for the same database, and please, help amateurs as I am, with indications 


Collecting data, the following among (many, many) others, are really extensive repositories: XiaoXue (and here its 'mirror friend'); GuoXueDaShi; the thorough P.o.S - Ancient Texts Tagged corpus at AcademiaSinica; but as one will see, you can fall exhausted after few minuts of navigations and research.


This is way Outilier & co. are indeed useful even if in their infancy at present.


So, Mr. Ash Henson, Mr. Howell et all. around, do your best but be sure I can't trust just in one view, as well represented in a last insighthful paper by Haeree Park "Problems of working with competing ideas in reconstruction", Journal of Chinese Linguistics Chinese University Press Preprint 10.1353/jcl.2017.0031




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[email protected]: Ask me what “(W)ords or groups of words in Old Chinese seem to have both related sounds and meanings” represents and I'll answer, “Phonesthemic tendencies in Old Chinese.”


However, you categorize the first proposition as uncontroversial and the tendencies proposition as very controversial. This appears to be contradictory. Do you perhaps take the position that examples of such words or groups of words in OC is so limited as to not fulfill the definition of a tendency? Clarification would be great.


@Fabio Galassi: Thank you very much for your constructive contribution.


You describe yourself as an amateur, but one glance at the kind of topics that attract your interest suffices to indicate the depth of the studies you have undertaken.


I'm sure many readers would like to know more about the content of the publications on reconstructions of Old Chinese that you presented (abstracts can be reached by clicking through links provided here), which in aggregate suggest how scholars of Old Chinese are interacting with each other's ideas. If you, Fabio, or any other reader would like to summarize their debate over the decades, I believe that many readers here in this general forum would find the information highly intriguing.


Let me ask a question about the easy-graphic approaches you mentioned. Taking as a specific example the characters treated in Chart 7.2 in the link you provided to The Variant Structure in the Large Kanji Characters Set: Do you believe that information connected to the phonesthemic tendencies in Old Chinese we are discussing can be woven smoothly into this presentation format? If so, do you have any specific suggestions about how to accomplish this?

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Aside from Fabio Galassi's interesting comment there has been no feedback from other forum members, so I'll return to the subject at hand.


Before plowing ahead, though, a minor digression.


On account of the fact that I was brought to this forum by a member of the Outlier team, it's possible that not a few readers have come to see the purpose of this post as a challenge to that dictionary's lexicographic directions.


In fact, my intent was to solicit input about Han/Chinese character dictionaries from both the producing and the using perspectives. The using side is represented by all of us. The producing side is represented by Outlier and all other publishers of character dictionaries. It would have been fantastic to hear from people such as Adrian van Amstel, to whose dictionary Gharial just dedicated a post. Or from Chris Button, a fellow who it seems has a dictionary in the making and who commented on a post at another site concerning, of all things, Outlier's dictionary. (BTW, those disappointed with the lack of contributions from [email protected] in this forum will be delighted to find that he displayed much greater enthusiasm for debating online over there.)


In any case, we can always hope for input somewhere down the line, even if most of the contributors to/readers of the current discussion have drifted away.


Very well then, I've proposed we're on solid ground in moving one step beyond what Ash stated as an uncontroversial idea: “(W)ords or groups of words in Old Chinese seem to have both related sounds and meanings.” To wit,

There are groups of words in Old Chinese that are related both by meaning and phonology.


I've also suggested that for Ash to label the idea of phonesthemic tendencies “very controversial” is contradictory. Perhaps with any luck we'll be hearing from him about that point and the others that remain hanging.


With all of that out of the way, we are now ready to get to the main point of the current comment.


When we speak of words related both by meaning and phonology in a given language, we are dealing with something known as “sound symbolism.”


For those unfamiliar with the concept, here are a couple of academic definitions of sound symbolism. The quotations are from abstracts of recent publications.


Sound symbolism refers to an association between phonemes and stimuli containing particular perceptual and/or semantic elements (e.g., objects of a certain size or shape).” (1)


... (Sound symbolism is) the non-arbitrary mapping between sound and meaning. Most of the mapping in human language is entirely arbitrary … In all languages to varying degrees, however, the associations are not entirely arbitrary: established and predictable associations will obtain over significant portions of the lexicon in units smaller than the morpheme or word, the traditional units of meaning.” (2)


For the record, other terms that have been used to describe this phenomenon are “phonosemantics” and “phonesthesia.” My preference has always been “phonosemantics.” However, “sound symbolism” is the form used most commonly in scholarly literature, so let's go with that.


You may be wondering about the degree to which sound symbolism is established in the academic mainstream. As one scholar puts it,


In linguistics, it is usually taken for granted that 'the linguistic sign is arbitrary' ... However, it is becoming more and more clear that motivated relations between sound and meaning are more common and important than has been thought. There is now a large and rapidly growing literature on subjects as ideophones (or expressives), words that describe how a speaker perceives a situation with the senses, and phonaesthemes ...”


