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The character is a bit of a joke: it describes a dwelling (宀) for pigs (豕). Why is this strange construction used? Were pigs somehow important for homes in the past?

说文解字 describes 家 as 从宀,豭省聲 - that is, it uses 豭 (jiā) as phonetic. But then this raises the question: why use 豭 instead of the much simpler 叚 (jiǎ)?

何以不云叚聲。而紆回至此耶。

Therefore the author suspects that the character did indeed originally mean "a dwelling for pigs":

竊謂此篆本義乃豕之凥也。

But this raises another question: why did a dwelling for pigs come to mean home? By contrast, 牢 (a dwelling for oxen) has come to mean "jail". Was the choice of animal therefore arbitrary, or were pigs somehow more important in the past - did people keep pigs in the house? - or did having pigs in the house signify something home-like?

  • Indeed pigs were important in the past as they were nearly the only source of oil/fat. Some ancient texts even mentioned how to pick pigs at the market -- if a pig's hind legs are fatty then it must be a good pig, in the sense the whole pig must be fatty because hind legs usually contains least fat. – user58955 Oct 15 '14 at 13:26
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    regarding 牢, the original meaning was the enclosure within which one keeps cattle. This brings forth the sense of prison. – user58955 Oct 15 '14 at 13:30
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    One explanation why 'house' is associated with pig is that it happened in the past that a boar could come over night and impregnate enclosed sows. This suggests some sort of strong reproductive capacity. And people wanted to be reproductive at the time. – user58955 Oct 15 '14 at 13:42
  • Wild guess: bulls are raging, hence 'housing a bull' implies imprisonment; pigs are growing fast, hence 'housing a pig' implies nurturing. – NS.X. Oct 18 '14 at 7:41
  • You are taking "豭省聲" as a given, but is there any evidence for that? 说文解字 is notorious for having errors, so I wouldn't be surprised if this is a mistake. – 無色受想行識 Oct 20 '14 at 12:35
6

The origin form of this word 家 comes from 甲骨文 or 金文

and here is some explanation:

金文家:古家字從 宀從豕;凡祭,士以羊豕,古者庶士庶人無廟,祭於寢(亦食居之所,故從宀),陳豕(已熟者)於屋下也。

so the ancient scholars use a goat or pig for a fete in where they sleep and eat (宀), so 家 means put a cooked pig under the house

Hope that answers your question

  • Interesting, although this seems to be different from the explanation in 说文解字. What is your source? – congusbongus Oct 16 '14 at 4:31
  • Here you go: baike.baidu.com/subview/11023/14131715.htm – George Chen Oct 16 '14 at 4:43
  • 家 here should be understood as a social institution. – George Chen Oct 16 '14 at 4:44
  • @GeorgeChen that seems like a different source, and isn't a primary source, it has two contradictory explanations: first it says that it stands for wild boars offered as sacrifices, second it says it means domestic pigs kept inside the house. – congusbongus Oct 16 '14 at 4:51
  • 家, until recently, was a big word that connoted institution of some sort. The source mentions boars as offerings (祭品), which fits 家's original meaning. – George Chen Oct 16 '14 at 5:35
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As you can see here, 家 was already present in 甲骨文 in essentially similar form. Thus 豕 is not an abbreviation for 豭. Whether 豕 has phonetic content is difficult or impossible to determine. One would have to rely on the judgements of a 甲骨文 specialist/historical linguist.

3

說文 is very close to being correct. The only problem is that「豭」was originally much simpler than it is now, which should answer the query

why use 豭 instead of the much simpler 叚 (jiǎ)?


「家」(Zhengzhang OC: /*kraː/) was originally comprised of

  • 「宀」(building), a semantic component;
  • 「豭」(Zhengzhang OC: /*kraː/, hog/boar/male pig), a phonetic component.

「豭」was originally inscribed as

enter image description here

which is basically「豕」(pig) with the reproductive organ clearly showing. This is the form originally seen in「家」:

enter image description here

Compare this with「豕」:

enter image description here

「豭」saw the change of the boar shape into「豕」and the addition of phonetic「叚」. Contrast this to「家」, where the boar shape just changed into「豕」without any addition of a phonetic hint.


