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Ideographic Myth: A Response to Victor Mair


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Thoughts Regarding the Critique and its
Consequences for Interpretation of Chinese Characters

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Ideographic Myth: A Response to Victor Mair

  1. 1. Ideographic Myth: A Response to Victor Mair Thoughts Regarding the Critique and its Consequences for Interpretation of Chinese Characters Keywords: ideograph, ideographic, myth, critique, phononoemaphore, Chinese characters, VictorMair, Lawrence J. Howell, John DeFrancis, Chinese Language, Fact and Fantasy, J. Marshall UngerDr. Mair,In a Language Log post of 14 January 2012 (Phonosymbolism and Phonosemanticsin Chinese) you magnanimously critique my views regarding Chinese characters.Having ones work situated in the context of studies carried out by leading Sinologistsis truly an honor. Having it situated by a scholar of your eminence renders it an honorof the highest order.Your post begins by referencing the late John DeFrancis and his treatment of theideographic myth in “The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy.” This publicationis deservedly praised by specialists and general readers alike for dissecting anddismissing popular misconceptions about Chinese, misconceptions that DeFrancislabels myths.That said, the chapter on the ideographic myth is by a considerable margin the leastpersuasive in the book. The only concrete supporting evidence DeFrancis furnishesfor his conclusion that “Chinese characters represent words (or better, morphemes),not ideas, and they represent them phonetically, for the most part...” is thephenomenon in Old Sinitic according to which some characters (no more than fiveper cent) acquired meanings unrelated to their original ones. In the absence of acompelling argument clearly appertaining to the vast majority of characters that areunaffected by borrowing (such as those we will be examining below), your claimsthat DeFrancis “debunked” or “demolished” the ideographic myth are, with all due
  2. 2. respect, hyperbolic.On the subject of turgid language, I find the heated rhetoric associated with thecritique more than a little curious. Consider the first paragraph of your Foreword to J.Marshall Ungers “Ideogram: Chinese Characters and the Myth of DisembodiedMeaning,” which is characterized by truculent, even bellicose terminology:“pernicious lies and naïve myths that swirl around the sinograms”; “ubiquitous andoutrageous tall tales concerning the sinograms”; “... embattled warriors do their bestto combat them.” We can find DeFrancis using similarly contentious language (orplain speaking, if you prefer). For his part, Unger (in his 1993 reply to Hansen) takesthings to an extreme with the discreditable use of argumentum ad hominem. Thedegree of stridency with which the critique has been advanced strikes me asdisproportionate for a theory about language and writing; this style of disputation ismore often seen in cases where something much greater is at stake.One more important point regarding the critique: What exactly is the IdeographicMyth? DeFrancis calls it the “... concept of Chinese writings as a means of conveyingideas without regard to speech.” In the Foreword to Unger mentioned above you sayit is “... the notion that Chinese characters directly convey meaning without anyreference to specific languages and cultural contexts.”Ill work with your formula, as it is considerably more precise. Lets equate “specificlanguages” and “cultural contexts” with appropriate referents, creating an affirmativestatement: “Chinese characters convey meaning with reference to the Sino-Tibetanlanguages and to Han culture.” Anything objectionable about this? Now, if thecharacters are conveying meaning, Im greatly interested in learning how you wouldharmonize that with DeFrancis assertion that “Chinese characters are a phonetic, notan ideographic system of writing ...”To segue into the main topic of this letter, I propose to offer evidence that adherence
  3. 3. to the critique impedes our understanding of Chinese characters. Let us see what maybe revealed by a point/counterpoint comparison of our views, based on yourLanguage Log post of 6 February 2012 (The Unpredictability of Chinese CharacterFormation and Pronunciation).Victor H. Mair: “... approximately 85% of all Chinese characters do give some hintsabout how they are to be pronounced and / or what they mean, but these are vagueand imprecise hints only. For instance, it is easy for me to think of two dozencharacters that include fāng 方 ("place; region; square; regular; upright; honest; side,party; easy; rule; means; comparison; method, way; prescription; only when; then;just, still") as a phonophore having the following pronunciations: fāng, fáng, fǎng,fàng, páng. In most of these cases, the basic meaning of fāng 方 has no perceivablebearing on the meaning of the character, but is being used strictly for its sound, which— although spread across all four tones and a fifth related pronunciation — isactually more regular than many other phonophores.”Lawrence J. Howell: The question of whether or not the basic meaning of aphononoemaphore (sound-concept bearer; this is how I will style “phonophores”from here on) has a perceivable bearing on the meaning of compound charactersdepends on how one defines “the basic meaning.” If we intend “a basic meaning incurrent usage,” we will not infrequently be disappointed, but as it happens theseventh in the list of the meanings you present for 方 (“side”) has some relevance.As Axel Schuessler notes (ABC Etymological Dictionary of Old Chinese; pg. 231),the basic meaning (that is, the fundamental, original sense) of fāng as applied to 方was “two boats lashed side by side.” This explains why we find the conceptualinfluence “spread right and left (or in all directions)” in compound characters with thephononoemaphore 方. Compare: (S = Signific [preferable to “radical”]. Glosses after→ are for usage in modern Chinese. Japanese meanings may differ. Present meaningsare occasionally the result of extension from the original sense.)
