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The character has two different pronunciations; usually it is huì but in 会计 it is pronounced kuài. It seems that the latter pronunciation is exclusively used in the "accounting" meaning.

How did this one character take on two different pronunciations and meanings? Was it a merger of two different characters?

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That meaning of developed from its general meaning of , "to assemble". 会计 was analogous to 合计, and was also the word for yearly reviews. This sense of handling the accounting numbers eventually developed into a distinct meaning. –  Semaphore Aug 13 at 7:29

3 Answers 3

up vote 6 down vote accepted

In Old Chinese, it is generally thought that some words followed regular morphological alternations (which are preserved in a few places in MSM, but "frozen", i.e., no longer productive). For instance:

Verb/Noun

chu3 "to dwell" / chu4 "a place"

shu3 "to count" / shu4 "a number"

zhi1 "to know" / (also ) zhi4 "knowledge"

Similarly:

Active/Inactive Verb

hao4 "to like" / hao3 "to be good"

ji4 "to tie" / xi4 "to be connected"

kuai4 "to bring together" / hui4 "to come together"

Phonetic reconstructions for these alternations generally follow a regular pattern (e.g., voiced/voiceless, 去声/other tone), although specific reconstructions differ.

会 is a somewhat odd example, in that the hui4 reading has displaced the kuai4 reading in almost all places except proper nouns and 会计 = accounting. Branner gives the example from Confucius:

君子以文会友,以友辅仁

The customary reading of 会 in this passage is hui4, but etymologically, it really should be kuai4.

My references are taken from Branner's excellent essay, "On Early Chinese Morphology and its Intellectual History"

EDIT:

The Middle Chinese readings corresponding to "hui4" and "kuai4" are "hwajH" and "kwajH" in Baxter's notation; the initials being 匣 and 見. Based on this, one would expect the MSM pronunciation of the latter to be "gui4" rather than "kuai4". The common Japanese On reading of かい "kai" (attested earlier as くわい "kwai") is actually a kan-on reading. According to wikipedia, the k- initial in a kan-on reading could correspond to either a 匣 or a 見 MC initial. In any event, the "kai" reading is used in both the 'meeting' and 'accounting' meanings, regardless of which MC reading it corresponds to. Some speculate (e.g., Victor Mair, p31) that the MSM "kuai4" may have been influenced by the Japanese "kai" (i.e., that the etymologically expected "gui4" was displaced by "kuai4" when 会计 was re-borrowed from Japanese to mean "accounting"). It is not the case, however, that the hui4/kuai4 distinction is an artifact of Japanese borrowing--a meaning of "settling accounts" is attested dating back well before the Japanese neologism for accounting (see halfway down random blogpost quoting from dictionary).

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As a comment, in Japanese pretty much the only Chinese-derived reading of 会 is kai from earlier kwai attested in the older orthography of くわい. 協会, 社会, 会員, 会談, etc all use the kuai4-derived reading. Could "hui4" be an irregular Mandarin variant (similar to "bai2" for 白 as opposed to "bo2" from regular sound changes)? Interestingly 会计 as a compound originated in Japanese and was back-borrowed. –  user54609 Aug 13 at 16:16
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@user54609 It's actually kuai that's the irregular reading. The expected pronunciation following regular sound changes should be gui (mentioned as an alternate pronunciation here), but the older kwai pronunciation ended up getting preserved rather than following the expected sound changes (probably because it was only used in limited contexts). –  Claw Aug 13 at 18:36
    
So etymologically, does the a distinct hui vs kuai alternation exist, or was this distinction a Mandarin innovation? As I mentioned Japanese does not attest a hui-like reading from Middle Chinese. If this distinction has nothing to do with Old Chinese pairs like 处, then this answer is incorrect. –  user54609 Aug 13 at 19:12
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@user54609 The alternation did exist, but with expected sound changes it should have been hui vs. gui rather than hui vs. kuai. –  Claw Aug 13 at 19:26
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There's another point of data that indicates that the alternation is due to a much older distinction and it is that it exists in other modern varieties of Chinese. For instance, in Cantonese, the alternation is wui6 vs. kui2. There's a slight irregularity here too in that the expected tone for kui should be 3 rather than 2, but that could be explained by the tone change phenomenon that Cantonese exhibits. –  Claw Aug 14 at 16:34

It's been said that the word 会计 was invented by 大禹 near a place call 会稽山. Both here are pronounce kuai4. 会计 mainly follow the pronunciation of 会稽山 here.

There are many reasons for why one character have two or more different pronunciations, see here if you want to know more reasons.

In this case, it's mainly because people want to use a different pronunciation to show 会稽山 is a special place. It often happen in Chinese.

Reference

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This is funnily wrong. 会计 was borrowed from Japanese in the 19th century. –  user54609 Aug 14 at 15:59

There are only two meanings of kuài:

  1. To count

  2. A family name

All other meanings should be pronounced as hùi.

For more information about the Heteronym in Chinese, you may read

http://zh.wikipedia.org/zh/多音字

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5  
This didn't explain "how did this one character take on two different pronunciations and meanings?" at all ... this is an etymology question, expected answers would be like "in 206CE, because <x> was getting confused with <y> when written, one was absorbed into the other but the pronunciation difference remained." –  Ming Aug 13 at 7:09

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