Note, the interpretation of「牢」is incorrect. The word represented by「牢」was originally defined as an encircled area (pen) for breeding various sacrificial animals: oxen, sheep, or horses. The glyph for the encircled area is

enter image description here

and the word was variously represented with the inside as「牛」:

enter image description here

「羊」:

enter image description here

or「馬」:

enter image description here

「牛」prevailed as the main shape, but the encircled area was graphically corrupted into「宀」in the Warring States period, and this is the shape we are left with now:

enter image description here


References:

  • 黃德寬《古文字譜系疏證》
  • 季旭昇《說文新證》
  • 小學堂
1

From my understanding of the Chinese culture, the typical concept of a Chinese "home" means a plot of land, a house, and some pigs or other animals that help support the family. I guess some time in the past the pigs became so important or so significant for a family that the word "home" is named after it. Although the modern "home" has changed since the time when a significant number of Chinese are farmers, the concept and the Chinese character remain.

EDIT: My guess for the etymology 牢 is that, in comparison to the more ubiquitous pigs, not every home has cows or oxen, and oxen are relatively more aggressive animals. So, as jails are for aggressive people (kind of), 牢 is for aggressive animals.

1

@coderzelf's answer is probably most accurate, but I'd like to share an anecdote about my humble origin.

Towards the end of Qing dynasty, Han Chinese from Northern China migrated in waves into Manchuria where land was vast and labours were few. In order to survive the harsh winter, new comers would ask landlords to allow them to share roofs with their pigs. Often times, the hosts would keep the most promising lads. Many of these teens showed remarkable vitality after they grew up and married into their hosts family. By contrast, those who went to cities and hoped to make it in the streets were all frozen hard over night.

Northern China was overall very cold. We can imagine how people keep warm in ancient times. I know Vikings shared roofs with cows in Greenland.

  • Why the downvote? It is an interesting cultural fact which might have its roots 5000 years ago and is possibly related to the origin of the word. No one recorded the motives on the creation of Chinese characters. Even the ancient dictionaries contain wild speculations. It's just something that is impossible to know for sure. – Wang Dingwei Oct 23 '14 at 4:37
  • @WangDingwei - Thanks for understanding. According to Bertrand Russell's theory of knowledge, analogy is one of the postulates that validates scientific inferences. In this case, at least, it gives us a clue. – George Chen Oct 23 '14 at 5:07
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I think that's because people feed pigs at home. this place will not move, but people have to go out to plant rice or something, this place they feed pigs is a place they will come back to rest and live, so this is home. just guess.

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The meaning behind the radicals used for 家, as explained on page 93 of a book titled "Chineasy: The New Way to Read Chinese":

"In ancient China, pigs were raised indoors to keep them safe. Pigs in the house then became associated with a bountiful home."

I know anecdotal references aren't much, but I'd like to include that my Mandarin language teacher (from Beijing) has also explained the same reasoning, and even passed out illustrations made by another source depicting this explanation. If I find the illustrations later, I'll post them.

EDIT: Adding info about 牢 liao2, as brought up by OP.

The meaning behind the radicals used for 牢, as described by Chineasy.org:

"The compound for Prison (牢) is comprised of the building block for Roof (宀) and Cow (牛). Cows that were kept in a household were used as beasts of burden. So though the original meaning of this compound was “fold, pen”, it has since extended to mean, “prison” as a noun (監牢) and “firm” (牢固) as an adjective."

  • May I ask why this was down voted? If anything, to help me understand how to better answer questions? – slufter Feb 15 '15 at 22:56
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As I have just consulted a dictionary, the earliest house in ancient China was just for fete or family meetings, and "豕" stands for wild boar, which was very rare sacrifice that time,,so it's ceremonious. And then the houses were used for living, the word "家" changed its meaning. Hope this answer can help you.

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