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Kanji Etymology and the ABC Etymological Dictionary of Old Chinese
Kanji Etymology and the ABC Etymological Dictionary of Old Chinese Keywords: kanji, etymology, chinese characters, Axel Schuessler, Lawrence J. Howell Axel Schuesslers ABC Etymological Dictionary of Old Chinese was published in 2007. At thattime, I was in the early stages of applying what I had gradually learned about the initials, finals andvowels of Old Chinese to one-by-one reinterpretations of the 6500 characters in the online databaseof my Kanji Networks dictionary, originally uploaded in 2004. Although there was good reason tobelieve that Schuesslers work might contain information useful to my purposes, I chose not toexamine it until I had 1) completed the task of interpreting the characters according to the principlesof phonosemantics I believe are applicable to the ancient Han language and 2) published my workin book form (Kanji Etymology; 2011). In early 2012 I finally purchased a copy of the EDOC and took my initial look at the contents. Iwas delighted to find that the EDOC and I had independently arrived at the same conclusionconcerning a number of significant points. These include the correspondence between the initial *n-and terms connected with softness/flexibility, initial *m- (conceal, dark, black), and the finals *-m(encompass) and *-p (press, shut, close). I was also gratified to confirm that, while I have foundpieces of information that improve upon certain of my interpretations of individual characters,nothing in the EDOC counter-indicates the conceptual relations I suggest exist among particulargroups of characters. I have also found instances where EDOC conclusions are not as thoroughgoing as mine. Oneexample is a pair of charts appearing on pages 21 and 22 of the EDOC, which lay out the complexof stems connected with the idea “swell.” As indicated both in my online dictionary and in KanjiEtymology, these stems are part of a much larger group revolving around the concept “Spread,”which in Old Chinese began with a plosive and involve not only the idea “swell” but other forms ofspreading: Spread in alignment (畀 比 皮 非 etc.); Spread at length (平 丙 方 朋 etc.); Spread whileremaining in contact (釆 反 etc.); Spread in encompassing (凡) and so on. All in all, Schuessler takes a cautious approach to the material, as seen in the passage treating thesubject described two paragraphs above (page 27): “Occasionally, certain meanings are associated with certain sounds. These are phonesthemic (orphonaesthetic) phenomena, e.g. English sl- is suggestive in words like slid, slither, slip, slim etc.Similar groups of OC words make the superficial, but often erroneous, impression of beingsomehow genetically related. Words that signify movement with with an abrupt endpoint often endin *-k... Words with the meaning shutting, closing, which also implies an endpoint, tend to end infinal *-p. Words that imply keeping in a closed mouth tend to end in a final *-m... The same andsimilar notions — dark, black, covered, blind, stupid — tend to start with the initial stem *m-...Words for soft, subtle, flexible, including flesh; female breast start with *n-...” “Cautious” may not be the most appropriate adjective here: Its more as though Schuessler ishedging his bets. Immediately after declaring that we are beholding phonesthemic (orphonaesthetic) phenomena he warns us that appearances of genetic relatedness are superficial andoften erroneous, which if true means they serve as poor examples of phonesthemic/phonaestheticphenomena indeed. Following this bit of misdirection Schuessler then utilizes limited affirmation by noting that words“often (or tend to) end in (xxx).” By the time he treats initial *n-, where softness is connected towords such as flesh and female breast, we observe that Schuessler is no longer employing qualifiersat all, leaving us to wonder what precisely is superficial and erroneous about the impression of
genetic relatedness we are forming in this case. For my part, I believe there are clearly discernible patterns of correspondence between the soundsand the meanings of the characters, and that these patterns are not markedly beclouded by the smallnumber of characters that on account of graphic changes or borrowing now appear to be exceptionsto general principles. These patterns are outlined in detail in Kanji Etymology, making it moresystematic than the EDOC (not that everyone agrees that systematization of languages is desirableor even possible). I intend to further refine my understanding of Sino-Tibetan morphology in coming years byworking methodically through the EDOC as well as through “Minimal Old Chinese and Later HanChinese: A Companion to Grammata Serica Recensa,” which Schuessler describes as a by-productof the EDOC project.Lawrence J. Howell8 April 2012