Now, we have established that sound symbolism is evidenced in the lexicon of Old Chinese. As far as I know, no recognized scholar has addressed the important question: To what degree does the Old Chinese lexicon conform to the principle of sound symbolism?


Obviously, this question bears on many aspects of Han language studies, including character lexicography. I'll offer my answer in the next post.

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31 minutes ago, LawrenceHowell said:

Now, we have established that sound symbolism is evidenced in the lexicon of Old Chinese. As far as I know, no recognized scholar has addressed the important question: To what degree does the Old Chinese lexicon conform to the principle of sound symbolism?

A very basic question and one you have possibly answered elsewhere, but what evidence is there in the entire corpus of Old Chinese writing that the ancients themselves were aware of the existence of sound symbolism in their lexicon? 

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Hello Zbigniew, and thanks for the question. By Old Chinese writing you're referring to the oracle bones and bronze inscriptions, right? As far as I've seen, there is nothing among the contents of either that suggests the ancient Han were aware of the sound symbolism in their lexicon.


Is there a conclusion you would draw from this absence of substantiating evidence in the literature (if that's a proper word for the inscriptions)?

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Dear Zbigniew and readers,

l take the liberty to point to a very good volume on Sound Symbolism, just to have an idea of the importance of the matter (not confined at all, as I read above, to a paragraph in Schuessler cited work): The Sound and Sense of Chinese Poetry and specially  the chapter by Jonathan Smith Sound Symbolism in the Reduplicative Vocabulary of the Shijing .
There, unbended, lots of insightful answers and useful infos.


Here follow also a free M.A, general dissertation on "The Natural Motivation of Sound Symbolism" by Nahyun Kwon


Together with phonesthemes and Sound Symbolism, a little passage worth the concept of ideophones, well treated in "LANGUAGE AS BODILY PRACTICE IN EARLY CHINA
- a Chinese Grammatology" by JANE GEANEY - Suny Press


Another exciting area is debated by J. Tharssen (the creator of Digital Etymological Dictionary of Old Chinese), again in available pdf edition: "CHINESE EUPHONICS : PHONETIC PATTERNS, PHONORHETORIC AND LITERARY ARTISTRY IN EARLY CHINESE NARRATIVE TEXTS

Everywhere in the bibliographies, you will informed on the thorough drills of the area ''launched' here by Mr. Howell.

I hope in the afternoon (Italian UTC) to answer to Mr. Howell with some ideas about 'easy-graphic' networking.

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8 hours ago, LawrenceHowell said:

Hello Zbigniew, and thanks for the question. By Old Chinese writing you're referring to the oracle bones and bronze inscriptions, right? 

I would actually be content for the corpus to include "language of the classic literature from the end of the Spring and Autumn period through to the end of the Han Dynasty".


8 hours ago, LawrenceHowell said:

Is there a conclusion you would draw from this absence of substantiating evidence in the literature (if that's a proper word for the inscriptions)?

There is no absolutely firm conclusion I can draw from an absence of contemporary references to sound symbolism in the lexicon. My only thought is that if we do choose to accept the validity of what some people deem to be very controversial claims: that "all sound components in (Old?) Chinese characters carry a meaning" and/or "the existence of phonesthemic tendencies in Old Chinese", then it might be reasonable to expect to find at least a passing reference here and there in the contemporary literature to the operation of these presumably hard-to-ignore tendencies in a language the writers were themselves using daily as a medium of communication.


Please be assured that I have no axe to grind in this debate, and the last thing I want is to add to the payload of odium philologicum that has already accrued.

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Hello Zbigniew. Expanding the scope of your question to include the classic literature you mention brings us out of Old Chinese and into Middle Chinese. In either case, the answer is the same.


I understand your point about what we might expect to find. But let's consider.


Remember, we're talking about Old Chinese: Bringing the classics into the discussion would be anachronistic. What OC writings are extant? Oracle bone inscriptions and bronze inscriptions of the Shang and early Zhou. What is characteristic of the oracle bone inscriptions? They are brief, and present the results of divinination. What is characteristic of the Shang/Early Zhou bronze inscriptions? They are brief, and generally limit themselves to presenting information about the creator and/or the recipient of a piece of bronzeware. Is this the kind of subject matter in which it is reasonable to expect to find the writers being self-referential about a particular characteristic of the language they are using? I think not.


In that case, what about the classics of Middle Chinese? Let's assume just for the sake of the argument that sound symbolism was indeed present in Old Chinese. Let's assume further that a substantial percentage of speakers of Middle Chinese were conscious of phonesthemic tendencies in their language. What then might account for the fact that we don't find writers in Middle Chinese referencing sound symbolism in their language?


