Wiktionary states that 蝠 was originally a pictogram in the oracle bone and bronze scripts before changing to a phono-semantic compound (semantic 虫 + phonetic 畐).

  1. In a case like this, are the pictogram and phono-semantic compound completely unrelated in shape? (Contrasting this with the evolution of e.g. 虫.)

  2. Is 畐 strictly phonetic? I found an (unsourced) Japanese blog post that suggests the 扁 and 畐 in 蝙蝠 have meanings of 'flat' and 'cling to', respectively (conveying the meaning of 'animal that clings to flat walls').


Photo-semantic compound

  • 1
    the character “蝠” existed in oracle bone script? any proofs, otherwise, the wiki page provided is . . . dubious Sep 2 at 7:52
  • @水巷孑蠻 Tell me about it, this is why I don't use Wiktionary for everything. I'm pretty sure I have already checked sources around for ancient forms of this character and it seems this character existed during the bronze script.
    – prismcool
    Sep 2 at 8:06
  • Sorry if my question confusingly worded - I don't think the Wiktionary page is claiming that 蝠 existed in oracle bone or bronze scripts, just that there was a pictograph for 'bat'.
    – Quppa
    Sep 2 at 13:16

2 Answers 2


Wiktionary is primarily a word dictionary, and as such, some of its phrasing around glyph origins (which is a character-oriented study) may not be clear. The same unclear description issues appear in numerous other characters, like Glyph origin of 「四」, where it is implied that 「亖」 evolved into 「四」 (which is not true, as the 2 characters are unrelated). I would rephrase the section like this:

Glyph origin of 蝠

Here, we clarify that the character 「蝠」 did not evolve from a pictogram of a bat (we'll use 「🦇」 from now on); no component of 「蝠」 is related to 「🦇」.

To answer the queries:

In a case like this, are the pictogram and phono-semantic compound completely unrelated in shape?

In this case, 「蝠」 and 「🦇」 are completely unrelated in shape. We don't really even know what word 「🦇」 is supposed to represent, as it's used sparsely in the late Shāng period as a proper noun on ritual vessels.

Generally speaking, you can only determine the pronunciation of a pictogram (and thus determine the actual word it represents) if it appears in (1) continuous transmission of texts throughout historical periods of China or (2) poetry rhymes. 「🦇」 has neither historical continuity nor appearances in a poem, with 「🦇」 appearing in the Shāng period and then abruptly falling out of use.

This is not to say that pictograms do not have related phono-semantic compounds, or that those that don't have any relation can't be pronounced:

Is 畐 strictly phonetic? I found an (unsourced) blog post that suggests the 扁 and 畐 in 蝙蝠 have meanings of 'flat' and 'cling to', respectively (conveying the meaning of 'animal that clings to flat walls').

Since they don't reveal sources or reveal how they came up with this, the default position is "yes, 「扁」 and 「畐」 are purely phonetic".

It pays to go through the same motions as scientific methodology with such a claim. I don't know where 「畐」 suggesting the meaning cling to comes from, but 「蝙」 related to 「扁」 (meaning flat and thin) is worth investigating. The available data used to test such claims is in the form of variant spellings.

At this point, they should do a search for variant spellings of the word through historical literature:

  • Has 「蝙蝠」 ever been spelt with 「扁」? If they can't reference any, then you should reject the alternative hypothesis, that 「扁」 is semantic in 「蝙」;
  • One of the alternative words for bat 「蝙蝠」 (Zhengzhang OC: /*peːn pɯɡ/) is 「服翼」 (/*bɯɡ lɯɡ/), indicating that /*pɯɡ/ is a morpheme for the meaning bat. By itself, this casts doubt that 「畐」 has a strong semantic link to bat. Can they then find a concrete word reconstructed as /*bɯɡ/ or /*pɯɡ/ meaning to cling, spelt as 「畐」 or a derivative character? If they can't, then you should reject the alternative hypothesis, that 「畐」 is semantic in 「蝠」.
  • It's kind of odd to me how when I looked up this character on 漢語多功能字庫, it said that it was first a pictograph of a bat. Sometimes it doesn't really make sense to me when a character is explained as first a pictograph only for it to be transformed into a phonosemantic character without really any explanation on how some parts of the pictograph shift into readable components. I know that 秋 and 蛛 became what it is today because there's clear evidence of the pictograph quality being turned into an actual character.
    – prismcool
    Sep 2 at 22:14
  • 1
    @prismcool that depends on how you interpret the page. Reading it as talking about /*pɯɡ/ rather than 「蝠」 makes more sense, but that's my opinion.
    – dROOOze
    Sep 2 at 22:17

To get things out of the way, let me first explain the etymology for 蝠.

Visual etymology 蝠 (PY: ; kind of bat) indeed appeared to be a pictograph of an actual bat during the bronze script. However though, this was later changed to a phonosemantic character during the small seal script that's composed of the following components:

  • was originally a pictograph of a snake viewed from a bird's eye view, indicating the original meaning "venomous snake". Here, (venomous snake; insect) is a meaning component. The reason why 虫 was chosen for this character likely because since the character refers to a kind of bat, this component was chosen to refer to the fact that bats are a type of animal/mammal.
  • originally depicted a type of drinking vessel that's filled with wine, here originally meaning "wine vessel". Here, (fú [or bì]) is a sound component.

As for your questions,

    1. Pictograms and phonosemantic characters aren't necessarily unrelated in shape. This kind of phenomenon happens sometimes due to in fact that the pictograph might corrupt into components over time. This happens sometimes with characters with the 虫 component (e.g. 虹, 蛛) since over time when the same character is written, the character's pictographic quality just starts becoming into recognizable components when written the same overtime with 虫 being added as meaning component most of the time. This kind of thing also happens in other characters such as 秋 and 雞. So in conclusion this answer, they aren't necessarily unrelated but rather the pictograph quality just shifts to a phonosemantic character overtime when writers write the same character over and over again.
    1. For most characters I've seen, yes, 畐 is always seen as a phonetic component. This component is mostly seen a lot of the time to provide sound to the character rather than just meaning component. As for the explanations you provided from the blog posts, it seems the authors ignore the fact that 扁 and 畐 are sound components. Sure you can use the sound components meanings and origins for mnemonics, just know that it doesn't always work when you're explaining the character etymologically since sound components in phonosemantic characters will mostly provide the pronunciation most of the time. (Some characters have sound components that also act as meaning components, such as the 昏 in 婚.)

I hope all of this will answer your questions :)

Sources used:

  • Dong Chinese
  • Outlier Linguistics Dictionary of Chinese Characters
  • 小學堂 (xiaoxue.iis.sinica.edu.tw)
  • 漢語多功能字庫
  • Thanks, that clears things up (and the bat is very cute). In that case it seems odd to list the pictogram 🦇 as a historical form of the character 蝠 when they're more like 2 unrelated glyphs for the same word/concept.
    – Quppa
    Sep 2 at 13:32
  • @Quppa I think the reason that the bat pictograph is listed underneath 蝠 it's because of the character originally possibly started off as just a simple pictograph. If you want some other examples of this kind of thing happening, some I can think of are 秋 (which was originally a pictograph of a cricket), 雞 (which was a pictograph of a chicken), 脊 (which was originally a pictograph of a fish spine), etc. :)
    – prismcool
    Sep 2 at 14:08
  • The connection between the pictogram character and ideo-phonetic character seems dubious. Sep 3 at 7:44

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