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This word exists in Japanese as well as 綿蛮, but as far as I can tell the compound just carries the meaning of "cotton barbarian". I am completely stumped as to how this in any way means "a small bird" or "chirping". Does anyone know what's going on?

  • Better ask this question at Japanese Stack Exchange – Tang Ho Dec 30 '19 at 12:03
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From Shijing:

《詩・小雅・綿蠻》

綿蠻黃鳥,止於丘阿。道之雲遠,我勞如何。飲之食之,教之誨之。命彼後車,謂之載之。

綿蠻黃鳥,止於丘隅。豈敢憚行,畏不能趨。飲之食之,教之誨之。命彼後車,謂之載之。

綿蠻黃鳥,止於丘側。豈敢憚行,畏不能極。飲之食之,教之誨之。命彼後車,謂之載之。

Firstly, some conceptual advice on interpreting characters: Please keep in mind that characters are not words; they only represent words. Character phonology is very important when interpreting pre-Qin texts, of which the Shijing is one.

You should always be mindful that a character has both meaning and sound, and sometimes, characters are only used for sound.

If you're a Japanese learner, you should be aware of ateji, which is based on the same principle.


Character definitions

《說文》:“緜(綿),聯微也。从糸,从帛。”

「綿」(Zhengzhang OC: /*men/, thin, fine threads) is comprised of semantic「糸」(silk threads) and semantic「帛」(silk/fabric).

《說文》:“蠻,南蠻,蛇穜。从虫,䜌聲。”

「蠻」(/*mroːn/, Southern ethnic tribes) is comprised of semantic「虫」(poisonous snake, now written「虺」, the cultural symbol of some ancient Southeastern Tribes) and phonetic「䜌」(/*b·roːn/).「閩」( /*mrɯn/, /*mɯn/, Min ethnicity), with the same semantic「虫」, is almost certainly cognate to「蠻」.

Stringing the above together, you get a reading which is approximately /*men mroːn/, where「蠻」is almost definitely only used to represent sound.


How did 綿蠻 /*men mroːn/ come to mean “(the chirping of) a small bird”?

Two interpretations, which may be related to each other:

  1. 綿蠻 (/*men mroːn/) is short for 綿綿蠻蠻, where

    • 綿綿 means fine, delicate.

      《淮南子・繆稱訓》:“福之萌也綿綿,禍之生也分分,福禍之始萌微,故民嫚之。”

    • 蠻蠻 (/*mroːn mroːn/) is the topolectical name of a bird.

      《山海經・西次三經》之首,曰崇吾之山,在河之南,北望冡遂,南望䍃之澤,西望帝之搏、獸之丘,東望䗡淵。有木焉,員葉而白柎,赤華而黑理,其實如枳,食之宜子孫。有獸焉,其狀如禺而文臂,豹虎而善投,名曰舉父。有鳥焉,其狀如鳧,而一翼一目,相得乃飛,名曰蠻蠻,見則天下大水。

    Together, this forms delicate > small + bird, i.e. small bird, extended to mean chirps of a small bird.

  2. 綿蠻 (/*men mroːn/) is a phonologically-shifted reduplication of「微」(微微, /*mɯl mɯl/).「微」means tiny, slight.

    王國維《觀堂集林・爾雅草木蟲魚鳥獸名釋例下》:“蟲之小者曰蠛蠓 (/*meːd moːŋ|moːŋʔ/),鳥之小者亦曰綿蠻,殆皆微字之音轉。”

    Small insects are called 蠛蠓 (/*meːd moːŋ|moːŋʔ/), small birds are called 綿蠻 (/*men mroːn/), they are both phonological shifts from「微」(/*mɯl/).

    Contextually, the reduplicated word meaning small was only used to describe birds, hence it became associated with birds to get small birds > chirping of small birds.


References:

  • 《王力古漢語字典》
  • 《漢語大詞典》
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in the book of odes (詩經), there’s a poem named 綿蠻:

綿蠻黃鳥・止于丘阿

道之云遠・我勞如何

飲之食之・教之誨之・命彼後車・謂之載之

綿蠻黃鳥・止于丘隅

豈敢憚行・畏不能趨

飲之食之・教之誨之・命彼後車・謂之載之

綿蠻黃鳥・止于丘側

豈敢憚行・畏不能極

飲之食之・教之誨之・命彼後車・謂之載之

“綿蠻黃鳥” is translated to “little oriole” in ctext.org

however, the scholar 朱熹 suggested that “綿蠻” is the sound of birds (鳥聲)

if you have difficulty, trust him at this moment :)

enter image description here

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1

It appears to have originated from a poem of the same name 緜蛮 in the Book of Songs 诗经.

緜蛮黄鸟,止于丘阿。道之云远,我劳如何。饮之食之,教之诲之。命彼后车,谓之载之。
绵蛮黄鸟,止于丘隅。岂敢惮行,畏不能趋。饮之食之,教之诲之。命彼后车,谓之载之。
绵蛮黄鸟,止于丘侧。岂敢惮行,畏不能极。饮之食之,教之诲之。命彼后车,谓之载之。

Chinese poetry is exceptionally hard to read (for me at least), but fortunately Baidu Baiku has a 白话译文 "Spoken language translation":

那只美丽小黄雀,停在弯弯山坡上。路途实在太遥远,跋涉劳苦累得慌。给他水喝给饭吃,循循诱导明道理。让那副车稍停留,叫他坐上别心急。
那只美丽小黄雀,停在山坡那一角。哪敢害怕走远路,只怕不能快快跑。给他水喝给饭吃,循循诱导明道理。让那副车稍停留,叫他坐上别心急。
那只美丽小黄雀,停在山坡那一边。哪敢害怕走远路,只怕终点到达难。给他水喝给饭吃,循循诱导明道理。让那副车稍停留,叫他坐上别心急。

So the bird is 小黄雀 (see Baidu Image Search) which I think is a type of finch. And each line begins:

那只美丽小黄雀
That beautiful small finch, ...

(Here I use "finch" to mean something like "black-headed yellow Eurasian siskin" which makes the poem too clunky.)

It seems to be also used in subsequent poetry, e.g., 晦日宴高氏林亭 (Tang Dynasty) and 啼鸟; 次余仲庸松风阁韵十九首其一 (Song Dynasty).


Here, 緜 = meaning "cotton", while = "barbarian". Pinshiwen explains this imagery as:

①緜蛮:鸟羽文采细密的样子。
緜蛮: bird feathers [鸟羽] rich and bright in color [文采] numerous and close together [繁密] appearance [样子]

However, there appears to be multiple interpretations of how to interpret 緜蛮 (zdic.net): small birds appearance (小鸟貌; 文貌), bird sounds (鸟声) and smallest birds (鸟之小者亦曰绵蛮).

Judging from Baidu 绵蛮, this term is normally only mentioned in the context of poetry.

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  • When quoting original texts, it's advisable to use the oldest form of the text with the original characters (as much as possible), because the oldest text reflects the author's intention most accurately. Simplified Chinese makes interpreting texts very difficult - everything from character structure analysis to phonetic loans to phonetic components which play a large part in phonology become either opaque or lost. This is part of the reason why resources in popular (non-academic) Simplified Chinese don't explore phonology at all, and try to interpret characters based on their meaning. – dROOOze Jan 1 at 2:39

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