西 xī west 酉 yǒu a wine vessel, 10 th terrestrial branch
Which word is first invented? Why these 2 are similar with a small line as an addition? Thanks
Chinese Language Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for students, teachers, and linguists wanting to discuss the finer points of the Chinese language. It only takes a minute to sign up.Sign up to join this community
The first thing to point out is that both west for 「西」 and 10th terrestrial branch for 「酉」 are both rebuses or phonetic loans. This means that the shape of the character does not have anything to do with the meaning of the word that it represents.
The character 「西」 represented a word which sounded similar or sounded the same to an existing word meaning west, therefore it was also used for the word west, and the same idea goes for 「酉」.
The similarity in appearance between 「西」 and 「酉」 is nothing but a long history of shape stylisation.
「西」 originally depicted a bird's nest, and this word is now written as 「棲」 (Baxter-Sagart OC: /*s-nˤər/). The character 「西」 was borrowed to mean west (also /*s-nˤər/) since the earliest traceable inscriptions, but this borrowed usage is a phonetic loan.
「酉」 originally depicted a container for storing alcohol. This was very early on extended to mean wine, alcohol in general, now written 「酒」 (/*tsuʔ/). An abundance of characters containing 「酉」 or a derivative of 「酉」 as a semantic component have something to do with alcohol or fermentation:
The character 「酉」 was also very early on used for one of the terrestrial branches (/*N-ruʔ/), but this usage is also a phonetic loan.
See e.g. 《甲骨文合集》37986 for a record of the calendar days inscribed on an oracle bone. In this sample, 「酉」 is the bottom-most character on the right-most column.
本, where the horizontal stroke in
本indicates the root of a tree (
酉are different. They only share graphical similarity in modern script and look (and indeed are) rather distinct in older scripts. That is to say, they are etymologically unrelated.
酉 are found in oracle bone texts. Both of them also have derived ('younger') meanings, which makes differentiating their time of invention (of the character itself, and of meaning) rather hard. To illustrate:
西 originally means 'bird nest', but was hypothesised to be a phonetic loan word (an otherwise unrelated, pre-existing character that was borrowed to express a character-less meaning based on phonological similarity) for the cardinal point 'west'. On the other hand, Shuowen outright equated
酉 with maturation or completion (
就 in classical Chinese), as harvest makes wine for rituals (
就也。八月黍成，可爲酎酒。). The connotation of time was further strengthened when
酉 became one of the terrestrial branches.
This phenomenon is not unique. Other character pairs that are graphically similar in modern script but have different origins include:
囗 (an enclosure; mostly used as a radical),
王 ('king'; an axe with its edge facing downwards, symbolising authority and rulership) and
玉 ('jade'; jade pieces stringed together),
肉 as a left-radical, e.g. in
Personally, I do not agree that
酉 as a terrestrial branch is the result of phonetic loan. It fails the prerequisite where
酉 as a pre-existing character should be otherwise unrelated to the new meaning. Rather, there is derivation of meaning (引申), which is also seen in other terrestrial branch characters, most prominently
子 (a child symbolises the beginning). However - most of these are hypotheses. Some of the explanations on terrestrial branches given in Shuowen was also dubious. Therefore, the conservative way is to assert that there is a phonetic relationship, hence loan, between the two.
The same goes for
西: some hypothesised there is a derivational relationship between 'bird nest' and 'the west' (the birds return to their nest as the sun sets in the west), hence this should not be a phonetic loan. Again, these are hypotheses.
Reference: Multi-function Chinese Character Database