I know this might be bizarre but while I was searching up the ancient forms of 冘 (yín/yóu; to move on), I've seem to noticed something on the ancient forms for that character. I've took note that some ancient forms of 冘, look surprisingly similar (or if anything, the same as) 何's (; what, why, where, which, how) ancient characters! Now to show off both of these characters ancient forms, here's two charts from 小學堂 showing off the evolution of the two characters with same looking ancient forms circled in red:

: enter image description here

: enter image description here

As far as I noticed, I'm aware that both 冘 and 何 depict a person carrying a burden. As far as ancient pronunciations goes, I couldn't find any similarities between them within the two characters.

Also to take note, I've noticed that since these two characters in ancient times looked similar, the both of them seemed to branch off into their own characters with one of them becoming a phonosemantic character and one of them looking "pictographic".

So if anyone can, could anyone tell me if 冘 and 何 come from the same origin or if it's just an error in ancient form with the website I'm using to look at the ancient forms? Thanks!! :)

  • 1
    added etymology tag since your question addresses both :)
    – zagrycha
    Commented Aug 25, 2023 at 23:49
  • i think that the database of 小學堂 has “problem”. the search result of “冘”, only the last two (click the pictures) links to “冘”; the first six, link to “何” 😼 Commented Aug 26, 2023 at 1:28
  • 1
    further, counter-checked with 漢語多功能字庫 & 先秦甲骨金文簡牘詞彙庫, the character “冘” did not exist in oracle bone script. Commented Aug 26, 2023 at 1:31
  • 2
    Hey all (@水巷孑蠻), let's step back a bit - characters are not words, they are representations of words; a single character may represent multiple (etymologically unrelated) words, and in oracle bone script, one well known example is (Baxter-Sagart OC: /*[ŋ]ʷat/) and (/*s-ɢAk/). We do not say that [月 is derived from 夕] or [夕 is derived from 月], because such an idea doesn't make sense regardless of whether you're talking about shapes or sounds.
    – dROOOze
    Commented Aug 26, 2023 at 2:29
  • 2
    小學堂's 字形演變 page for 冘 is the same idea. Yes, clicking on some of those leads to 何, but that just means those characters are interpreted as either 冘, 何, or both (as in, sometmies it doesn't actually matter). Modern signage provides an appropriate analogy; when you drive on a road and come across ⚠️, does it matter if you read it as "Warning" or "Caution"? If your government's website categorises the sign as "Warning", does it mean it can't be read as "Caution"? Does it mean that the word "Caution" is derived from the word "Warning"?
    – dROOOze
    Commented Aug 26, 2023 at 2:37

2 Answers 2


「冘」 and 「何」 has indeed been argued to sometimes be written with the same character in oracle bones, indicated by the circled glyph (hereby denoted 「X」) in the question:


The depiction is of a person 「人」 carrying something (hereby denoted 「Y」) over their shoulder or back, indicating the meaning to carry a burden. 「Y」 could be various abstract shapes (looking like 「𝄩」, 「一」, 「冂」) or more concrete components (e.g. 「戈」, 「丂」, but note these are likely written sideways in 「X」, to conform to pictographic imagery).

The relevant vocabulary item is 「擔荷」, where these two characters are synonyms:

  • 「擔」 (Shuōwén: 「儋」, Zhengzhang OC: /*ʔl'aːm/, to carry on the shoulder) is the modern way of writing 「冘」; definitions for 「冘」 like to move on (/*lum/) are phonetic loans.

    「X」 can be traced to 「冘」 via its appearance as a character component, e.g. in 「沈」 (/*l'um/, /*l'ums/):







  • 「荷」 (Zhengzhang OC: /*ɡaːlʔ/, to carry a load on the shoulder) is the modern way of writing 「何」. Oracle bone forms of 「X」 which use 「戈」 (/*koːl/, dagger-axe) or 「丂」 (/*kaːl/, axe-handle, now written「柯」) for the component 「Y」 are more likely to be interpreted as 「何」 rather than 「冘」.

    The pictographic shape 「X」 later became obsolete for writing 「何」, with later texts favouring the phonosemantic construct 「何」.


  • I think I kind of get it now with both characters looking identical or just straight up the same. I've actually didn't notice the different uses of the shape of the object being carried. I think what led me to not notice that in the first place was likely because there's just too many different shapes that the oracle bone inscription used for both of these characters. I don't think I also knew that 擔荷 was an actual thing when I did my research on finding the similarities between the two characters.
    – prismcool
    Commented Aug 26, 2023 at 0:11

While I cannot guarantee perfect accuracy, I have a passing interest in these things and will try to help.

Starting at the oldest age for bone glyphs, at least 何 certainly existed. However while 何 is easy to see......


...... 冘 is far rarer and needs to look at more. I went through multiple resources and almost all had no results for 冘 as an oracle bone character, showing its rarity. I did find a few showing different oracle bone characters from your source (and two showing the same exact one). However every single one was still labeled as a 何 glyph even though it was being listed under 冘. so it is safe to say these glyphs are definitely still 何 and not related to 冘 as we know it-- which has no known entries before small seal script.

Now the only remaining question is why these 何 glyphs are being listed under another newer character, and is there actually a weird etymology connection or a weird etymology glitch? I'll admit this is where I may start to fall short since I am not an expert studying these things, but after checking the sources that I am aware of, here is what I found: 冘 is a 象形 picture based character depicting a man carrying a pole. Note that 何 is a picture of a man carrying a hoe on their shoulder, so similar but distinct in records. I also saw one source state that its original form was identical to 方, which in turn was a picture of a man carrying a yoke. However it did not elaborate properly on the etymology so may not be reliable. None of these elaborated on 冘's etymology properly, whether they listed glyphs or only newer characters. The fact that it is rare is probably significantly lowering the possible encounters to help with etymology.

I think it is safe to say that there are no oracle bone entries commonly and officially related to 冘, and those being listed under it are from unrelated glyphs with similar archaic etymology. I would not necessarily say your source is wrong though, as its possible there are theories out there that some instances of oracle bone glyphs represented 冘, and they are just not yet officially substantiated by enough evidence. This character is rather rare so its likely there just is not enough evidence to form any older etymology than small seal script on an official and common level. Officially and commonly though, all bone glyphs are unrelated(or unconfirmed) and this source is wrong in that sense. This is also why most resources will list zero oracle bone glyphs for this character at all.

P.S. While your source may be perfectly valid, I recommend trying to find sources that A.) list the actual bone glyphs, B.) have as many instances of the bone glyphs as possible, and C.) ideally tell you which oracle bone its from so you know its not being confused with something else or cut off (trying to look for a partial oracle bone glyph accurately is like trying to figure out 火火 from 灬灬 but much worse. If you haven't seen it before its almost futile, because even if you correctly pull it up you may dismiss the regular form as too different (been there done that _(:з」∠)_)

Bone glyphs are a whole different beast from anything large seal script and newer, characters turned side ways upside down or backwards can be the same, while characters with the slightest deviation in line placement can be confirmed different. There are thousands of oracle bone script characters still undefined, with only about a thousand positively identified. So if you are able to find as full sources as possible the better. The source linked above was recommend to me by a native who studies and reads oracle bone writing, so it is a good place to start as far as free online resources go :)

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.