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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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Fabio Galassi

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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