Steinthal and the limits of etymology: The special case of Chinese

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Chinese character writing, based only partially on phonetic considerations, presents a challenge to the seemingly straightforward relationship between the written record and etymology, where graphemic recordings of phonetic forms (words) in a number of languages are compared to determine whether they share a common ancestor. The very concept of ‘word’, vis-à-vis ‘character’ is a complicated category in Chinese. Steinthal investigates Chinese character writing and ‘character etymology’, taking note of its etymologically baseless homographs and graphemic ‘synonyms’, and the problems these create for reconstructing earlier stages of the language. A writing system which in effect inverts the writing-etymology relationship by offering character etymologies in place of word etymologies clearly demands that the very premises of etymology be interrogated to achieve a more accurate assessment of its intrinsic limitations.


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