I'd answer as for the OC inscriptions: Given the subject matter of the extant MC literature, we wouldn't expect to find mention of sound symbolism. If you can think of a MC text in which a reference to sound symbolism might be expected, please advise.


But my guess is that by the time of MC, the sound symbolism fabric of OC had disintegrated to the point that MC speakers had little if any consciousness of it. I would also guess that the disintegration is connected with the increased acceptance of dual-element characters in which the pronunciation is not evident (by which I'm referring to the characters that would later be lumped together as 會意字, a grouping I've called The Phantom Category of Chinese Characters). That is to say, as the connection between sound and meaning grew fainter and fainter, users of the Han language would have had increasingly less reason to be concerned about the alteration or even disappearance of a reliable pronunciation marker in any given dual-element character.


While I'm at it, just one nitpick. About your formula that "all sound components in (Old?) Chinese characters carry a meaning": Not all. Foreign loan words are excluded, and although terms of onomatopoeic origin are usually regarded as one type of sound symbolism, one might wish to exclude them (and their secondary and tertiary terms deriving from them) from the count, though in any case such onomatopoeic terms and their derivatives comprise but a small percentage of the OC lexicon.

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Hello again Fabio. Thank you very much for the links to further reading on the subject of sound symbolism, particularly those with specific reference to Chinese. It would be great to receive feedback from forum participants about those publications. Also looking forward to to hearing your ideas about 'easy-graphic' networking, whenever you get a chance.

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Last time I introduced the topic of sound symbolism. Those looking for academic treatments of sound symbolism in Chinese may wish to start with one of the following scholarly publications (not delimited to Old Chinese).


Zhuanglin Hu: The Image Iconicity in the Chinese Language


Jonathon Smith: Sound Symbolism in the Reduplicative Vocabulary of the Shijing


Kazuko Shinohara/Shigeto Kawahara: A Cross-linguistic Study of Sound Symbolism: The Images of Size (Considers not only Chinese but also English, Japanese, and Korean)


OK, now the question carried over from last time: How prevalent is sound symbolism in Old Chinese?


We have no way of quantifying those OC terms that outlived their usefulness and disappeared. For that reason, a more precise formulation would be


Q: How many of the terms that existed in Old Chinese and that remain in the modern corpus originated in sound symbolism?


A: Nearly all of them.


The only exception is represented by a proportionately insignificant number of terms that entered the ancient Han language via Sanskrit (sangha = 僧伽; kasaya = 袈裟), Pali (phatika = 玻璃) or other languages (“spinach” = 菠薐).


So here, I submit, is the big picture with regard to lexicography of Han/Chinese characters.


The characters we study emerged from a mindset according to which particular speech articulations conveyed particular meanings. Reconstruction work on the pronunciation of Old Chinese has progressed to the point that scholars such as Schuessler have identified a small number of the specific phono-semantic links in Old Chinese. I identify a more copious set of links, and this set appears to be sufficiently inclusive of all the OC links we are ever likely to discover that it has been possible to produce the EDHCC. This file contains historically and linguistically credible explanations for the meanings borne by each of the characters, explanations that are consistent across the board. (One might wish for less provisionality and greater certitude, but that is all the current state of knowledge allows.)


Dictionary compilers who are wary of the idea that sound symbolism played a significant role in Old Chinese decline to analyze the characters (or, more precisely, the terms conveyed by the characters) in light of the principles according to which they were created. One practical result of this abnegation is seen in the expression of dissatisfaction that precipitated this post.


I submit that the real question at issue is not “What's taking you so long to provide credible explanations for each character?” but rather “What methodology is ever going to enable you to provide credible, internally consistent explanations for each character?” As I discussed here, another dictionary insistent on including only findings vetted by recognized scholars is struggling with this same question.


There are various lines of approach we could take to addressing the topic of this post (the state of the craft with respect to lexicography of Han/Chinese characters). We could talk about formatting, indexing, search tools and many other angles. But in the absence of input from other contributors, I'll conclude with two rhetorical questions centered on practical lexicographic applications for what we have learned about sound symbolism in Old Chinese.


1: Is the sound symbolism-based character analysis of the EDHCC mere fancy or a harbinger of things to come?


2: If character dictionary compilers depreciate the significance of sound symbolism in Old Chinese, are they being judiciously cautious or inordinately pusillanimous?

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Hello Michaelyus, and thank you for calling attention to this paper. Sound symbolism in Chinese is most often connected with onomatopoeia or the semantic values of consonants and vowels, so a treatment focused on potential connections between lexical tone and iconicity is highly intriguing.


I'm thinking that at this point starting a new topic might be in order, as the present one was designed to examine character lexicography issues. In looking over the list of forum sub-groups, none seems indisputably the place for a discussion of sound symbolism in Chinese. Anybody have a recommendation for the most appropriate venue?

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