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Iconicity and Chinese Characters: The Ideographic Nature of Pictograph-Based Characters

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Ideographic Nature of Pictograph-Based Characters

Ideographic Nature of Pictograph-Based Characters


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  • 1. Iconicity and Chinese Characters: The Ideographic Nature of Pictograph-Based Characters Keywords: iconicity, ideograph, ideographic, Chinese characters, etymology, Lawrence J. HowellIn a previous essay I proposed that Chinese characters are ideographic (in distinctionto being ideographs). The present essay describes the ideographic nature of charactersthat originated in pictographs. It also presents examples of compound characters builtupon them.First, a repeat of three paragraphs outlining the types of characters.A handful of characters have traditionally been regarded as ideographs: They werecreated to represent ideas or concepts. One such example is 帝, the original sense ofwhich was a supreme god unifying heaven and earth. Two others would be 上 and 下,the earliest forms of which suggested the meanings “above” and “below,”respectively by depicting one line above (or below) another.Several hundred among the existing characters were devised as pictographs,representations of objects such as specific animals, body parts, features of the naturalworld and so on. Examples include 鳥 bird, 耳 ear and 川 river.That leaves thousands (even tens of thousands) of compound characters. Thesecharacters combine two elements. One element, the signific, suggests the charactersmeaning alone. The other element, the phononoemaphore (= sound-concept bearer)suggests both the characters meaning and its pronunciation. For instance, 昧combines the signific日 sun and the phononoemaphore 未, which was originally atree with a diminutive, curved, and dimly visible branch on top. In 昧, 未 suggests“dim (visiblity).” The combination of elements originally indicated “poor sunlight,
  • 2. resulting in dim visibility.” Current meanings of this character include “dark” and“conceal.”Turning our attention to the pictographic characters, well start with the three notedabove: 鳥 bird, 耳 ear and 川 river. It is important to recall that all characters havepronunciations. The earliest pronunciations that can be reconstructed with a certaindegree of confidence provide important clues about how each pictograph wasoriginally conceived.That is, 鳥 is not simply a pictorial representation of a bird, 耳 of an ear and 川 of ariver. There are larger ideas behind each pictograph. 鳥 was conceived of not as ageneric bird, but specifically as one with a long, curved and rising tail. 耳 is notsimply an organ of hearing; it is a supple object clinging to the side of the head. 川 isnot just a waterway, but a curved object stretching between and connecting twopoints.How are we able to pinpoint these meanings so precisely? Linguistically, bycomparing terms that were homonymic in the early stages of the Han language.Conceptually, by sifting through these terms to extract what it is they have incommon.Lets look at 鳥, 耳 and 川 in the context of other terms that are phonologically andconceptually close. The characters are followed by the Old Chinese readings offeredby Axel Schuessler in his Minimal Old Chinese and Later Han Chinese: ACompanion to Grammata Serica Recensa. The numbers pertain to the classificationscheme to which Schuessler has made slight modifications from Bernhard Karlgrenssystem. Note that still earlier pronunciations of the terms in each group were likelycloser than what we find here.
  • 3. Concept: Curved and vertical豆 dôh 10-16 Food stand鬥 dôh 10-17 Two persons in combat主 toʔ 10-19 Lamp stand, a stationary object鳥 tiûʔ 13-25 Bird with a long, curved and rising tail卣 ju; juʔ 13-34 Long-necked, rounded alcohol container酉 juʔ 13-36 Long-necked, rounded alcohol container酋 dziu 13-36 Long-necked, rounded alcohol container首 lhuʔ 13-38 (Tubular) neck running between head and trunk竹 truk 14-8 (Rigid, tubular) bamboo弔 tiâuk 17-3 Suspended vine勺 diauk 17-5 Raise a curved spoon/ladleSupple/soft objects襄 snaŋ 3-42 Soft, yielding sack in which goods are placed耳 nəʔ 4-40 Supple ear clinging to the side of the head而 nə 4-41 Soft, droopy beard柰/奈 nâs; nâts 21-27 Knife pressed into soft wood in carving it日 nit 29-26 The sun, the heat of which softens objects and/or reduces them in size刃/刄 nəns 33-20 Supple/flexible blade壬 nəm 38-25 Spool encompassed by soft threadsCurved object stretching between and connecting two points貫 kôns ! 25-3 Pierce rounded seashells, which adhere closely in being strung together丱 krôns 25-9 Boards pierced by elliptical connecting rods玄 gwîn 32-5 Tip of a twisted thread stretched between and linking two points川 k-hlun ! 34-20 River boring through the earth between two points
