2

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

6

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」.


時期 「西」 「酉」


西
 

5.13.2
合集34340


酉
 

9021
合集20856
西周

西
 

伯⿹戈冬簋
集成4115


酉
 

三年𤼈壺
集成9726
戰國 璽印

西
 

3966
古璽彙編
・璽印

酉
 

3447
古璽彙編


西
 

日書乙種163
睡虎地秦簡


酉
 

日書乙種225
睡虎地秦簡
西漢

西
 

二年酒鋗


酉
 

新承水槃
東漢

西
 

史晨碑


酉
 

韓仁銘


西
 



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:

  • 「醬」 fermented soybean sauce
  • 「尊」 ceremonial wine vessel > wine ritual > respect
  • 「釀」 to ferment
  • 「醉」 to be drunk

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.

合集37986


References:

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  • 1
    Thank you very much dROOOze for your detailed analysis. 西 is the rebus or phonetic loan word (originally bird’s nest shape) and evolution happened to current form. – user27485 Mar 30 at 11:26
  • 1
    In 37986, 酉 was part of calendar entries and that is also evaluated as rebus or phonetic loan word. Approximately howmuch percentage these rebus or phonetic loan words consists of total Chinese characters? Thanks in advance – user27485 Mar 30 at 11:30
  • 1
    @user27485 In a modern Chinese text, about 15-30% of characters are rebus borrowings (in terms of frequency of appearance, NOT unique characters used). – dROOOze Mar 31 at 8:31
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  1. In contrast to genuinely related character pairs, e.g. and , where the horizontal stroke in indicates the root of a tree (), 西 and 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.
Character Oracle bone script Bronze script Seal script
西 xi_o xi_b xi_s
you_o you_b you_s
  1. Both 西 and 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 with maturation or completion ( 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 became one of the terrestrial branches.

  2. This phenomenon is not unique. Other character pairs that are graphically similar in modern script but have different origins include: and (an enclosure; mostly used as a radical), ('king'; an axe with its edge facing downwards, symbolising authority and rulership) and ('jade'; jade pieces stringed together), and ( as a left-radical, e.g. in , ) etc.

Character Oracle bone script Bronze script Seal script
kou_o kou_b kou_s
Nil Nil wei_s
wang_o wang_b wang_s
yu_o yu_b yu_s
yue_o yue_b yue_s
⺼(肉) rou_o Nil rou_s

Edit

  1. Personally, I do not agree that as a terrestrial branch is the result of phonetic loan. It fails the prerequisite where 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 (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.

  2. 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.

    一說以「西」名日落之方乃引申用法,而非純粹假借,理由在於「西」原為鳥之歸巢,由此聯想到夕陽西下之時,故名日落之方曰西(杜學知)。

Reference: Multi-function Chinese Character Database

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  • “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” this even looks logical why birds-nest is used for west. Thanks – user27485 Mar 31 at 7:21
  • @user27485 In this field, meaning associations and semantic extensions are quite strict - when inferring the shape of a pictogram and how it relates to the language, if primary evidence in the form of translatable texts with traceable meaning extensions are unavailable, then the "phonetic loan" explanation is the null hypothesis. – dROOOze Mar 31 at 7:55
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    It is not good practice to try to draw meaning connections with everything; for example, in the case of the earthly branches, attempting to draw connections with time; period would result in the entire idea of semantic extension being devoid of meaning. 丑 picture of a clawed handpicture of two bladespicture of a plowpicture of a snakepicture of a pestlepicture of a lightning boltpicture of an axe weaponpicture of plant roots ... – dROOOze Mar 31 at 8:00
  • Thanks dROOOze for detailed information. I started learning Chinese and the description given by birds-nest to use for west will help me remembering west without any confusion. Before that if you give east and west and identify the west, I could have done incorrectly. But with this explanation west and birds-nest linkage had been built in my mind and hope I will never forget that. You are correct that it is not proven, Agree. But That resolved my problem for west and wine bottle. Regarding earthly branches is there any other method to remember those characters? – user27485 Apr 1 at 5:19
  • I understand some people remember their meanings by story telling methods with unrelated characters, symbols. As a learner as of now, I do not have better choice to relate west and birds nest, although it was not proven..any way which authority is proving etymology is correct or not? Is it any Chinese University? – user27485 Apr 1 at 5:25

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