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無 (character etymology)

Discussion in '中文+方言 (Chinese)' started by wildsunflower, Mar 7, 2013.

  1. wildsunflower Senior Member

    Korean & English (Canada)
    Would someone explain the origin of the character "無"?

    Wikipedia says "The character wu originally meant "dance" and was later used as a graphic loan for wu "not"." The earliest graphs for 無 pictured a person with outstretched arms holding something (possibly sleeves, tassels, ornaments) and represented the word wu "dance; dancer". After wu 無 "dance" was borrowed as a loan for wu "not; without", the original meaning was elucidated with the 舛 "opposite feet" at the bottom of wu "dance".

    I wonder why 無, which originally meant to dance, was borrowed to mean to be not; without. Is there a connection between these two meanings in Chinese tradition?

  2. Skatinginbc

    Skatinginbc Senior Member

    Mandarin 國語
    Proto-Sino-Tibetan negative *maH developed into Old Chinese 1) 毋 *mǝ "should not", 2) 勿 *mǝt "do not", 3) 未 *mǝts "not yet", and 4) 亡/罔 *maŋ "have not" (e.g., 《詩·衞風》何有何亡). Because 亡/罔 also carried other meanings (e.g., "flee, perish, lose" and "net"), there was a need to have a special word for 没有 "have not". Another grapheme was therefore chosen, that is, 無 *ma. Now that 没有 was written 無, the word for "dance" had to be written in a different way so that there would be no confusion between the two. So there came the grapheme 舞 "dance" (< Proto-Sino-Tibetan *mrɨăH).

    The only connection between 無 and 舞 is their pronunciations. They are NOT etymologically related. They just happen to sound alike and have similar graphemes. That's all.
    Last edited: Mar 8, 2013
  3. wildsunflower Senior Member

    Korean & English (Canada)
    Thank you for your explanation. Was there any reason that 無 was chosen to mean 没有 "have not"? (I don't understand why they did not invent a new word instead of borrowing another word. But this is irrelevant here, I believe.) I am sorry if I am mistaken. It is because I do not know much about Chinese.
  4. tarlou Senior Member

    無 only means "have not", 舞 only means "dance". What Wikipedia means is that 無 was invented from 舞. But note that 無 and 舞 are completely different characters, except they have almost the same sound.

    About the reason that it was invented in this way, the question is similar to why the first English letter is written like "a". I think it's a (not interesting) research level question. However, as far as I know, there were actually six common methods to invent Chinese characters, and modifying from another character of the same sound is among them.
  5. wildsunflower Senior Member

    Korean & English (Canada)
    Thank you for your answer. But I do not think why 無 was chosen to mean 没有 "have not" and why the first English letter is written like "a" are the same kind.
    Last edited: Mar 9, 2013
  6. tarlou Senior Member

    Of course they are not the same. Maybe this is not a good example. What I wanted to say is that history is full of randomness and there isn't a short reason.

    If we believe Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A), then there are many questions about the letter "A". Why was the "Phoenician aleph" rotated 90 degrees instead of 180 degrees? Why was the curves turned sharp instead of round? In fact, if "A" was rotated 180 degrees, the English language would still be reasonable. There could be 1000 ways to make a reasonable language. Similarly for 無, inventing it from a character with the same sound is just one way (a common way indeed), choosing the character 舞 (a common character) is also just one possible way. All these happened without a "scientific" reason. People could have invented 無 in other ways, but that happened not to be the case.

    To be clear, the story is like following according to my personal understanding. Just like all other languages in the world, the oral Chinese language had existed far before the writing system was invented. When people started to write down the language, they found characters with concrete meanings were easy to invent (like "dance"), but there was no way to draw abstract things (like "have no"). So there has to be other ways to invent characters. Borrowing from another character with the same sound was actually common. For example, the most common pronoun in old Chinese 其 originally meant "basket" (http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/其). There was no relation between "it" and "basket", except they sound the same.
  7. Skatinginbc