  4. 4. 坊 fāng (S: Earth) Spreading earth of an embankment → lane; urban sector芳 fāng (S: Grass/Plant) Spreading fragrance of plants → fragrant防 fáng (S: Piled Earth) Spreading, defensive embankment → defend; protect;prevent昉 fǎng (S: Sun) Spreading sunlight → daybreak; dawn房 fáng (S: Door; Room) (Rooms of a) Spreading residence → room; house; building放 fǎng (S: Action Indicator) Spread in all directions → release; let off/out/free; put紡 fǎng (S: Thread) Spread threads in spinning → spin; woven (silk) fabric訪 fǎng (S: Words/Speech) Spread out in calling upon or making inquiries → visit;call on; look in on; look into; inquire舫 fǎng (S: Boat) Boats spreading in being moored to each other → two boats lashedtogether; large/luxurious boat (舫 was devised to replace 方 after 方 came to indicate“side; direction” etc.)The example of 方 is normative in that we find the phononoemaphore functioningconceptually (conveying “spread right and left”) as opposed to conveying a basicmeaning of the independent character 方 (“place, region, square etc.”). VHM: “I can also easily think of two dozen other characters in which fāng 方 is theradical (Kangxi no. 70). In these cases, fāng 方 occasionally has vague semanticsignificance (though it is usually so hidden as to be essentially useless for figuringout the actual meaning of a character in which it appears), and often it is onlyconsidered the radical for the purpose of looking up the character by the shape offāng 方, without regard to its meaning.”LJH: Actually, most of the characters we find in dictionaries assigned to the 方classifier are composed not from fāng 方 but rather from yǎn 㫃 (original sense:marching soldiers accompanied by a banner or military standard). In compounds, the人 element is of course elevated to the top right of the graph and written in variant
  5. 5. style. This confusion between 方 and 㫃 stems from the reduction of the 540classifiers used in Shuowen Jiezi to the 214 of Zìhuì. While on the subject, allow meto note that although a handful of characters appear to feature 方 as a signific,etymologically this is not so. 於 is an abbreviated form of 旅 + two parallel lines. In旁, 方 is properly not the signific but the phononoemaphore. 旉 is a variant of 尃. 旙is an alternate form of 旛. In 旘, 方 is an abbreviated form of 㫃, as is evident fromthe meanings “pennon; flag.”Returning to characters assigned to the classifier 方, what we observe is theconceptual influence of the various phononoemaphores plus the semantic influence“pennant; banner” via the signific, which is not 方 but 㫃. Compare: (P = Conceptconveyed by the phononoemaphore. Glosses after → are for usage in modernChinese. Japanese meanings may differ. Present meanings are occasionally the resultof extension from the original sense.)旃 (P: Red; Cinnabar) Red banner → silk/felt banner旄 (P: Fine strands of hair; Fine) Pennant/banner with a long-haired yak tail attached→ banner with animals tail attached旐 (P: Split) Swallow-tailed pennant/banner → pennant; flag; banner旋 (P: Point in different directions) Flag splitting away from its pole inrotating/revolving about it → revolve; loop about旌 (P: Fresh) Pennant composed of a string of vivid (= freshly colored) feathers →banner; signal; manifest族 (P: Arrow) Arrows piled beneath the fluttering pennant of a clan/tribe → clan;group; tribe; race; ethnicity; nationality旗 (P: Rectangular) Square/rectangular flag, pennant or banner → pennant; flag;banner旛 (P: Spread) Flat, pennant or banner spreading in a breeze → pennant; flag; bannerBefore proceeding to your next point it may be worthwhile to list the
