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The Great Wall of Chin...ese Character Lexicography


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Two and a half years ago, I shut down my online etymological dictionary of Chinese characters. Several reasons lay behind the move; the one of potential interest to some readers here was that I had taken the interpretations as far as I felt was possible with the scholarly data available.


Wishing that my work remain available to students of Japanese and Chinese who might care to reference it, I uploaded files for each language and went on my way.


At the time, I intended to return to the subject of Old Chinese and character lexicography if and only if fresh findings (phonological, archeological, paleographic, etc.) relevant to the interpretations became public.


Although no such findings have been forthcoming, a recent post in this forum contained a mildly acerbic reference to my body of work, stirring me out of hibernation if only temporarily.


This post I'm now writing concerns the subject that at least partially triggered the post referenced above. (Edit: Here removed explanantion concerning quotation marks, now redundant.) As you can see, it begins:


Admin Edit: Added quote tags



Last year, after completely losing hope that the Outlier Dictionary will ever catch up with characters I already know, I looked up other "etymology" dictionaries. Why lost hope? Well, they have only just hit the 2000 definitions mark, after 3-5 years of selling it under grand advertisements, and many definitions are simply stubbed with the split key + phonetic …



Here I want to focus on that last point, about definitions being marked with a split key + phonetic.


If I understand the reference correctly, the poster is frustrated that the definitions for many dual-element characters in the dictionary mentioned provide inadequate information. (I hope he will correct me if I am mistaken about his intent.)


With respect to that issue, I'd like to direct attention to changes in the etymology field for dual-element Han/Chinese characters over at English Wiktionary (hereafter, “W”). The contents of this field have long been of two types. First, W's version of the non-informative “split key + phonetic” style. Second, unsourced etymologies of wildly varying quality.


On page 12 of the Mandarin (Standard Chinese) file I pointed out how very few of the W entries for dual-element characters contain explanations of why the characters bear the meanings attached to them.


Now, 2 ½ years on, I've gone back to see if the etymological fields for these entries I noted are being filled out. Au contraire, Pierre! Those entries that were empty remain empty, while the few entries that did contain etymological explanations (狹 頰 and 仲) have dropped them.


Why have they disappeared? Perhaps if we compare the entry for 賜 when retrieved on 18 September 2016 and again on 12 February 2019 a hint will emerge.



賜 in 2016: Phono-semantic compound (形聲, OC *sleːɡs): semantic 貝 (“shell, money”) + phonetic 易 (OC *leːɡs, *leɡ)

賜 in 2019: From *s- (extrovert/causative) + 易 (OC *leɡ, “to change”) + *-s (Schuessler, 2007).



Not to get sidetracked by the differences in content, we can see that the etymology is now attributed to a reliable source, in this case Schuessler.


(And before continuing, something else worth noting en passant: The definitions have also changed, from "bestow; grant; give; deign to" in 2016 to “to give from superior to inferior; to give as a favor; to bestow” in 2019.)


It could go without saying that attributing sources is an excellent thing. Some years back, I used W's Beer parlour discussion forum to call attention to how the entries for the Han/Chinese characters often contained unsourced “etymological” information. At the time, the editors who replied couldn't have cared less. It's encouraging to find that attitudes have changed.


Still, despite slowly weeding out unsourced material and introducing the best that reliable sources have to offer, here in 2019 W does no better at illuminating the connection between the etymology of a given dual-element character and the meanings that character bears than it did in 2016.


Why is that? Because nobody that W editors can agree is a reliable source does so. As I've noted elsewhere, 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, W 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.


In contrast, those who are able to do Han/Chinese character lexicography with a free hand have options for creating historically plausible explanations of how the forms and meanings of given dual-element characters match (or, in the case of sound loans, do not match).


Without waiting for a generally acknowledged authority to come along and substantiate my conjectures about phonosemantics in Old Chinese (a kindness Schuessler would however so helpfully bestow in 2007), I began the process of creating explanations for each individual dual-element character by combing the Old Chinese corpus for terms with identical or nearly identical pronunciations.


Sticking with the example of 賜 as introduced above, I identified the concept at work in the phonetic element 易 as being connected with “stretch flat.” Where did I get that idea? From the presence in Old Chinese of homonyms (or near homonyms) of 易 such as 予 也 余 and others all exerting the notion of “stretch” in influencing the meanings of the dual-element characters in which they feature as the phonetic element. (易 → 剔 裼 賜 錫; 予 → 伃 妤 序 野 預; 也 → 地 弛 阤; 余 → 途 除 斜 inter alia).


Sometimes, the etymological explanation produced may come off as a tad unnatural, but much more often the explanations are remarkably organic, suggesting that their apparently strained cousins won't be so strained when we get a bit more relevant data to apply.


That was my methodology. I am keen to learn how other lexicographers who are not obligated to cite officially sanctioned reliable sources go about producing their own etymologies of the dual-element characters. How will they break through, or clamber over, the Great Split Key + Phonetic Wall?


Bonus: Speaking of Wiktionary, some years back I found myself drawn into a long war of attrition when I had the temerity to attempt to introduce the community to the riches of phonosemantic insights into Old Chinese. The Alliance employed the kind of dirty tricks common over at Wikipedia: Making up policy to suit the occasion, using admin status to change page contents without anything showing up in the page history, deleting comments left on a user page to make it appear the other party in the debate was being unresponsive … In the end, the Alliance won the war, but not before the interloper had managed to soften the defenses for future contenders. May the results they produce far surpass mine.



Edited by LawrenceHowell
Removed explanation about quotation method, now redundant
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There's a "quote" button on the toolbar of the "reply editor".  It's the one that looks like a double close quotation mark (or 99 if you'd prefer).  Highlight the text (inside your current reply) that you want to quote, and hit that button and it will surround it with quotes.  Alternatively, you can highlight text in someone else's post and you'll get a little popup button that says "Quote Selection".  If you hit that, then it will be automatically inserted in to your current reply as a quote.

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