Orientalism and Chinese characters: the case of ‘busyness’

Professor Victor H. Mair has sent me another piece along the lines of his popular essay danger + opportunity ? crisis.

The new piece discusses a misinterpretation of the nature of the Chinese character for máng (“busy”).

Since the entire essay is just a few paragraphs long, I won’t excerpt from it here but simply encourage everyone to read the whole thing: busyness ? heart + killing.

For related examples of this fanciful approach to etymology that Mair exposes, see misunderstandings of biblical proportions. And for a detailed explanation of how Chinese characters really do function, see Chinese.

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3 thoughts on “Orientalism and Chinese characters: the case of ‘busyness’

  1. Thanks again to Victor Mair for so eloquently and concisely explaining the nature of the structure of the character used to write máng ‘busy’. To avoid the possibility of a distracting tangent, Mair declined to explain how a character that nowadays writes a word pronounced wáng could be used as a phonetic element in the character used to write a word pronounced máng. I thought I might try to provide that information here, and will endeavor to be equally concise.

    At the time when most of the Chinese characters known to us were invented, during the first millennium BCE, the pronunciation of Chinese was different than it is today. Naturally, the phonetic elements (or “phonophores” in Mair’s terminology) of those characters were based on pronunciations of that time. In many cases, changing pronunciations over the last 2,000+ years have made the role of phonetic elements in Chinese characters less obvious than they once were.

    It is the task of Chinese historical linguistics to try to recover those ancient pronunciations, and over the last century a great deal of progress has been made in our understanding. While some disagreements among scholars exist, there is a general consensus about what many aspects of pronunciation were at that time.

    The word wáng ‘disappear, perish’ (written ?) was pronounced something like *mang. (The asterisk is used by linguists to signal a proposed, but unproven, past pronunciation.)

    The word máng ‘busy’ was pronounced very similarly, *mmang. The double ‘mm’ indicates a quality of the consonant whose exact nature is still uncertain — it might have been longer, or more tense, than an ordinary ‘m’ sound. At any rate, it was certainly an ‘m’-like sound, and for this reason it made sense to the Chinese of that time to use ? (*mang) as the phonetic element of ‘busy’ (*mmang), which was written ?.

    Because of shifts in pronunciation in the later history of the language, *mmang ‘busy’ eventually became Mandarin máng, and *mang ‘perish’ eventually became Mandarin wáng. But the original ‘m’ sound of ? ‘perish’ can still be seen in the Cantonese pronunciation of this word, mòhng.

  2. A lot of words in Mandarin that originally had ‘m’ initials became ‘w’. Some other ones I can think of include ? (wàn), ? (w?n), ? (w?ng), ? (wèi), ? (wèn), and ? (wú). These are all still pronounced with ‘m’ initials in the Southern dialects. For instance, in Cantonese, the aforementioned words are pronounced maahn, máahn, móng, meih, mahn, and mòuh, respectively.

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