  6. 6. phononoemaphores that appear with the signific 㫃 in the characters above. To theright are appended additional characters with the same phononoemaphore andbearing the same conceptual influence.旃 丹: Red; Cinnabar 彤旄 毛: Fine strands of hair; Fine 耗 耄 髦旐 非: Split 挑 逃 桃 眺 跳 佻 姚 洮 晁 窕 祧 誂 銚 鼗旋 疋: Point in different directions 疐旌 生: Fresh 星 笙族 矢: Arrow 雉 知旗 其: Rectangular 基 期 棋 欺 碁 琪 箕旛 番: Spread 墦 審 幡 播 潘 蕃 燔 膰 皤 繙 翻 蹯 鷭I should note that a single phononoemaphore may convey distinct though relatedconcepts, such as when 生 suggests “birth; life” in 姓 性 産 牲 甥 甦 or 鼪 but“fresh” (connected with fresh, newborn life) in 星 and 笙. VHM: “I can, moreover, identify nearly another two dozen characters in which fāng方, as incorporated in the derived phonophore páng 旁 ("side"), serves as thesecondary phonophore, where 旁 has the following pronunciations pāng, páng, pǎng,bǎng, bàng. In a couple of these characters where páng 旁 is the phonophore, onemay with effort detect the secondary semantic notion of "side", but the overallmeaning is more often than not vaguely related to the various radicals under whichthese characters fall.”LJH: 旁 was originally 方 (spread right and left) + two horizontal lines + 八 splitright and left, indicating the two sides of the body. That explains why, in compoundcharacters with the phononoemaphore 方, the conceptual influence is “both sides,”not simply “side.” Compare: (S = Signific; glosses after → are for usage in modernChinese; Japanese meanings may differ. Present meanings are occasionally the result
  7. 7. of extension from the original sense.)傍 bàng (S: Person) Both sides of a person → beside; near; proximate滂 pāng (S: Water) Water flowing in torrents around both sides of an object →voluminous or torrential flow搒 bèng (S: Hand/Action Indicator) Pole a boat, switching back and forth from oneside to the other → to row/pole; oar徬 páng (S: Movement) Be flanked (by retainers) in a procession → accompany;wander榜 bǎng (S: Tree/Wood) Placard/nameplate with writing on both sides → placard(with names); list of names; (public) notice牓 bǎng (S: Thin and Flat Piece) Tablet serving as a public notice, inscribed on bothsides → tablet; register; public notice膀 bǎng (S: Flesh) The shoulder blades (on each side of the body) → upper arm;shoulder; wingI submit that the overall meaning in these cases is strongly related to thephononoemaphore 旁, with supplementary influence lent by the signific.VHM: “In the final analysis, one must still rely on brute memorization to master thesounds and the meanings of the characters, though in some cases the radical mayprovide a slightly useful jog to the memory in recalling roughly what the charactermeans. Similarly, probably in over half the cases the phonophore may provide asomewhat useful, yet often dim, hint about the pronunciation of the character.”LJH: Regarding the meanings of the characters, I believe the examples cited abovesuggest that a more upbeat viewpoint is justified. Thus,The phononoemaphore is often highly suggestive of a characters meaning, while the signific nearly always offers a useful secondary hint at the characters meaning.
  8. 8. With respect to the sounds of the characters, I agree with your estimate about thenumber of cases in which the phononoemaphore offers a useful hint as topronunciation, though the figure is higher for Japanese because of the relatively closeadherence of the Sino-Japanese readings to Middle Chinese ones.Conclusion: Approaching the characters via a mindset faithful to the critique of theideographic myth allows us to perceive only a fraction of what may be gleaned byother interpretive approaches.Thank you again, Dr. Mair, for your tremendous consideration.Lawrence J. Howell9 March 2012Kansai,