Pronunciation: 芝麻

Discussion in '中文+方言 (Chinese)' started by Skatinginbc, Feb 19, 2013.

  1. Skatinginbc

    Skatinginbc Senior Member

    Mandarin 國語
    According to 中華民國教育部國語辭典, in 芝麻 reads with a 轻声 but with a rising tone in 胡麻, 脂麻 and 油麻, and the funny thing is that they all mean the same, i.e., “sesame”. The reason behind the tonal difference, I guess, is that 芝麻 is a transliteration (音译) while 胡麻, 脂麻 and 油麻 are translations (意译).

    芝麻, 原称胡麻 (学名: Sesamum indicum), 相传是西汉张骞通西域时引进中国的. The Chinese word classifies it as a foreign product and its 学名 “indicum” points out an Indian origin. Sesame is called tila in Sanskrit, from which tel, the Hindi word for “oil” (or ), is derived.

    Unlike its synonyms, 芝麻 seems to have a different etymology. usually refers to a type of fungus, but in 芝麻, it has no real meaning. It simply transcribes a foreign sound (音译). I believe 芝麻(Middle Chinese *ɨma) was borrowed from Aramaic -šəma (Aramaic šumšəma “sesame”) through Central Asian tribes (e.g., 大食帝国). in this case represents an unstressed syllable of a foreign word and therefore is pronounced with a 轻声.

    My personal opinion: The tonal distinction between 芝麻 and its synonyms (胡麻, 脂麻 and 油麻) lacks functional significance. I prefer zhi1 ma2 (rising tone) and think it is as “proper” as zhi1 ma (轻声). What do you think?
    Last edited: Feb 19, 2013
  2. Ghabi

    Ghabi AL/OL/Ar/Zh mod

    Hong Kong
    Hi! This is an interesting question. Do you think this is just a matter of frequency of usage, i.e. 芝麻 has the 輕聲 simply because it's the colloquial word used in daily life, while the others are bookish words? It seems to me that 芝麻 is only a "beautified" version of 脂麻, with 脂 supplanted by 芝 to make it look more ... erm ... planty.
  3. Skatinginbc

    Skatinginbc Senior Member

    Mandarin 國語
    Ghabi, I like your theory. If that is case, there is really no etymological ground to claim that zhi1 ma (轻声) is the "proper" pronunciation. In Taiwan, 99% of the people would say zhi1 ma2 although our dictionary prescribes otherwise (轻声). I don't know how it is actually pronounced in the mainland. If the 轻声 reading is restricted to only certain regions, I would even argue that our dictionary should regard the rising tone as the "standard".
  4. tarlou Senior Member

    The standard dictionaries in mainland are 新华字典 and 现代汉语词典, I don't have a physical copy around so just checked some online versions which self-claimed to be 新华字典 or 现代汉语词典. All those dictionaries say 芝麻 is pronounced as zhi1ma2. However, very interestingly, I (and all people with north dialect I believe) always say zhi1ma(轻声).
  5. xiaolijie

    xiaolijie Senior Member

    English (UK)
    For 芝麻, I'd say "zhīmá" is the "literal transcription" whereas "zhīma" is an attempt to reflect the "actual colloquial usage", so dictionaries can list it differently. As Ghabi has already hinted at, the same situation is often seen with words in common colloquial use.
  6. BODYholic Senior Member

    Chinese Cantonese
    Just to chip in.

    In Singapore, we mostly say zhi1 ma2 (也许是因为台湾风吧)。
    But a locally published Chinese dictionary 时代汉语词典(联邦出版社) says Zhi1ma, and nciku echoes likewise.
  7. Skatinginbc

    Skatinginbc Senior Member

    Mandarin 國語
    The actual colloquial usage in Taiwan and Singapore is zhi1ma2, but their dictionaries say Zhi1ma.
    The actual colloquial usage in North China is zhi1ma, but their dictionaries say Zhi1ma2.
    How funny that those authoritative dictionaries seem to go against the actual colloquial usage in their relevant territories!
  8. tarlou Senior Member

    I'm sorry! The official sound for 芝麻 is also zhi1ma(轻声) in mainland. The online dictionary lists 芝麻 as a meaning of 麻ma2 without marking the sound (so does 现代汉语词典). However, the word 芝麻 (under 芝) is marked as 轻声.

    I think the reason of having zhi1ma in dictionaries is that the language of the dictionary, no matter 国语 or 普通话, was invented based on the accent of north dialect at the beginning.

    There are probably many other examples that people in north China pronounce 轻声 while people in the south may prefer the standard sound of the character (I'm not sure, just guess): 麻烦(fan is 轻声 in north), 糊弄(nong is 轻声 in north), 东西(xi is 轻声 in north), etc.

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