  • 4. Via a similar comparison process we can deduce how other objects and phenomenawere originally conceived. Here is a short list of examples.Character/Original Larger Concept Related/Original SignificationSignification其 Square or Square/rectangular 几 Long desk; 車 Frame of a vehicle; 戸rectangular winnow objects that Door (frame); 巨 Large/great framing frame/are framed tool, with arms at distant ends; 鬲 Tripod cooking vessel containing a square partition呂 Neatly aligned Rows of like objects 力 Rippling muscles of a powerful arm;bones of the spinal 霝 Linked beads of raindrops; 兩 Alignedcolumn pairs of arms on both sides of a measuring device莫 The sun, as seen Covered and thus 無 Dancing figure with long, concealingfrom ground level, concealed sleeves; 米 Fruits of grain (rice),concealed by concealed in husks/hulls; 冖 Cover anvegetation object, obscuring it; 皿 Dish, plate or bowl covered by a lid女 Supple female Supple/soft objects 乃 Supple ear clinging to the side of the head; 冉/冄 Soft, droopy beard; 入 Put goods in a soft, yielding sack; 爾 Seal (pressed into soft clay)卜 Cracks spreading Objects that curve 暴 Spread/expose an animal hide on theover shells/bones in in spreading ground for drying in the sun; 畐 Alcohola divination rite container with a bulging middle; 不 Spread the arms to signify refusal/negation; 彔 Curls of peeled bamboo scattered in being pared且 Slender pile of Profusion of 才 Rocks piled to cut off a stream; 乍objects small/slender Chop/cut wood with an ax-like objects, creating a implement, creating piles of shavings; 糸/ pile 絲 Pile of slender threads; 子 Figurative pile of children/offspring斗 Curved ladle Curved and 丑 Small, curved boat; 舟 Curved boat; horizontal 周 Circulate an enclosed field of grain plants; 兆 Curved cracks splitting over the surface of bones/shells in divination rites
  • 5. A second chart suggests how characters deriving in pictographs are also conceptuallyrelated to compound characters built upon them.Conceptually Common Concept Conceptually Related CompoundRelated Pictograph- Characters, with Original SignificationsBased Characters其几車戸巨鬲 Square/rectangular 基 Square, earthen foundation; 机 objects that (Wooden) desk; 庫 Storehouse for frame/are framed covering vehicles; 雇 Door of a cage; 矩 Carpenters square; 隔 Earthen partition/barrier呂力霝兩 Rows of like objects 梠 Timber aligned in support of rafters at the eaves; 肋 Rippling muscles of the ribs; 櫺 Latticework; 輛 Two-wheeled vehicle莫無米冖皿 Covered and thus 漠 Desert, where water sources are concealed concealed; 蕪 Luxuriant/overgrown vegetation that covers/conceals; 迷 Stray off course on account of obscure visibility; 冥 Cover blocking the entry of sunlight; 盈 Fill a dish with food女 乃 冉/冄 入 爾 Supple/soft objects 籹 Soft rice cake; 孕 Fetus clinging to the womb; 苒 Tender, luxuriant plant life; 内 Put inside a storehouse; 璽 Seal卜暴畐不彔 Objects that curve 朴 Tree with cracks in its bark; 爆 in spreading Explosion that exposes objects; 輻 Abundant/numerous spokes radiating from a hub; 否 Spread word of refusal/negation/denial; 剝 Pare/strip且 才 乍 糸/絲 子 Profusion of 粗 Pile/heap of unpalatable rice; 在 Pile small/slender earth to cut off the flow of a river; 酢 objects, creating a Slice then preserve vegetables in vinegar; pile 素 Slender (silk) threads; 李 Plum (produced in voluminous quantity)斗丑舟周兆 Curved and 料 Measure out grain by ladling it; 紐 horizontal Curved and knotted string/cord; 兪 Remove wood from a log to create a dugout canoe; 週 Circulate, completing one cycle; 跳 Split away from the ground in leaping
  • 6. The concepts presented in this essay belong to larger conceptual groups. The lattergroups are the topic of a separate article.By maintaining the distinction between form and function we discern that Chinesecharacters are ideographic though they are not ideographs. This applies to charactersthat are pictographic in origin and to compound characters as well.Lawrence J. Howell10 April 2012Kanji Networks