    Skatinginbc Senior Member

    Mandarin 國語
    The ancient Chinese needed a character to represent the *ma sound meaning "have not" or "not have". One way to coin a new word is by means of pictophonetic compounding (形声), which involves the use of an existing character pronounced approximately as the new target word. The radical *ma ??? (see http://kangxi.supfree.net/rain.asp?id=21632 for the font), which developed into the upper element of 無 and 橆, was chosen. The reason is plain and simple: It represents the target sound. It occurred in the times when Chinese characters were not yet standardized, and I'm not sure if 無 was indeed borrowed from 舞 as Wikipedia claimed or they actually went through an independent, parallel development from the same phonetic element. I'm more leaned towards 『說文解字』, which proposes that 無 comes from ??? (橆)(see http://www.shuowen.org/view.php?id=3831 for the font), not 舞 (http://www.zdic.net/zd/zi/ZdicE7Zdic84ZdicA1.htm).
    Evidence for this argument: 無 as a radical in word formation usually means "abundant" not "dance", for instance,
    蕪 "overgrown with weeds" (無 "abundant").
    憮 "be great, tremendous" (無 "abundant").
    廡 "luxuriant" (無 "abundant").
    The sense of "abundant, a great amount, a big volume"" comes from the character *ma ??? (see http://kangxi.supfree.net/rain.asp?id=21632 for the font)
    Sorry, this forum doesn't accept unusual fonts, so I used ??? to represent them.
    Last edited: Mar 10, 2013
  8. wildsunflower Senior Member

    Korean & English (Canada)
    @ Skatinginbc, Considering that Chinese is a logographic language, I find your argument, i.e., 無 comes from ??? (橆), more convincing. Are there any researches or quotable sources for this? Something in English, as I cannot read Chinese. Thank you.
  9. Skatinginbc

    Skatinginbc Senior Member

    Mandarin 國語
    I'm afraid you are out of luck. I don't know if there is any English version of 說文解字 (Shuowen Jiezi)(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shuowen_Jiezi). And the evidence I gave to support 說文解字's etymological explanation for 無 is my own findings. I don't know if anyone has published a research paper on this.
  10. tarlou Senior Member

    說文解字 is a great book on this. However, I think it is questionable about 無.

    This guy is maintaining a wonderful website for etymologies: http://www.chineseetymology.org/CharacterEtymology.aspx?submitButton1=Etymology&characterInput=無
    You can find the lower part of 無 is obviously from the legs of the two people, not 林 (forest).
    From this point of view, 無 is more like a 假借字 rather than 形声字.

    I'm not saying 說文解字 is wrong. It should be just another conjecture for the problem. 說文解字 must have already considered the ancient characters, and people who proposed 舞 must have also considered 說文解字.
  11. Skatinginbc

    Skatinginbc Senior Member

    Mandarin 國語
    I stand corrected. I should have said 會意字: In 說文解字, 無 *ma is written 橆, which contains two radicals: the upper component *mha (reconstructed with the pronunciation of 模) meaning "big" 大 and "numerous" 庶, and the lower component "woods" 林. The meaning of 橆 is a combination of both components (i.e., "big and numerous" + "woods") and therefore it is a 會意. I mistakenly took it as having the phonetic radical *mha plus the semantic radical 林. Using 橆 (i.e., 無), which originally means "abundant" 豐, to denote "not have" is an act of 假借 "borrowing".

    Before Qin Dynasty 秦朝, Chinese characters were not standardized. There were many dozens ways to write 無 in Bronze script 金文. After Qin Dynasty 秦朝, which adopted the Seal script as the formal script for all of China, the pace of change slowed down and variations in script significantly reduced. It is interesting that 說文解字, which was published after the standardization, sees as a pictophonetic compound (形声字, also known as phono-semantic compound) that has 橆(無) as its phonetic component and 舛 its semantic component.

    Although the standard character for "not have" was apparently 橆 at that time, some people seemed to have started to write it with the radical 火"fire" instead of 林 "woods" based on the character sample (e.g., L03677 and L30898) provided by Tarlou's link (http://www.chineseetymology.org/CharacterEtymology.aspx?submitButton1=Etymology&characterInput=無). I wonder why no one has explained 無 (big + fire) as "burned by big fire" ==> nothing left, emptied, all gone.:D

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