Jun 29, 2022Liked by Andrew Leonard

As a Chinese native who’s trying to learn English on my own, I stumble upon this fascinating article about Chinese. It’s really a shame of me never doubt the etymology of the Chinese character 家, which I always thought comes from a pig under roof.

I totally agree that early using of pinyin may have a bad effect on children’s reading skill. So when teaching Chinese to my children I prefer reading the character and displaying the stroke of character to them.

Thanks for this heuristic article.

BTW, there is a mistake about your handwriting in the photo at the bottom of the article. The character 顽 and 损 both have a component of 贝, but you writes 见.


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I wonder if there is any analogue in the decline of script. I’m always still surprised by, e.g., hand “written” thank you notes from (polite!) teenage relatives that are in block letters and not cursive. The latter is simply no longer taught in the age pf the keyboard.

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Thanks for posting this fascinating piece, Andrew. It's true — my Chinese friends tell me they feel like they are losing the ability to write Chinese characters — because nowadays they never do.

A quick aside: How many native speakers of English are aware that the word home comes from the Old English /ham/, Proto-Germanic /*haimaz/, old Norse /heimr/ and thence from Proto-IndoEuropean (PIE) /*(t)koimo-/? Or that its meaning in English and other closely related Germanic languages is not fully captured by any single word in most other Indo-European languages, not to mention closest equivalents in Chinese or other non-Western tongues?

How many speakers of English and other languages employing our alphabet would be aware that the letter “D”/“d”, corresponding to the Phoenician and Hebrew /daleth/ and Greek delta /Δ/, Is thought to have originally been based on an early Pictograph, possibly Egyptian, which indicated the folding door (made from a skin or fabric) of a tent, yurt or ger.

As English speakers, all of us use words without much concern for their etymology or derivation, nor are we much concerned as writers with the origins of the graphemes (letters) representing phonetic elements of our languages.

When I was first studying Chinese (many years ago), I was entranced by the story that the character for “East” (東). /dong1) represented an image of the sun caught in the branches of a tree, as it might appear when rising in the east.

Later, of course, I came to understand that Chinese speakers do not think of stories like this one, whether true or apocryphal, nor the image of a pig under a roof) when reading or writing the words 東 or 家, no more than we would be distracted by thoughts about the derivation of our letters or the etymology of the words we use when we think, say, hear or read the words “east” or “home”.

It's fun though.

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This is a fantastic dive. (You are right about your Chinese handwriting, though.) — KK

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