S is the longest letter

Today I got through Axel Shuessler’s Chinese dictionary, so I have a load of Chinese etymologies for the Conlanger’s Lexipedia.

The general procedure was admirably arcane:

  1. Look up the English word in the English-Chinese dictionary– say,  ‘friend’, which is péngyǒu 朋友.
  2. Find péng in the Chinese-English dictionary.  Um, what was the radical again?  Oh, ‘flesh’.  OK, there it is; it means ‘friend, acquaintance, companion.’
  3. Look up yǒu… er, what was the character again?  Dunno what the radical is, but that looks like 女 in the lower half, that’s easy to look for.  OK, it means ‘friend.’
  4. So the derivation of péngyǒu is ‘friend-friend’?  Ha, no, this is yet another case of Mandarin zeroing in on a meaning, amid its host of homophones, by giving two closely related words.  This is where Schuessler comes to the rescue.  Look up both words– fortunately these are some of the few that don’t have different traditional forms.
  5. Here’s   朋– the original meaning is ‘pair, set of two’, and he helpfully explains that this led to the meaning ‘friend’ (you and your friend make a pair).
  6. And here’s 友– ‘be friendly’, but listed alongside words meaning ‘aid’ and ‘(on) the right’– a friend is your right-hand-man.

(Note… if you were chuckling because is really ‘moon’ not ‘flesh’… the joke’s on you, 朋 is actually neither– Karlgren says it’s a picture of a bird’s wing.  To look up words you only need to recognize the radicals, not name them… I still think of ⾣ as ‘π in a box’.)

So in this case we’ve got two interesting etymologies for the price of one.  Often enough a word is missing from Schuessler, or matches an Indo-European etymology I already have, or doesn’t have any meaning change– e.g. the word for ‘wine’ is 酒 Jiǔ whose earliest meaning is… ‘wine’.

Chinese is like an old hoarder’s apartment: nothing is ever really thrown out.  So a given character may have half a dozen meanings; the earliest meaning (which Schuessler gives) is usually not evident.  Even more fun is when a different original meaning can be teased out from Sino-Tibetan.  E.g. Chinese words meaning ‘pleasant’, ‘glad’, ‘relax’, and ‘rob’ are all related to a Sino-Tibetan root meaning ‘loosen, relax’.

So, what’s next?  I’m still adding etymologies; the next step will be to put all the text together, convert it to 6″ x 9″, and get all the formatting right.  After that I’ll be ready to ask for some readers to see if I actually have something useful and readable.