吳實錄

Annals of Wu

漢藏緬語々言研究ㄟ博客
a sinotibetoburman linguistics blog
2015-02-06

Confusing Etymologies In Hakka discussion - orthography

There are some intereting things going on with characters as used by a large number of Taiwanese Hakka speakers. There's a phrase, dá sóng (here rendered in Hoiliuk dialect). It basically means to waste. The usual way this gets written by a lot of speakers these days is 打爽. Note the second character 爽 would normally mean "refreshing" or "pleasurable". What sense, then, does "hit/do refreshing" make as a phrase meaning "to waste"?

The obvious answer is that 爽 is not the original character for this phrase. In fact, it should be 喪. However in Hakka 喪 is pronounced sòng, while the second syllable in 打喪 is sóng. The tone is wrong. Meanwhile since 爽 in the same dialect is sóng, people have taken to writing the phrase as 打爽.

I was speaking with a friend of mine, a native speaker, about how there's no real reason not to use 喪 to write the phrase, since a lot of characters have multiple readings, and many varying on tone alone. After some discussion she conceded that her own teacher, a highly respected Hakka scholar in the area, would also agree that 喪 is the way it should be written, and that he laments people's use of 爽.

Historically, etymologically, semantically, the "correct" character for this phrase is 喪. So what do you do with 本字 when general usage has otherwise abandoned it? My answer is that you should resist, and that the value in having cognates preserved in the orthography is sufficient enough that it's worth pushing for the use of the "correct" character.

Interestingly enough is the use in the same dialect of the character 冇, rendered mao in Mandarin and borrowed from a Cantonese simplification of 無. This is sort of the opposide side of the same sort of problem discussed above. In Hakka, the word represented by 冇 isn't pronounced anything like 無, and doesn't share any etymological connection. Instead it's pronoucned pǎng and means "hollow". It should be apparent that the borrowing is the result of the graphical comparison between 有 and 冇, which in following the same logic is what many people argue is the origin of the glyph in the first place (though that's not actually true; it really is just a simplification of 無).

An example of the use of pǎng is the phrase 打冇嘴 dá pǎng zhǒi which means to speak about something about which you don't actually know or haven't considered.

This actually illustrates for me the problem with sòng. That is, the origin of pǎng isn't clear in the written form since the character doesn't reflect its origins. It's not a simple task to track down how it originated or what the cognate might be, assuming there is on. It might also be the restult of some substratum. At this point I don't know.

I feel pretty strongly that there is real value in having this stuff encoded in the orthography. "But that's prescriptivism" you might say. You're right. But prescriptivism isn't really the problem with prescriptivists, now is it?

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    A semi-academic linguistics blog about Sinotibetan, previously focused primarily on Wú, a Sinitic language spoken in the Yangtze Delta region. Topics now include historical linguistics, documentation, language rights, sociolinguistics and learning materials, as well as acting as the dev blog for Phonemica from time to time.

    I'm a linguist based in Asia, working on documentation and historical development of Sinotibetan. In addition to academic research, I'm heavily involved in Phonemica, an organisation that promotes crowd-sourced preservation of local languages.

    I'm currently in the field, so getting in touch isn't easy. However you can try to email me at the following address and I'll respond as soon as I'm able:

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