Pitiable Fish Scales

In my Chinese language education, I found out somewhere along the way that there was logic behind the characters. I didn’t quite understand where the logic was, and one concept that I had a hard time understanding was the idea that in some words, there was a phonetic component and a definitive component. Example: 妈 (mā, mother). My teacher would say that 女 (nǚ, woman) gave the definition, and the 马 (mǎ, horse) gave the word its sound. This sounded fine and all, but how did a horse and a woman mean mother?

I will try to offer some explanations. First, we can find the relative age of the words from this character. What do I mean by that? From the construction of 妈, we know that 女 and 马 are older characters than 妈. It means that 妈 was created later. Why do I say that? 马 and 女 need to be already in use before someone could take them and put them together to form 妈.

But why would they use the character horse? A quick search in a Chinese dictionary will show that characters with the sound “ma” are mostly compound structures, as in they are multi-radical. There are few simple “ma” words. But when someone is going to construct a new word, they probably want as simple a character as they can find to represent the sound. The two simple characters that have this “ma” sound are 马 and 麻. 麻 means hemp. I don’t think you’ll want that to be in the word for mother. So the next viable choice is 马. Because of the limited choices, now almost all the words with “ma” pronunciation have the horse radical.

The role that 马 plays in this word is for purely phonetic means, but I really wanted to know if there was something more between the definitive and phonetic parts of the characters. Were the creators of the language choosing these phonetic words just because they were limited by choice? Or is there some deeper connection?

Yes. There is a greater connection. (妈 is more like the exception.) The two words that I looked at that gave me this insight were 憐(lián, to be pitiable) lian2and 鳞 (lín, fish scales)lin2. What got me curious was that both have 粦(lín)flickeras their phonetic. The definitive part of the word is easy to understand. 心忄(xīn, the heart radical)xinfor 憐 has something to do with emotions. 鱼 (yú, the fish radical)fishfor 鳞 works well since it means fish scales.

So what does 粦 mean? Looking at the character, we first notice that there is the radical 米 (mǐ, rice) on top. It must have something to do with rice! No, it doesn’t. The problem with looking at just the modern day font is that it is a simplification or distortion of the original. Looking at the original picture, we see that the very top is two 火’s (huǒ, fire), one on top of the other. The bottom part is something we’ve talked a little about before. It was mentioned in the “What is love?” entry. 舛 (chuǎn)chuanis a pictogram of two feet facing opposite each other. This means that they are going different ways, which can interpreted to mean movement. Also, if they are the feet of one person, the different directions could also mean that he or she is pacing back and forth, going one way, then another.

How do these two parts fit together? Together, 粦 means flitting light, or moving flames. Picture flames going one way, then suddenly going in another. In 炎double fireand 舛, we see repetition of 火 and 夊/㐄, showing that this movement is continuous.

With this definition in mind, let’s turn and see how it fits with 憐 and 鳞. With 鳞 (fish scales), it describes how the scales reflect in light and how they flicker. With 憐 (pitiable), it’s the heart that’s flickering. This could mean that a person’s emotions are fluctuating. It could be due to sadness or other types of emotions. But from the evolution of the meaning into pitiable, it suggests that the emotions were most likely related to sadness.

So there you have it. Etymology for two words. Why is this significant for me? It showed me that the phonetic part of the words didn’t just provide the pronunciation, but also enhanced the definition of the word. This proved to me that when the Chinese were creating words and matching definition parts with pronunciation parts, they weren’t doing it randomly. They picked words carefully. This took me another step closer in the understanding of how written Chinese was created.

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