July 18, 2006

Phony Orientalism in the 20th Century

[Guest post by Victor Mair]

In the latest issue of the National Geographic (August 2006: 136-149), there is an article entitled “Ants: The Civilized Insect,” by the eminent Harvard myrmecologist, Edward O. Wilson, with spectacular photographs by Mark W. Moffett, who earned a Ph.D. studying army ants under Professor Wilson. The article is prefaced by the following paragraph:

“In Japanese the word ‘ant’ is intricately written by linking two characters: one meaning “insect,” the other meaning ‘loyalty.’ Altruistic and cooperative toward one another, nestmates readily go to war to preserve their colony. Renowned biologist and lifelong ant observer Edward O. Wilson introduces our new occasional series on these highly social creatures.”

Unfortunately, this paragraph is so fraught with errors as to be completely useless and potentially very damaging. However, since it will probably be seen by at least 25,000,000 readers and perpetuates serious linguistic misconceptions, I consider it my duty to point them out for all who are willing to listen.

In the first place, the Japanese *word* for ant is ARI, and it has absolutely nothing to do with “loyalty.”

Second, the author of this sorry paragraph has confused writing with language, since he/she is talking about the Chinese **character** used to write the Japanese **word**, not the word itself.

Third, he/she mentions “two characters,” but the Japanese word for ant is written with a single character [蟻]

Fourth, the KANJI used for writing ARI does have two main components, namely, the 6-stroke radical (or semantic indicator) on the left and the 13-stroke phonophore on the right. The phonophore can be further broken down into components meaning “goat / sheep” on the top and “I / me / we” on the bottom.

Fifth, the radical on the left does convey the idea of “bug” or “insect,” but the phonophore on the right – while it does mean “righteous[ness]” or “just[ice]” when it stands alone; pronounced YI4 nowadays – only serves to indicate the sound of the character. How do we know that this is so? Well, although the early Taoist thinker Zhuang Zi did write the Chinese word for ant pronounced YI3 (that’s the Modern Standard Mandarin [MSM] pronunciation; in his day it would have been pronounced something like *ngia or *sngje) with the character now used to write the Japanese word ARI, at around the same time (late 4th-early 3rd c. BC), the poet Qu Yuan wrote the same word for ant with another graph that is also pronounced YI3 (in MSM; in his day it would have been pronounced something like *ngier [e = schwa] or *sngjei), but whose phonophore means something else entirely (it is the particle for asking rhetorical questions that is now pronounced QI3 in MSM). From the fact that both of these graphic variants for the same morpheme still survive to this day, it is clear that their phonophores are meant merely to convey the sound of the morpheme in question.

Sixth, to assert that this character used to write MSM YI3 and Japanese ARI means “loyal bug” is to succumb to the seduction of an erroneous folk etymology. Unfortunately, all cultures that have used or still use the Chinese characters to write their languages are plagued by countless instances of such pseudo-etymology, but one would hope that the National Geographic fact checkers would have asked a linguist about this obviously overly romantic explanation before they ran with it to the world.

Seventh, by the way, the MSM word for ant, like the Japanese word ARI, is also bisyllabic. Around the Tang Dynasty (more than a millennium after the time of Zhuang Zi and Qu Yuan, there was an expression MA3YI3 meaning “big ant,” where the MA3 literally meant “horse” but was used as a prefix for various members of the animal kingdom to signify that they were bigger than average specimens or species. Gradually, in line with the general polysyllabicization of vernacular (especially northern) Sinitic, MA3YI3 displaced YI3 as the word for ants in general, not just big ones. Half a millennium or so later, during the Ming period, people got around to adding a bug radical to the horse, so that both of the characters used to write the bisyllabic word for ant (MA3YI3) now possessed the appropriate radical. (The same sort of story could be told of thousands of items in the modern vocabulary of Sinitic languages.) I should note, however, that many southern Sinitic languages still have a monosyllabic word for ant. For example, in Cantonese, it is NGAI, displaying not only its morphological conservatism, but also its phonological conservatism.

In short, I have gone to this length to explain why the Japanese word for ant is **not** “intricately written by linking two characters” because it is my ardent wish that people who do not understand how the HANZI / KANJI / HANJA work will stop telling fairy tales about them.

[Guest post by Victor Mair]

Posted by Mark Liberman at July 18, 2006 07:15 PM