Quoting Wiktionary, the glyph origin of the character 「腺」 is as follows:

A 国字 (kokuji, “Japanese-coined character”) coined in the late 1700s–early 1800s by rangaku scholar Udagawa Genshin as a translation for Dutch klier (“gland”), as an ideogrammic compound (會意): ⺼ (“flesh; body”) + 泉 (“spring; fountain; source; producer of liquid”), together expressing the idea “part of the body that produces liquid secretions”.

And the origin of its pronounciation is described like so:

The reading sen is based on the kan'on of the 泉 base.

Which yields a 慣用音 of 「せん」(sen). However, it seems that other Sinitic and Sino-xenic languages' pronounciation of 「腺」 doesn't match with 「泉」, but rather 「線」. For comparison:

                     腺 / 線(私箭切)           泉(疾緣切)
標準漢語                   xiàn                    quán
粵語(廣州話)              sin3                   cyun4
閩南語(廈門話)    siàn(文)/ sòaⁿ(白)   choân(文)/ chôaⁿ(白)
日語(漢音)             せん(sen)              せん(sen)
朝鮮語                   선(seon)              천(cheon)
越南語                    tuyến                   tuyền

Japanese seems to be the only language where the reading is consistent across all three characters. Why is this the case? Is there a connection between 「腺」 and 「線」? Or was there simply an error when 「腺」 was introduced to China/Korea/Vietnam?

  • 1
    According to Shen (2011), it was the China Medical Missionary Association who adopted 腺 in Chinese in 1901, but they used the pronunciation "chüan", which would correspond to modern "quán" like 泉 not 線. – Michaelyus Jul 3 at 16:45
  • That's interesting. I wonder then, how the pronounciation shifted from quán to xiàn, or if it was another source that popularized the usage of the character with the pronounciation xiàn in China. I'm also guessing that the term is first introduced in Mandarin, and then slowly propogates to other Chinese varieties. – wang_xiao_ming Jul 3 at 18:19
  • Bar Japanese, in all of the Sinoxenic varieties, 線 sounds closer to Japanese せん than 泉. I'll bet that's the reason. – droooze Jul 3 at 20:19

泉 is pronounced as せん(sen) in Japanese. Many modern scientific terms were first translated into Japanese(in 19th centrury Japan was open to West World), and then some Chinese scholars just borrow the term from Japanese Characters.

氮 may be another case, where 炎 is read as yan(3),but 氮 read as dan(4)。

  • 2
    I am aware of 和製漢語, but I believe 和製漢字 is very rarely back-borrowed into Chinese. In the case of 「氮」, the composition is 「气」 + abbreviated 「淡」, where 「淡」 is also the phonetic component, and is generally not used in Sino-xenic languages (in Japanese and Korean, nitrogen is called 「窒素」). From Wikipedia: 中文名稱「氮」有沖淡氣體的意思。 – wang_xiao_ming Jul 6 at 12:59

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