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If someone, dancer or not, is holding something in each hand, how can possibly describe him? His hands are not 無! I also screenshot Yellowbridge.

enter image description here

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  • As it says on wiktionary, “The character is borrowed”. Could you specify what else you are looking for?
    – dROOOze
    Aug 28, 2020 at 23:15
  • @dROOOze Even if it's borrowed, how does that pictogram explain 無? My reason remains true.
    – user11787
    Aug 28, 2020 at 23:17
  • 1
    Do you mean, how does 無 look like a dancing person holding things in their hands? Because that’s a glyph-origin question. “Borrowed” otherwise literally means that a word doesn’t have any meaning relation with what the character originally meant.
    – dROOOze
    Aug 28, 2020 at 23:20
  • @dROOOze No. I don't think I'm asking how "無 look like a dancing person holding things in their hands". Why's 無 represented by someone holding things in his hands? If you hold things in your hands, you possess something! 無 has no place for you.
    – user11787
    Aug 29, 2020 at 5:05
  • @dROOOze Your answer below still deserves to stay though! I can post a new question if you desire.
    – user11787
    Aug 29, 2020 at 5:06

2 Answers 2

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There might be some confusion as to what the word "borrowed" means. The usage of 「無」 to mean without is a rebus borrowing. From Wikipedia:

An example that illustrates the Rebus principle is the representation of the sentence "I can see you" by using the pictographs of "eye—can—sea—ewe".

That is, to ask how the sentence

I can see you

originated from the pictures

Photo of an eye Photo of a can Photo of the sea Photo of an ewe and her lambs

is an incorrect question.


If it is difficult to see how the glyph evolved into its current form 「無」 (Baxter-Sagart OC: /*ma/, without), that is a more tangible query.

Start from a rather vivid picture of a person 「大」 holding a bunch of adornments in each hand, doing a rain dance*.



𡘲
120.3
合集16000

Complexify the adornments, maybe into something highly resembling a sound hint 「某」 (/*məʔ/).

西周

𣞤
毛伯簋
集成4009
春秋

𣞤
寬兒鼎
集成2722


𣞤
10.8
睡虎地秦簡

隸定
𣞤

 

Omit the shape of the person 「大」.

西漢

enter image description here
老子・甲
馬王堆帛書

隸定
𣚨

 

Then finally, abbreviate the bottom of the character into a few dots.

西漢

無
25
定縣竹簡


無

 

Dance is written with the derivative character 「舞」, by adding semantic 「舛」 (picture of two feet).

西周

舞
匽侯銅泡
集成11860
西漢

舞
158
縱橫家書
東漢

舞
華山廟碑
 


舞

 


*The nature of the dance being linked with rain is from the extensive number of fragments where the character 「無」 is found with the character 「雨」. E.g. 《甲骨文合集》12828:

enter image description here

戊𢑚(申)卜今日𡴝(奏)𣞤(舞)㞢(有)从雨

Divination (卜) on the day of wùshēn (戊申): Today (今日), perform (奏) a dance ritual (舞). Rain appears (有从雨).


References:

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  • i would further interpret “㞢从雨” as “there’s (有) showers (驟雨)”, then people danced (舞) for celebration / appreciation the divine. Aug 29, 2020 at 3:27
  • 無 doesn't encode explicit anything related to water/rain. The 灬 is actually 林. In Han Dynasty, the two short horizontal stroke merges into one and is incorporated into the upper part. The remaining part looks like 小小, first written as 6 strokes and then simplified into 4..
    – lilysirius
    Jan 30, 2022 at 2:35
  • @lilysirius 無 doesn't have water or rain in the character, but it appears overwhelmingly with 雨. See the oracle bone fragments where 無 appears with 雨. The 灬 is actually 林 no, if you trace the glyph evolution from oracle bone glyphs, 灬 is a remnant of the bottom part of the person holding the adornments - 林 is a graphical corruption introduced around the Han dynasty.
    – dROOOze
    Jan 30, 2022 at 2:44
  • I agree. I only meant that 林 is where 灬 directly came from, not that it's the original form. The thing that hold on hand has indeed involved into 上口下木. And the 林 form actually appeared in the Warring States Period 楚簡.
    – lilysirius
    Jan 30, 2022 at 3:00
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How did '無' originate from “a dancer holding something in each hand” (etymology, Chinese)? - Quora

無 is the original character of 舞 (Old Chinese: *maʔ ), which most learners nowadays do recognize as the character that means “dance”. The driving force of the shift of its functionality is mostly phonetic and hardly semantic at all.

(Worth noting that the change in written symbols should not be mistaken as etymologically development of the underlying words. People may write “i 8 pizza” for “I ate pizza” but that doesn’t mean that you can derive the sense “eating” from the number VIII. All the arrows in the following graph represent orthographical development but not necessarily etymological ones)

Stage 1: Although the word that means “none” probably did exist in Old Chinese[1], 無 was not originally intended for writing that word. Instead, the main purpose 無 was to denote the Old Chinese word *maʔ [2] which means dance.

Stage 2: At certain point, 無 started to take on another role - to denote the Old Chinese word *ma that means “none” [3]. The process of a character is re-purposed to denote another word that is phonetically (as opposed semantically) similar to its original word is called “通假”. It happened quite often in the writing system of Old Chinese. Through 通假, the character 無 started to be shared by two phonetically similar yet semantically unrelated words: *maʔ “dance” and *ma “none”.

Stage 3: either for the concern of clarity or for some other reasons, the situation that one character denotes both “dance” and “none” did not last too long. People started to write them differently by adding something extra when they mean *maʔ “dance” - whence the character 舞. Now, having been relieved of the duty to denote *maʔ “dance”, 無 became exclusively reserved for the word *ma “none”.

[1] One of the archaic variants for writing the word *ma “none” was actually 无, which the Simplified character is based on.

[2] *maʔ “dance” has gradually changed its pronunciation over the past thousands of years. That’s the word wu3 “dance” that you see in dictionaries.

[3] likewise, *ma “none” changed its pronunciation over the years too. Its canonical descendant is the word wu2 “none” that you see in dictionaries .

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  • 1
    Thanks for so ably answering your own question. Much appreciated. Jan 30, 2022 at 3:17

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