Apologies if my question is too similar to the one in Why is the radical of 难 > 隹 and not 又? The link in there is broken unfortunately and I am unable to find the source.

This character for difficult, 难/難 is traditionally comprising of phonetic 𦰩/堇, and the 隹 semantic which is a bird. However, it seems like there is also semantic explanation for the 𦰩/堇 component, which closely resembles 黃, being a man with difficulty breathing/hyperinflated lungs in the middle part and a wheezing mouth being the top part that looks like 廿. This also makes sense for other “difficult” related words with 𦰩/堇 phonetic, like 嘆 and 艱, which coincidentally all have been simplified to 又.

Thus, my question is: did 难/難 use to be a type of bird? What kind of bird was it, and when did it start replacing 𦰩 as loan?

  • "𦰩" 是 "漢" 字的右半边,"漢"和"難"的声母都是 an,我感觉"𦰩"是表声音的部分。
    – Zhang
    Dec 7, 2020 at 1:27

1 Answer 1


I'm going to give a simple answer first - I'm sure better more complete answers will come to follow.


難 nán (also nàn) is composed of 堇 jiān and 隹 “bird,” which hints at the original meaning “type of bird.” 堇 gives the sound.


In 難 nán (also nàn), 堇 jiān is a sound component, though this is not obvious in modern Mandarin.

In 難, 隹 “bird” is a meaning component, hinting at the original meaning “type of bird.”


1 (orig.) name of a type of bird
2 ○ difficult
3 → trouble; adversity

1 (orig.) name of a type of bird
2 ○ difficult
3 → disaster; catastrophe

There's also a variant character: 𪄿 (⿰𦰩鳥, if it doesn't display with you) which quite explicitly shows it's avian connection.

Outlier's reference comes from p. 307 & 308 of 季旭昇's《說文新證》- this is where we will see the connection between the variant 𪄿 and 難:

enter image description here enter image description here

Here the ○ icon in Outlier's definition is an indicator of a phonetic loan. So, basically it is just a:

character that is "borrowed" to write another homophonous or near-homophonous morpheme

and this is confirmed by《說文新證》's:



  • 隹 replaces ---> 鳥

  • 堇 was seemingly always there giving the character its sound

"⿰𦰩x" being replaced by "⿰又x" is a separate question but it's not totally uncommon, think: 艱 → 艰.

  • Thanks for answering the bird part being borrowed. What about the 堇 or 𦰩 part? Were these 2 characters effectively the same?
    – Fishuman
    Dec 10, 2020 at 3:42
  • I don't know if those two characters were used as loans of each other, but they were each originally made to represent different things. For 𦰩, please see this Quora post. As for 堇, I think it originally meant clay, consisting of semantic 土 and phonetic 𦰩. Since 𦰩 is phonetic in 堇, it seems reasonable for variants of 難 to use 𦰩 and 堇 as phonetic components. Dec 11, 2020 at 20:33
  • And while 難 originally referred to some kind of bird, it may not be a coincidence that 難 was later borrowed to mean difficult or hardship, given its semantic similarity with 𦰩 (i.e. 難 may have been deliberately picked as a loan to mean difficult since it contains 𦰩), but hopefully someone else who is more informed can provide some insight on this point. Dec 11, 2020 at 20:38

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