Chinese Character Classification - Traditional Classification - Rebus (phonetic Loan) Characters

Rebus (phonetic Loan) Characters

Jiajie (假借 jiǎjiè, "borrowing; making use of") are characters that are "borrowed" to write another homophonous or near-homophonous morpheme. For example, the character 來 was originally a pictogram of a wheat plant and meant *mlək "wheat". As this was pronounced similarly to the Old Chinese word *lai "to come", 來 was also used to write this verb. Eventually the more common usage, the verb "to come", became established as the default reading of the character 來, and a new character 麥 was devised for "wheat". (The modern pronunciations are lái and mài.) When a character is used as a rebus this way, it is called a jiajiezi 假借字 (lit. "loaned and borrowed character") (in Wade-Giles "chia-chie" or "chia-chieh"), translatable as "phonetic loan character" or "rebus character".

As in Egyptian hieroglyphs and Sumerian cuneiform, early Chinese characters were used as rebuses to express abstract meanings that were not easily depicted. Thus many characters stood for more than one word. In some cases the extended use would take over completely, and a new character would be created for the original meaning, usually by modifying the original character with a radical (determinative). For instance, 又 yòu originally meant "right hand; right" but was borrowed to write the abstract word yòu "again; moreover". In modern usage, the character 又 exclusively represents yòu "again" while 右, which adds the "mouth radical" 口 to 又, represents yòu "right". This process of graphic disambiguation is a common source of phono-semantic compound characters.

Examples of jiajie
Pictograph or
New character for
original word
"four" "nostrils" (mucous; sniffle)
"flat, thin" "leaf"
běi "north" bèi "back (of the body)"
yào "to want" yāo "waist"
shǎo "few" shā "sand" and
yǒng "forever" yǒng "swim"

While this word jiajie dates from the Han Dynasty, the related term tongjia (通假 tōngjiǎ "interchangeable borrowing") is first attested from the Ming Dynasty. The two terms are commonly used as synonyms, but there is a linguistic distinction between jiajiezi being a phonetic loan character for a word that did not originally have a character, such as using 東 "a bag tied at both ends" for dōng "east", and tongjia being an interchangeable character used for an existing homophonous character, such as using 蚤 zǎo "flea" for 早 zǎo "early".

According to Bernhard Karlgren (1968:1), "One of the most dangerous stumbling-blocks in the interpretation of pre-Han texts is the frequent occurrence of, loan characters."

Read more about this topic:  Chinese Character Classification, Traditional Classification

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