CHINESE ETYMOLOGY.

In case any interested parties don’t already know about Richard Sears’s Chinese Etymology site, there it is; as Victor Mair says in the Log post where I learned about it, “his website is without equal for its convenience and comprehensiveness in providing early forms of the sinographs” (his database has over 96,000 ancient and archaic Chinese characters and provides Taiwanese, Cantonese, and Shanghainese transcriptions in addition to Mandarin). After praising the site, Mair adds:

The only major problem I myself have with the site is its title, “Chinese Etymology,” I don’t consider what Sears does to be “etymology” per se. Written symbols (characters, letters, graphs, etc.) do not have etymologies. Rather, they undergo evolution and development. Thus, Sears’ work has to do with Chinese character structure, analysis, and evolution, not etymology. True Chinese etymology has to take into account the development of sounds and meanings through time (roots, derivatives, cognates, etc.). For that, the most convenient, reliable, and authoritative source for the early period is Axel Schuessler’s ABC Etymological Dictionary of Old Chinese.
I should point out, however, that it is very common, both among specialists in the field of Chinese Studies and among the lay public, to refer to the analysis of character structure as “etymology,” so Sears is certainly not alone in doing so. Still, I consider this a serious issue in Sinology and in Chinese linguistics, just as serious an issue as calling Sinitic languages like Cantonese “dialects.” Chinese linguistics has long been bedeviled by deep confusion between the writing system and language, and it is this confusion that leads people to mistakenly speak of characters as having etymology.

He is, of course, quite correct, but I don’t think the situation is going to change any time soon.

Comments

  1. I’ve often wondered (in an idle unambitious way) how the devil you do etymological research on a language with a writing system like that. As soon as someone writes a new word down they effectively make up a (probably false) etymology for it, don’t they? It would be like having the whole literate community industriously laying false trails for you.

  2. How do scholars talk about the history of cuneiform characters? I may be off base, but it seems to me that the history of characters in cuneiform and the various languages that used it would be the best parallel to the history of Chinese characters.

  3. J. W. Brewer says:

    Um, if the common majority practice in the relevant speech community (which seems to include scholars etc.) is to use the word “etymology” in this context, then that’s more or less by definition an established and indeed “correct” extended meaning of the word “etymology,” isn’t it? How is the contrary claim exempt from being consigned to the “prescriptivist poppycock” file?

  4. Because it’s actively misleading, both to the public at large and to the relevant speech community, including the scholars. Everyone would be better off if they started using more sensible terminology. This is in no way parallel to, say, eggplant versus aubergine.

  5. Roger Depledge says:

    To misquote Mayor Lueger of Vienna: “I decide who is a prescriptivist”.

  6. David Eddyshaw says:

    Given that he is obviously clever, very well informed and incredibly industrious, it’s a bit surprising that Sears’ site calls Korean and Japanese ‘Ural-Altaic Languages’ and calls the kana syllabaries ‘alphabets’.

  7. David Eddyshaw says:

    @befuddled:
    ‘palaeography’

  8. J. W. Brewer says:

    I’m pretty sure that when I was learning hiragana in third grade I thought it was an “alphabet,” and I’m pretty sure that’s what my teachers called it. There’s a narrower sense of “alphabet” that contrasts with e.g. “syllabary,” but that doesn’t make the broader sense wrong. And how many tenured Semiticists (much less rabbis or volunteer teachers preparing kids for their bar/bat mitzvahs) consistently remember to call the Hebrew script an “abjad” rather than an “alphabet”? Maybe if this guy had an academic gig and was submitting articles to a professional linguistics journal he would be well-advised to stick to the narrower sense and call kana something else, but the whole point here seems to be that someone with no formal academic credentials in the field or university post or grant money has put together an extraordinarily useful resource that all the tenured folks with potential access to lavish institutional support had failed to do. Given that the Uralic-Altaic link for Korean/Japanese is no longer the scholarly consensus view (although it was much more popular in the past, I believe, and i don’t know what the state of play is on the connections of Uralic and Altaic to each other), it’s perhaps unfortunate he’s perpetuating it, but as to these terminological questions I would cut the guy considerable slack.

