Iconicity of Chinese Characters

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Essay suggesting that Chinese characters are ideographic in nature, though individual characters are not themselves ideographs.

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Iconicity of Chinese Characters

  1. 1. Iconicity and Chinese Characters: Bidding Adieu to Little Green Men Keywords: Iconicity, ideograph, ideogram, Chinese characters, etymology, straw man, Lawrence J. Howell, phononoemagraph, Geoffrey K. Pullum, J. Marshall UngerThe cover art of J. Marshall Ungers “Ideogram: Chinese Characters and the Myth ofDisembodied Meaning” shows a pair of little green men standing in front of adrinking establishment. One points to a sign on which are written several Chinesecharacters. His companion raises his arms in the apparently universal “Who-the-hell-knows” gesture of non-comprehension. The illustration is intended to representpictorially the absurdity of “... the notion that Chinese characters represent meaningdirectly, without reference to language (that is, speech) in any way” (as Unger writeson page two of the book).In a Language Log post of 25 January 2012, Geoffrey K. Pullum appropriatesanother little green man to underscore the principle that “Chinese writing is noticonic; the characters are not little pictures.” Pullum spotted this particular little greenman on a countdown timer; he (the little green man) was working his limbsenergetically, urging pedestrians in the crosswalk to follow suit and hurry up. Pullumwishes to say that while the little green man himself is iconic, the Chinese character跑 (run) is not.Ungers proposition is, as I have noted elsewhere, a straw man argument. So isPullums. Gentlemen and Scholars: Nobody worthy of your attention claims thatChinese characters represent meaning directly, without regard to (a particular)language, as though they were little pictures. Its time to banish these little green menand the straw man argument along with them.Let us consider the heart of the issue: the nature of Chinese characters. We can state
  2. 2. it in seven words: Chinese characters are ideographic, but not ideographs.The remainder of this essay is given over to a detailed explanation of this crucialdistinction.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,resulting in dim visibility.” Current meanings of this character include “dark” and“conceal.”(Note: Among Sinologists, the notion that one element in a compound charactersuggests both meaning and pronunciation is heretical. I consider it cutting edge, oravant-garde. In any event, we know that todays heresy has a way of becoming the
  3. 3. next generations orthodoxy.)Returning to the point of contrast with respect to Unger and Pullum, what isideographic about 昧 is that the idea/concept “dim (on account of being diminutive)”is conveyed by the element 未. 未 functions the same way in other compoundcharacters such as 妹 (younger sister, a diminutive member of the family), 味 (taste,in the sense of minutely scrutinizing the taste of food), and 魅 (enchantment, in thesense of being enchanted by a dimly visible figure).A neologism should make the point clear. Compound characters such as 昧, 妹, 味and 魅 (which make up 90% of all characters) are phononoemagraphs: They conveysounds (phono-) and ideas (-noema-) in writing (-graphs).Circling back to Pullums example of 跑, the element at left (the signific) indicates aleg or foot. The element at right (the phononoemaphore) originally depicted a fetusencompassed in a placenta/the womb. In the twenty or so compound characters inwhich this element serves as the phononoemaphore (庖 苞 疱 皰 袍 鞄 髱 鮑 etc.) itsuggests “encompass/envelop.” The combination of elements in 跑 would normallysuggest a juxtaposition of feet/legs and some form of envelopment.This is where the art of interpretation comes into play. Chinese character etymologyrequires that we examine the earliest forms of the characters (dating back more than3,000 years), determine whether graphic changes have been introduced along theway, compare the meanings and usages of homonymic terms and so on.By doing so, we can often determine the etymological development of the characterswith confidence. Then again, for certain characters, there are multiple explanations ofroughly equal likelihood. There are also a small number of characters whose formsand meanings require further study or even await new archeological evidence beforethey can be understood properly.
  4. 4. As it happens, 跑 numbers among the challenging characters. It is not attested in theoracle bone, bronze inscription or other early forms of the characters. If weunderstand the phononoemaphore to be an abbreviated form of another compoundcharacter with the same phononoemaphore (a common phenomenon), and if thatcharacter was 鞄 (leather bag), 跑 may have been devised to convey the sense ofrunning feet enveloped in leather footwear. If the character was 苞 (originally, a huskused as wrapping material), then it may have been that the footwear was of straw orother plant matter. Alternately, the idea may have been that of feet enveloped in (=kicking up) soft earth in running. It could also be that 跑 was devised as a variant of acompletely separate character, such as 踣, which originally indicated the idea ofstumbling (in running) and falling prone.In short, 跑 falls into the minor category of characters requiring more completeevidence. Fortunately, the great majority of characters are much easier to grasp.Recalling that the phononoemaphore in question indicates “encompass/envelop,” letslook at the original senses of the other compound characters noted above. (Presentmeanings are occasionally the result of extension from the original sense.)庖 (Signific: 广 building) → kitchen (located deep within a building compound)苞 (Signific: 艸 grass/plant) → husk used as wrapping material疱 (Signific: 疒 illness) → skin disease characterized by pimple-like growths皰 (Signific: 皮 skin/hide) → pimple (← protrusion enveloped by skin)袍 (Signific: 衣 clothing) → padded/lined garment that envelops the body鞄 (Signific: 革 leather) → leather bag in which objects are wrapped髱 (Signific: 髟 hair) → coiled bun/knot of hair鮑 (Signific: 魚 fish) → abalone (← sea creature enveloped in a shell)Etymological and interpretive studies of the Chinese characters represent fascinatingareas of inquiry. Beyond that, they hold the promise of contributing greatly to the
  5. 5. creation of effective educational materials for upcoming generations of students. For that very reason, jejune and specious treatments of Chinese characters onlymarginalize productive approaches to character studies. Let us bid the little greenmen adieu.

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