It’s always interesting to read articles on phonosemantics and related fields when they come out, especially one that examines a language that I don’t read. Linguist Victor Mair looks at a few recent efforts to identify the underlying phonosemantic patterns in the Chinese language, including this one:
William Rozycki has written a stimulating article (“Phonosymbolism and the Verb cop”) in which he attempts to show that various presumably unrelated languages around the world have independently chosen the syllable kap, or some close variant thereof, to convey the following meanings: “take, grasp, grab, seize, capture”. He is able to cite an impressive amount of evidence in favor of his contention.
Rozycki explicitly states that he makes no claim for the universality of phonosymbolism, yet the manner in which he presents his argument leads him to come dangerously close to making such an assertion. Here is the distillation of his thesis:
I will present both historic and areal evidence that a tendency or force is at work in the connection of the phonetic shape [kap] and the semantic range of ‘catch, seize, snatch.’ Like suprasegmentals in relation to the workings of phonology, this phonosymbolic force is another dimension, not yet clearly understood, that exerts influence on the process of word formation.
Rozycki, William. “Phonosymbolism and the Verb cop.” Journal of English Linguistics, 25.3 (September, 1997), 202-206.
and this one:
Below are Howell’s big picture conclusions about Proto-Chinese.
The language is phonosemantic in nature.
Seven concepts (Frame, Continuum, Concealment, Supple, Spread, Small / Slender, Straight) generated all its terms excepting onomatopoeia and a handful of loan words. Each concept corresponds to an initial consonant (K L M N P S and T, respectively). When secondary concepts (Extend; Encompass, Adhere / be proximate; Press; Continuum; Cut / Divide / Reduce) were to be conveyed, this function was performed by the consonant within the final (-NG -M -N -P -R and -T respectively).
The y?nf?? (“sound note”) in xngsh?ng z ???(“phono-semantic compounds”) was intended to suggest not only the character’s pronunciation but also its meaning, again with the exception of onomatopoeia and loan words.
All compound characters created in Proto-Chinese that traditionally have been assigned to the huy z ???(ideogrammic compounds) category were devised as phono-semantic compounds (???). Apparent anomalies in compound characters owe to 1) transposed, abbreviated or otherwise altered elements, 2) sound notes the independent character forms of which dropped out of use, and 3) pronunciation changes owing to consonant shifts in either the initial or the final.
Consonant shifts in derived terms, occurring in both the initials and the finals, correspond to shifts in meaning, and these follow the conceptual associations noted above….
[Victor Mair’s critique of the thesis omitted; see original site.]
Howell considers his phonosemantics to be a type of phonosymbolism, but I believe that his system is far more comprehensive in its scope and has been developed with greater attention to the specifics of the Chinese writing system. Nonetheless, for the reasons outlined above, I am not convinced that the Howell-Morimoto scheme can explain the origins and development of the Old Sinitic lexicon.
For those who might wish to judge for themselves, Howell’s data (as noted at the outset) may be accessed online (no charge); they are also available through the site in book form as Kanji Etymology….
Cards on the table. I’m a sort of universal Kabbalist. My own philosophical/mystical presupposition informs me that OF COURSE there must be phonosemantic connections in Chinese and in every language under the sun because God/Spirit emanates through all languages in patterns that are inherently meaningful and evolving (not random chance).
However, the state of academic knowledge about what those patterns are, and how buried they are, and an understanding of how much they can be identified and reconstructed at all, is embryonic.
That these connections exist to a certain degree is perfectly clear from what limited cross-cultural phonosemantic research has been done; it’s the “how much is this true?” and the “so what if it is true?” questions that are most perplexing.