  9. What J.W. said.

  10. David Eddyshaw says:

    @JW:
    I don’t disagree with you at all; all I meant that he’s so good it’s stranger that he should get things like this wrong than if he were a rank amateur. He does indeed merit a lot of slack.
    Nobody would be desperately surprised after the event if Korean and Japanese could be proven to be ‘Altaic’, and many a worthy mainstream expert has thought so, though as I understand it the very existence of an Altaic genetic unity is controversial; but I don’t think any professional believes that the Uralic languages belong with them now. It was the ‘Uralic’ bit that caught my eye.
    As you say, merits a lot of slack … no argument.

  11. Indeed, how could anyone find the name eggplant actively misleading?
    Well, suppose you made a pickle of it: “pickled eggplant” would be pretty misleading.

  12. I’ve always admired Roy Miller’s book title, Japanese and the Other Altaic Languages. That “Other” is a masterstroke of propaganda.

  13. When he says “Mandarin originally refers to the language spoken by Chinese officials who were mainly from Beijing”, I just wonder how accurate he is. From my understanding, the history of “Mandarin” goes back to a time when the locus of the scholarly class was not yet in Beijing. The language of the lingua franca of the Mandarin class wasn’t always centred in Beijing.

  14. Dearieme: Thanks for the tip on the Guardian. As a journalist I endorse them thoroughly. I particularly like points 18 and 25 – and the Grauniad’s corection at the bottom …

  15. “The language of the lingua franca of the Mandarin class wasn’t always centred in Beijing.”
    I thought in the 18th-19th centuries the Suzhou dialect was considered the “prestige dialect” in China.

  16. Well, suppose you made a pickle of it: “pickled eggplant” would be pretty misleading.
    “Pickled eggplant” would be misleading only as a label on a jar that actually contained pickled mango. Pickled eggplant is actually delish, even in a jar labelled “pickled mango”.

  17. I thought in the 18th-19th centuries the Suzhou dialect was considered the “prestige dialect” in China.
    Can’t say I’ve ever heard this, although Suzhou was the prestige dialect of the Wu area, and the Wu area was a major centre of economic and cultural life in China.
    I haven’t got any sources with me, but if we confine ourselves to Mandarin, my understanding is that the language of the Mandarins has always been a northern dialect. However, with changes in the locus of political power, the locus of the prestige dialect has also changed. (Under the Southern Song, Hangzhou became the capital, and apparently Hangzhou still shows important and quite fundamental differences from other Wu dialects as a result).
    Regarding Mandarin, I also understand from my reading that the banner people (Manchu banners, and I guess also the Mongol and Chinese banners) adopted Mandarin as their speech of choice. Banner garrisons stationed in various cities of China (the garrisons had their own special walled-off sections of the city, which were wide and spacious compared with the Chinese sections) spoke Mandarin in preference to local dialects. That presumably meant that the banner garrison in Canton spoke Mandarin rather than Cantonese.
    Beijing itself was divided between the between the garrison (where most of the famous hutongs of “Old Beijing” are located) and the “Chinese city” in the south, around modern Dashalanr. It would be interesting to know if there was any distinction between the speech of the garrison and the Chinese city.

  18. David Marjanović says:

    the Uralic-Altaic link for Korean/Japanese is no longer the scholarly consensus view (although it was much more popular in the past, I believe, and i don’t know what the state of play is on the connections of Uralic and Altaic to each other)

    Ural-Altaic was abandoned by linguists a long time ago, though it has lingered on in encyclopedias and other works for a broader audience for… another hundred years or something.
    The evidence for Japanese and especially Korean being members of Altaic is quite good, and for Korean no alternative has even been proposed. But it’s still controversial.

  19. Banner garrisons stationed in various cities of China (the garrisons had their own special walled-off sections of the city, which were wide and spacious compared with the Chinese sections) spoke Mandarin in preference to local dialects. That presumably meant that the banner garrison in Canton spoke Mandarin rather than Cantonese.
    Beijing itself was divided between the between the garrison (where most of the famous hutongs of “Old Beijing” are located) and the “Chinese city” in the south, around modern Dashalanr.
    The things I learn around there! Thanks, Bathrobe.

  20. Thoughout the Ming and Manchu periods, two competing standards existed for Mandarin, that of Nanjing and that of Beijing. The Beijing norm took over the prestige of Nanjing, people say, only after Mid-Qing. Nobody talk the Nanjing of yore anymore, because of the tragically fateful history of modern Nanjing. Bloody fights and massacres when the Taiping troops entered the city, and when the loyal forces retook it, followed by the Rape of Nanjing by Japanese hands.

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