Some Léon Wieger quotes

As the decay of the 周 Chou Dinasty grew worse, studies were neglected and the scribes became more and more ignorant. When they did not remember the genuine character, they blunderingly invented a false one. Those non-genuine characters, copied out again by other ignorant writers, became usual. Confucius himself made this statement. Towards the year B.C. 500, he uttered this complaint: «When I was young, I still knew some scribes who left blank the characters which they could not write; now there are no more such men!» Consequently, the 奇字 ch’i tzǔ «odd characters» were multiplied without restraint, to the great prejudice of etymology.

1. Causes of the excessive multiplication of characters… First, the ignorance of scribes who continually brought to light faulty forms which were stupidly reproduced by posterity; then, the need felt to give names to new things. The Empire was growing, learning was spreading; writing had become a public thing; the process 形聲 hsing-shêng (see page 10) being an easy one, all took to it. From this disorderly fermentation, without direction, without control, without criticism, sprang up, together with useful characters, thousands of useless doubles. […] The index of Li-ssǔ contained 3300 characters. Two centuries later, there were 10.000. Now the dictionary of 康熙 K’ang-hsi (A.D. 1716), contains 40.000 characters that may be plainly divided as follows: 4.000 characters in common use; 2.000 proper names and doubles of limited use; 34.000 monstruosities of no practical use.

[On the creation of block and cursive forms] During his campaigns against the Huns, the general 蒙恬 Mêng-t’ien is said to have invented or improved the writing-brush, the ink and the paper. This invention was fatal to the characters. […] The writing-brush galloping, the strokes were connected up, giving birth to the 連筆字 lien-pei-tzǔ; then it flew, throwing on the paper misshapen figures, which are called 草字 ts’ao-tzǔ. The fancy for these novelties became a rage. At the beginning of the Christian era, a man believed himself dishonoured if he wrote in a legible way.

Page from L. Wieger’s “Chinese Characters”

Page from L. Wieger’s “Chinese Characters”

Note to the Internets: this is all utterly wrong :)

Caractères chinois (translated as Chinese characters: their origin, etymology, history, classification and signification), being from 1915, is hopelessly outdated; it’s also full of mistakes. That’s a shame, because it’s charming as hell, and a pleasure to read. I especially like the format of the “Etymological Lessons”, and I wish someone would make something like that using state-of-the-art scholarly knowledge. The impressionistic stories extrapolated from bronze inscriptions are textbook Orientalist fantasy, very entertaining. The book is still probably the best Western-language compendium on what I call the “traditional” school of Chinese “character-etymology”—i.e. the local philological tradition based on the Shuowen and (to a lesser extent) the Kangxi.

List of humdrum words that look cool in kanji (by: Sei Shônagon)

For this section of The Pillow Book, it would be interesting to know precisely which characters Shônagon was thinking about, so we should be wary of how exactly our chosen edition arrived at its kanji. Unfortunately I know next to nothing about the different manuscript lineages, but since the 11th-century original was kana literature (wabun), I suppose that’s a bit of a moot point anyway—we can’t have primary evidence of her intentions. Therefore, for this post, I’ll just use the University of Virginia’s E-text version, which is based on the 1929 Yûhôdô 有朋堂 edition, itself based on the Nôinbon manuscripts:

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Boltz on the origin of Chinese characters

Three proposed stages of writing systems:

  1. Pictography: Drawings that portray things directly, without reference to language. Not writing, but a “forerunner”.

  2. “Zodiography”: Pictography of words. Can be the same graphs as in pictography, but now they’re taken to represent words in a language; i.e. each graph now has a phonetic (P) and a semantic (S) value. This is the first stage in which specific linguistic utterances can be represented, though not any utterance.

  3. Graphic multivalence: The zodiographs are extended in one of two ways:

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Ladefoged & Maddieson on Japanese phonetics

I like The Sounds of the World’s Languages a lot. If you’re used to think in phonological terms, it greatly expands your simple model with real-world phonetic quirks. (For example, it turns out vowel “height” and “backness” are not actually very correlated with the position of the highest point of the tongue, though the two properties are real enough in the acoustic level).

One fun way to browse a book like this is to look for “your” languages in the index and peek ahead. I learned quite a few neat things about Chinese and Icelandic this way, but since the focus of this blog is Japanese, have some Japanese-related tidbits to whet your appetite:

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