Why is the 車 in Chinese chess pronounced jū?

Actually, it is not just chess … the rhyme dictionaries from ~1,000 years ago also contain those two forms for 車: che1 and ju1. You can find them in the different dialects, e.g. ce1/geoi1 in Cantonese, chhia1/ku1 in Hokkien, too. The latter (as well as the 反切 spellings in the rhyme dictionaries) show you that originally the ju comes from a g-initial (something like gü).

Ju is a common gloss for 車 in literary Chinese (outside of chess) both with Western and Chinese authors, e.g. Michael Fuller writes /ju/ when explaining Sima Qian (An Introduction to Literary Chinese), Archie Barnes says that “traditionalists will likely insist on it being pronounced ju” (DU’s Handbook of Classical Chinese grammar), Paul Rouzer has it as /ju/ in his New Practical Primer of Literary Chinese, my trusted Taiwanese copy of the 論語 glosses it as /ju/ and I have also seen Chinese posts on the internet suggesting this pronunciation when reading the 詩經.

So, is this just another example of 白讀 vs. 文讀 (common vs. literary pronunciation), like in /tuo/ for 他 or /bo/ for 白? Not quite, because cases like /bo/ for 白 are relatively recent phenomena, where speakers of Mandarin adopted an imitation of the pronunciation in the South (bok > bo’ > bo) during the time when the court language was Nanjing Mandarin. But the che/ju dichotomy predates Mandarin, being already found in the ShiMing (釋名) from the Eastern Han (!):

古者曰车。声如居。[…] 今曰车。车,舍也, […] (Chinese Text Project Dictionary)

Which I would translate as “The ancients said “车” which sounded like /ju/ (居). […] Nowadays we say /che/”, like in /she/ (dwelling)”.

So, even 1800 years ago the writer feels obligated to inform us that the alternative pronunciation ju is old :-).



Whence ni-hon?

Continuing to plunder my Quora answers. Here, the question was why 日本 did have the reading ni-hon beside nippon (or *nichi-pon, as the asker suggested).

Nihon is indeed irregular, to the best of my knowledge. The expected regular forms are nippon or jippon. Why not *nichipon? See below:

Words that end in -p, -t, -k in Chinese get an extra helping vowel (i or u) in Japanese to make them compatible with the Japanese sound system, thus 日 njit/jit in older Chinese > Japanese niti > nichi, in later imports jitu > jitsu. So far, so good.

However, when followed by another consonant, you just double that consonant instead: 日本 njit-pon > nippon. That’s assimilation at work, same as in Latin/English: ad + simul > assimilate, Arabic Al-salaam > as-salaam &c. You see the same ex-fect > effect in ip-pun (one minute), Rop-pongi (6 trees), ik-kai (one time), hap-pyaku (800), it-ten (one dot) and many more cases. No “supporting” vowel required. Therefore nippon/jippon.

Pon > hon through regular sound change in Japanese, just like pyaku > hyaku (100), pun > hun (minute, part) and many more. But there is no real easy way to get rid of the final -t in nichi/jitsu (orig. niti/jitu). You could e.g. postulate a later import from Mandarin when it had lost its final consonants, but that would give you *jihon (because the nj sound had become a j/r by that time) and to my knowledge *jihon is not attested … so, that’s not it and as far as I can tell nihon is irregular.

Update, update, update! 😀

“One source of wasei-kango is the reinterpretation of yamato kotoba via on’yomi readings of the characters as opposed to the original kun’yomi. For example, the archaic word for Japan, 日の本 (ひのもと), has become the modern 日本 (にほん or にっぽん). Another example is the word for daikon, 大根, which changed from おおね to だいこん.”

Just came across this statement in Wasei-kango – Wikipedia; unfortunately, it is not sourced, but “spelling pronunciations” are nothing unusual in other languages, think “Boatswain”, so the process seems plausible. This would offer a reasonable explanation as to why ni-hon does not follow the laws of historic sound changes: it could have been coined after the fact, as pseudo-Chinese!


The case of the Chinese mummy

A quora reprint, answering the question why “mummy” is 木乃伊 in Chinese. It’s a phonetic transcription, of course. The shape is peculiar, though.

Starting from (Persian) mumiya, the word looks very similar in most other languages – so, where does the /n/ in mu-nai-yi come from?

Wiktionary helpfully gives some other Ming transcriptions:

  • 木蜜納亦 muminayi
  • 木蜜亞衣 mumiyayi
  • 木蜜亞 mumiya

The last two fit better to the proposed Persian origin (alternative forms mumiyāyi and mumya). Wiktionary also reproduces a tall tale about people turning themselves into mummies by ingesting honey, undoubtedly brought about by the use of 蜜 in the transcription.

The first transcription is the most interesting one – muminayi – because it has the extra -n- which is not there in the supposed Persian original. Sound change does not help: both 納 and 乃 were undoubtedly n-initials in the early Ming and are so in all dialects today (except la for na in Minnan). So it’s real …

To summarize, muminai looks like a contraction from muminayi, but the -n- was still unexplained … until I found some older travel literature!

(Source: Travels in Various Countries of the East, More Particularly Persia)

The above passage by W. Ouseley refers to one Engelbert Kaempfer who wrote about his travels in Persia in the late 1680s. While Ouseley in the snippet above is just as confused by muminahi as I was (he is writing in the 1820s), the original account by Kaempfer confirms that there was such a form with an extra /n/ in Persian in the 1600s. Case closed 😀


The Chinese etymology post …

At different times, people on Quora have asked about Greek, Indian or Japanese words in Chinese. Being the curious type, I put little answers together for each, which I am now combining in the post below.

First off – Greek

Loan words from Greek are few, but there are some:

  • adopted via English, as recent loan words (e.g. 吉他 – guitar/kithara, 邏輯 logic, 麥克 – micro(phone), 拓撲 topo(logy))
  • a few science terms, coined in modern European languages but using Greek roots (e.g. 基因 gene, 瓦斯 gas/chaos), 淋巴 lymph, 克拉痛 craton, 卡農 canon)
  • the names of some elements (e.g. 氖 neon, 氬 argon)
  • the names of some letters (倍塔,伽馬) – although those are technically of Semitic origin 😀

You may have been looking for old loans from Greco-Roman times (like 葡萄 from Persian for grape) – I am not going to categorically claim that they do not exist, but given the only indirect contact between the two societies I would assume the likelihood is very slim … olive (橄欖)has regional (Tai-kadai) connections according to wiktionary, but no Nexus to Greek ;-).


Next – Sanskrit

I can only speak for the Sanskrit -> Chinese direction.

(1) There are some loan words, most referring to terms in the Buddhist religion (like 僧 monk, from sangha 菩薩 Bodhisattva, 羅漢 Arhat), but a few made it into everyday language like 剎那 chànà moment (ksana) or 蘋果 píngguo apple (bimba-fruit). For some, it is easier to see the connection in Middle Chinese, e.g. the name of the Buddha himself fó, originally something like biut. Other terms have been translated like 大乘 mahayana (literally: big vehicle), not sure if we want to count those, too ;-).

(2) The Chinese phonetic tradition; if you look at rhyme tables you will see that they are laid out in the same order as traditional phonetic descriptions in Sanskrit, going from voiceless/unaspirated [k] to voiceless/aspirated [kh] to voiced/unaspirated [g] and nasals for each group of initials. And the groups themselves either go from gutturals (k) to labials (p) or the other way round, as in the example below:

That’s a little too similar to be a complete coincidence ;-).

On a side note, that order k-ts-t-p was later imported into Japanese, as well – if you ever wondered why hiragana / katakana nowadays follow a completely different order from the Western alphabet, that is why: ka/ki/ku/ke/ko – sa/shi/su/se/so – ta/chi/ &c. (sa comes after ka because it was cha in oder Japanese, and ha used to be pa).

Finally – Japanese (-made characters)

Of course, there are a lot of “modern” terms which came from Japan (or were imported into Japanese, changed their meaning there and were reimported with the new meaning, like 經濟), but the question here was if Japanese had given any individual characters to Chinese. I would say it did… do and qualify? I wouldn’t say it is commonly used, but I first found out about in an article in Chinese ;-). How about and ?

Also 鱈 (the English version does not have the etymology, but see: “寒冷地に生息することから造字された日本の国字、現在では、現代中国でも用いる”, 鱈 – ウィクショナリー日本語版).

So, yes, clearly a few characters developed in Japan made it back across to China, although most of them are only rarely used.


Update – A grab-bag of mixed origins

  • 駱駝 – not sure from where exactly, Wiktionary claims “xiongnu *dada”, but notice how all the sinoxenic pronunciations (incl. Vietnamese) have a c/g final for the first character (lac-da); Turkish has deve with many related words in central Asian languages and luò may have a stand-alone meaning, so perhaps only the tuo is borrowed?
  • 葡萄 – Bactrian or Persian (so, IE); modern Persian bâde (wine)
  • 檸檬 – maybe Sanskrit (nimbū), Persian limu(n), Arabic laymun; I doubt the Sanskrit theory here … where would the final nasal in -meng have come from?

What are the key elements of minority language revival?

Somebody asked this question on Quora (specifically about Catalán vs. Gallego) and it is something I have been thinking about for a while. As you never know how long online fora last, I thought I’d copy my answer over here.
Miku Chan

Here is my short list from studying a few minority languages:

  1. Official recognition – by a government, party or some other organization
  2. One standardized writing system – no instruction is possible without it
  3. (Supplementary) school instruction in the language – otherwise all “serious” conversation will occur in the majority language
  4. Desirable contemporary content – music, movies, books, poems, something the speakers are proud of – or usefulness in business
  5. Local pride in the language (reinforced by 1–4)

My poster child here would be Cantonese which – at least until a few years ago – met all five criteria. Minnan Chinese, on the other hand, met none of them until very recently; what has happened in the last 10 years in Taiwan gives me hope that this interesting language family can be saved. Shanghainese (Wu) – has very proud speakers, just like Catalán. But none of my other four factors are there, so I am skeptical what will happen as more and more “outsiders” move into Shanghai and the language gets watered down … although, on second thoughts, there may be the usefulness in business aspect: I noticed a lot of office discussions in Shanghainese, even in a multinational company.

Liturgical languages can survive for an amazingly long time – think Latin, Hebrew or Coptic. But, actually, when you think about it, you have #1, #2, #3 and #5 by definition. But since the contemporary content is missing, they become fossilized and it takes major effort to truly revive the language – what happened with Hebrew is extraordinary.

So, what about Gallego vs. Catalán, as OP asked? Unfortunately, I am not familiar enough with Galicia, so I can only guess. I have done business in Catalunya and noticed that even discussions in the university were conducted in Catalán. #1, #2, #5 are certainly there for Catalán – not sure about #4: I am thinking Tirant Lo Blanch which is not exactly contemporary 😉 But Wikipedia tells me there are around 20 TV stations in Catalán, while it lists only 2 for Gallego (not sure if that is accurate). And Catalunya is a much richer region which may have something to do with it. A similar picture for universities in Catalunya vs. in Galicia.

Edit: Added “usefulness in business” to my criterion #4: This seems to account nicely for what is going on in economic powerhouses like Catalunya and Shanghai (and not going on in economically weaker regions).

去聲-Derivatives – some new boxes!

多音字 – one of my favorite complications in learning Chinese. In another post, we have already dealt with 白讀 and 文讀 pairs like 白 [pai] / [puo] (from older [bak]), 色 [shai/se] (from older sek) etc. Today’s topic is another large group of 多音字: 去聲-derivatives. In other words, characters which can be read in two different tones, one of which is usually a 去聲, like for 教 or 要.


I am calling them derivatives because I assume that one of the readings is derived from the other in the same way that “to book” is derived from “a book” (more easily recognizable in German: Buch -> buchen), and that the 去聲 variant is usually the derived one.

Two questions suggest themselves: (1) how do I know and (2) why do I care?

As for question (1), I have observed that 多音字 come in three main types:

  • 白/文 pairs, recognizable by their typical vocalism (mostly old 入聲 words)
  • Same character, unrelated meanings (typically  due to “simplification”, think 干)
  • Two readings with related meanings but different tones – our topic today

For the last set, one of the two readings is usually a 去聲 , as in 王 king (P) and to be king (Q). Of course, I was not the first to notice that, see [1] for more on the topic. Given that the 去聲 is nowadays reconstructed as -s (and perhaps also -t) from comparative linguistics, the rule “QS = derived word” seems logically appealing. (Note: by rule I mean: for a 多音字; there are original QS words, like, well 去).

As for (2), why would I care? Well, I like to sort things into boxes. Rather than having to learn a bunch of unrelated phenomena, I would rather learn one general rule. E.g in English, if I know that to widen comes from wide, I have no trouble understanding  loosen, strengthen, heighten – rather than one word, I have just learned a whole class. And I am hoping to do the same in Chinese.

Now, the example of “-en” derivations in English is a very fitting one, because (unfortunately) there is more than one “-en” class. There is the adj./noun => verb pattern we just discussed. But the same ending can also be used to make adjectives from nouns: gold-en, old-en, flax-en, earth-en, wood-en, wool-en … basically a whole host of materials can be turned into adjectives this way (but by far not all: there is no coal-en or steel-en). And then, of course, “-(e)n” is also used to form many past participles: risen, slain, sunken, seen, been. A quick analysis of English shows that there are at least 3 different classes of -n derivatives. So, is it even worth thinking about it? — I believe it is, because at the very least I now have three boxes that I can sort new word pairs into: they are either participles, adjectives formed from the names of materials or verbs made from nouns/adjectives by adding -en. Complicated, but better than complete randomness ;-).

So, on to find some new boxes in Chinese. Here is my working model (simplified for practical application from [1] and others):


(1) Noun => Q-verb

差: P: difference, Q: to differ from, to lack (P also be used as a verb “to differ”, see below)

釘: P: nail, Q: to nail

家: P: family, Q: to be given in marriage (written: 嫁)

王: P: king, Q: to be king

衣: P: cloth, Q: to wear

中: P: center, Q: hit the center


(2) Verb => Q-noun

藏: P: to conceal, Q: a storehouse

處: S: to be at, Q: place

擔: P: to carry/shoulder , Q: a load, a carrying pole

分: P: to divide, Q: part (cf. also 份; note: Q has voiced initial)

縫: P: to sow, Q: a seam

觀: P: to watch, Q: a watchtower, monastery

教: P: to teach, Q: teaching, religion (Qu-sheng also used for compound verbs, e.g. 教誨)

捲: S: to roll, Q: a scroll (卷)

空: P: to be empty, Q: spare time (also used for “to make empty” – see below)

量: P: to measure, Q: a measure, quantity (but also for “to assess” – one’s strength etc.)

磨: P: to rub, Q: a grindstone

: P: to be difficult, Q: disaster

搧: P: to fan, Q: a fan (扇)

乘: P: to ride, Q: carriage

數: S: to count, Q: number

彈: P: to shoot, Q: a bullet

聞: P: to hear, Q: reputation

知: P: to know, Q: wisdom (智), wise [2]

傳: P: to transmit, Q: a record

Here one may argue for some words that the Q was the original, as the P or S has an additional 手 radical to distinguish the verb from the noun. Not necessarily, though – such radicals are often added by later generations “for clarification” and are missing in older text (think 捨/舎).

In any case, if you want to remember only one rule: “when in doubts, the noun is qù” covers the largest number of cases ;-).


(3a) Q-word with a “more restricted meaning”

差: P: to differ Q: to differ from, to lack

要: P: to demand, Q: to want

量: P: to measure, Q: to assess (also: “a measure”, see above)

好: S: to be good, Q: to be fond of, to like

少: S: to be few, Q: to be young

轉: S: to turn (trans.), Q: to revolve


(3b) Causatives (make somebody do something):

空: P: empty, Q: to empty

飲: S: to drink, Q: to give to drink

買: S: to buy, 賣 Q: to sell (note: character change)

散: S: be loose, Q: to scatter

But note 轉 as a counter-example above, where the qù-sheng is intransitive!


(4) Mixed bag of Qs

間: P: between, Q: gap, to separate

Of course, there are still pairs left which have nothing to do with 白/文 nor 去聲 derivatives, like 將, 沒, or 長. But classifying away a big part makes it easier to deal with the rest ;-).



[1] Guillaume Jacques. How many *-s suffixes in Old Chinese? . Bulletin of Chinese linguistics, Brill, 2016, 9 (2), pp.205-217

[2] Branner, D. (2002). Common Chinese and Early Chinese Morphology. Journal of the American Oriental Society, 122(4), 706-721. doi:10.2307/3217611

Additional examples from: http://news.sina.com.cn/o/2013-11-12/151928689420.shtml















Grand tour of the 音読み (2)

Moving on from the initials discussed in part 1, now it is time to look at the medials in Chinese and how they are reflected in the Japanese Onyomi.


What are medials?

When talking about Chinese phonetics, we normally distinguish initials (36 of them in the case of Early Middle Chinese EMC) and finals. This is reflected in Chinese fanqie (反切) system to indicate spellings: = 古電切 (same initial as gu, same final as dian => gian). The number of rimes varies over time – the 601CE 切韻 knows 193 韻 while the 廣韻 400 years later distinguishes 206 韻. How do you get that many finals when you have only 5-6 vowel nuclei and about as many possible final consonants (p, t, k, m, n, ng)? The answer is medials: -i- and -w- glides between the initial and the codas which lead to a significant increase in the number of possible syllables, changing /-an/ into /-an/, /-ian/, /-üan/ and /-uan/.

The photo below shows one of the 43 tables in the Qieyun (切韻 ) – the columns indicate the initials, the four major horizontal sections are the four tones, and within each tone you have four sub-sections, the so-called 等, called divisions or grades in English.


While the exact details of the grades are still in dispute, it is easy to see that they were related to glides (medials) and that they will be important understand how a Chinese syllable will develop in different fangyan and in Japanese:

Tone 吳音 漢音
開 一  平 (去) kan kon kan kan kan
 合 一 上/去 san saan soã/san san san
開 二 kjän kaan kan ken kan
 合 二 shan saan soã/san sen san
開 三 kiän kin kian kon ken
 合 三 siän sin sian sen sen
開 四 kiän kin kiⁿ/kian ken ken
 合 四 siän sin sing/sin/sian sen sen

(Note: The table above uses a quasi-IPA instead of Pinyin or Yale to achieve compatibility between the different languages; k is pinyin g etc.; j stands for a medial missing in 粵)

The first column shows the grade as well as the overall classification as kai (開) and he (合). He syllables often have a /u/ sound in Mandarin (as in guan), while kai syllables show no such feature.

Looking at the realization of -an in the four grades, you can see that grade clearly matters: grade I has a clear [an] which is also preserved in Japanese and grades III and IV have shifted the [a] to [Ɛ] (Umlaut) in Mandarin, which is mostly reflected in Japanese as well. Grade II is somewhere in between – Go’on gets /e/ but Kan’on gets /a/. If you were just trying to build rules for Mandarin to Japanese without being aware of the grades you could not explain your findings – the grades bring more clarity into that. So, you have to work at least at grade-level if you want to understand correspondences, perhaps also including he-kou and kai-kou.





[To be continued]