more than one formation method

October 14, 2010, 08:17 PM posted in General Discussion

Ok, this one I don't get.

Yellowbridge says the etymology for 好 is not only the well known woman 女 with child 子 being a good thing which one learns early on and is an associative formation, but goes on to list a second method, namely pictophonetic and that 女 is the radical and that 子 [zǐ] is the phonetic. What gives? Is this some lost pronunciation of 子 that brings it closer to the hao sound than zi ? Now I really am wondering what the deal is when yellowbridge lists more than one formation method with these characters, and I guess the first one listed is the more important? Can anyone shed any light on this?

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October 16, 2010, 11:45 PM

hmm, I haven't come up with an answer to the above question but I'm wondering now whether the more than one formation method is because some characters have more than one reading [ though I thought this was often like a re-use of a character as there weren't enough to go around rather than a whole new formation so to speak]. Any insights?

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October 17, 2010, 06:27 PM

I suspect the real answer might be less authoritative than you are looking for: hundreds, or thousands of years ago, somebody woke up with a bright idea for a new character.  By some miraculous stroke of luck the use of that character was picked up by others and continued to this day.  However, nobody really knows who its inventor was, or what he was thinking on that fine morning.  Still those of us who still toil on this mortal coil look for memorization aids, and make up stories about how the character came about.  Different folk can come up with different equally convincing sounding stories.

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October 18, 2010, 06:27 AM

First of all, I won't tell you that is an authority on character etymologies, although they do seem to be constantly updating their site with more accurate data.  What I will tell you is that they may be right that 子 plays some kind of phonetic role.

If you're really interested in this subject, I highly recommend The origin and early development of the Chinese writing system by William G. Boltz.  Boltz makes the startling claim that early characters had more than one pronunciation, and that later complex characters merely added a "radical" to make it easier to differentiate the meanings.  In some cases this seems to be the best explanation.

To illustrate this point I'll paste a small section of the (very abbreviated) notes I've taken from page 505 of the above-mentioned publication:

child, childbirth -> to brood, hatch to protect to be fond of (as a parent of a child) to be filial flowing (streamers) to float childbirth to rear (an infant)

If you compare the pronunciations of the above-referenced characters, there is a very vague similarity that could be evidence that Boltz' theory holds true in this case.

Until I find a better theory to fit the facts, I tend to accept Boltz' theory as better than the others I've encountered.  As you mentioned above, maybe we have found clues of "some lost pronunciation" of the character 子.