Do the Chinese Ever Have a Word for It...

My pastime of late is browsing through Herbert Giles' mammmoth 1892 dictionary of Chinese characters. (You can download it for free from Google books--search for "giles chinese dictionary".) The dictionary contains roughly 13,848 characters. It's hard to know exactly how many, as some characters are listed in more than one position (having more than one pronunciation). This is vastly more than practically  any living person , Chinese or not, is able to read. Inference: most characters in Giles' dictionary are hardly, if ever, used any more.

This raises the question of what all these obsolete characters were ever used for. I found the answer rather astonishing. To fully appreciate why, I must invoke the slightly technical concept of a morpheme.

Words are the "molecules" of language, morphemes are the "atoms." A morpheme is the minimal meaningful unit of language. A word may consist of one or several morphemes.

For example, next time you are pressed into revising your resumé or writing your wedding vows, recall the lovely English word exopthalmic. The meaning of this is "having protruding eyeballs." A foreigner might find it amusing that we have a single word for this concept, but note that the word can be analyzed by breaking it into parts:

exopthalmic = ex (outward) + opthalm (eyeball) + ic (having)

So exopthalmic is one word but three morphemes.

By contrast, our hypothetical foreigner might be even more amused by the English noun steer, meaning a male ox that has been castrated. And the meaning of the word steer cannot be analyzed by breaking into parts: ste- by itself means nothing, nor does -eer. So steer is both a single word and a single morpheme. The existence of this word is a clue to history: cattle, and castration thereof, must have played a significant role in the lives of English-speaking peoples. Castrated cattle must have been common enough that people thought of them as a thing in themselves rather than a subcategory of "ox".

Now some background on the Chinese language and script: every Chinese morpheme consists of a single syllable (not true in English--elephant, for example, is a single morpheme with three syllables). Each morpheme is written with a single character. A single Chinese word may consist of one or several syllables--written with one or several characters.

[Incidental note: the sound system for Mandarin Chinese allows for only about 1200 distinct syllables (including tone distinctions). Thus, of necessity, many of the characters in Giles' dictionary must be pronounced identically to others. In other words, many Chinese morphemes are pronounced identically to others (and in practice one relies on context to make the distinction). But even aside from this, there is plenty to be curious about.]

So one may consider the character

pronounced dié (using the Pinyin romanization rather than the older Wade-Giles system), and meaning "prominent eyes." This is roughly equivalent to the English exopthalmic but in this case China wins the funny-word contest because dié is a single morpheme, not analyzable into constituent parts--neither d nor i nor e has any relevant meaning in isolation. It makes you wonder whether people with protruding eyeballs played an especially significant role in Chinese history.

(NOTE: I'm talking here about the spoken word, which cannot be broken into meaningful units. The written character can be broken down into two meaningful parts: 目, meaning "eye" (appropriate here); and 失, probably intended as a clue to pronunciation. But that's a different story.)

So, herewith is a selection of Chinese characters, representing unitary concepts in the Chinese language. For each, I provide its definition from Giles, dictionary, along with its pronunciation written using both Pinyin and the older Wade-Giles system; and finally the index in Giles dictionary, so you can look for yourself to prove I'm not kidding.

qí/ch'i a foot with six toes (1107)

chī/ch'ih a dragon whose horns have not grown (1973)

jīng/ching a large deer, with one horn and a cow's tail (2141)

zhù/chu a horse with the near hind leg white (2615)

èr/êrh To pull the hairs out of a victim's ears, that the gods may hear the prayers offered up with the sacrifice. (3342)

觿 xī/hsi An ivory spike, worn at the girdle and used for loosening knots. (4171)

bá/pa the demon of drought, variously depicted as a one-eyed dwarf and a strange bird. (8530)

yú/yü fields in the 3rd year of cultivation (13613)

tuō/t'o offspring of an ass and a cow (11670)

cuī/ts'ui A piece of sackcloth, 6 inches by four, worn on the breast as mourning (11936)

bá/pa the demon of drought, variously depicted as a one-eyed dwarf and a strange bird. (8530)

yù/yü clouds of three colors (13683)

yǔ/yü An instrument used to give the signal for a band of music to stop, shaped like a wooden. tiger, with 27 teeth along its back. (13625)

jiān/chien A fabulous bird with one eye and one wing, so that a pair must unite to fly. (1637)

jiān/chien A Chinese Methusaleh, known as 籛鏗 Chien K'êng. He is said to have reached the age of 767 and then to have vanished.(1591)

yí/i A hairy marine animal, which is said to climb trees and bears some resemblance to the human form. (5435)

No comments: