Contractions & Logographic Writing

Despite what any beginning Mandarin student will tell you, there’s a severe limitation on the number of available characters, and it’s an historically recent occurrence. Though it’s only been a short time in the history of the language since any real systemic effort towards standardisation has occurred (秦始皇 mythology aside) I believe it to have had a significant impact and a potentially greater impact in the future.

There was once great variety in the written language even during the later stages of modern simplification. Up until recently the only real limitation was the ability to carve a block for printing. Even today some regional characters exist (e.g. 俺 ǎn), though they’re not used in any formal settings, although in at least a couple cases the simplification process took advantage of these regional variations or pronunciations1.

In this post I’m focusing on contractions as they are what would most likely instigate the creation of new characters. In topolects, non-standard characters for contractions are used frequently, many of which are not supported by Unicode or any similar character encoding system. I’ve accumulated a small library of texts on dialects of Wu, and many of these books are written solely with characters, many of which are non-standard. This means it becomes a cut-and-paste job for the editor or print shop2. But before we get to modern contractions, it may be worth looking at the history of some of this type of contraction.

Historical fusions
There’re a few instances of contractions from Middle Chinese which have survived into Modern Standard Mandarin. Wù 勿 for example was formed through a contraction of 毋 wú and 之 zhī. The same was said for fú 弗, originally an entering tone and pronounced with a final [-t]3, as a contraction of 不之. E. G. Pulleyblank, who literally wrote the book on Early Middle Chinese, tells us that the consonant ending was likely originally significant of the beginning sound in 之. Another example which is more phonetically sound but less common in modern usage is 盍 hé, again originally an entering tone in Early Middle Chinese but with ending [-p] instead of [-t]. The word is a contraction of 何不, with the [-p] being a remnant of the initial sound in 不 bù, [pu].

Types of modern contractions
For the sake of classification, I would say there are three kinds of contractions. This first, mentioned above, has been called by Paul Rouzer4 “fusions”, in that they are a phonetic blend of two other characters, though they give no graphical clues to their etymology. The second type, and the one which I’m most interested in addressing, are also a kind of proper phonetic fusion, but include a graphical aspect as well. More on that in a moment. The third type are conceptual combinations such as Cantonese 奀 ngan1 to mean “thin” or “small” as a single character taking the direct meaning of its two component parts, “not” 不 and “big” 大. This should not be confused for the sort of combination that’s perceived in words like 好 as 女 plus 子, which aren’t always direct conceptual combinations and should be ignored altogether in the context of contractions as I’m addressing them here.

Dialectal use of obscure characters
In both modern Wu and Cantonese a number of the second type listed above exist. While Northern Mandarin speakers would likely be familiar with béng 甭 as a contraction of 不用, there also exists in Wu and Cantonese an equivalent written 甮, pronounced fiong and fung6 respectively. You’ll also find 覅, a contraction of 勿要 (typically fiào in Wu and fiu3 in Cantonese) and 嫑 biào, its dialectal Mandarin equivalent. Additionally, in Wu you’ll hear 㬟, pronounced “fen” or “feng” depending on region, meaning “never”.

不好 becomes 孬, pronounced /fe213/ in the Wenzhou dialect of Wu (and apparently nāo in Taiwan, and though a combination of 勿5 and 好 would perhaps be more appropriate for Wu). Also in the Wenzhou dialect, [fɑi˧˧] is 不爱 though unsurprisingly it seems it’s not a character supported by my computer. In Taiwan 只要 becomes 嘦, jiào.

In these later cases the character is more representational of the syllable’s component parts, both visually and aurally, almost as though it were a self-contained fanqie transcription. This sort of dialectal transcription may be one case where technology is more a hindrance than a help. We’re limited by the finite number of characters presentable with the few standards out there today, each referring to an individual vector image for each character. Only a small set of these dialectal contractions are able to be written and that number is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.

Click here for part two of this series.

1. see the Global Maverick post on 让’s simplification, and my response post on the same topic at the Annals of Wu.
2. In one text, for example, the printer lacked the ability to print 囥 and so a box was hastily sketched around 亢 for each occurrence. That was one of the easier fixes.
3. Early Middle Chinese pronunciation is taken from an article by E. G. Pulleyblank from Joseph Needham’s “Science in Traditional China”, 1981.
4. Associate Professor of Chinese Literature at the University of Minnesota, author of A New Practical Primer of Literary Chinese
5. See the recent post at the Annals of Wu on the different characters used for 不 in Wu.

4 responses to “Contractions & Logographic Writing”

  1. Gary Feng says:

    Excellent post, this and the sequel.

    In the early 20th century China also imported a number of characters from Japan, which were created by combining semantic components. Once entered in Chinese they were however used in a way similar to (phonological) contraction. See

  2. Are you meaning characters that were imported or rather specific combination? For example, if I recall correctly, 银行 is a Japanese import, but only as that pairing. 银 and 行 were both in use, just not together to mean the place to deposit money.

    However the vast majority of Japanese-created characters (kokoji) are only used in Japan. 腺 xiàn is the only one I know of that wasn’t originally Chinese but is now widely used in China.

  3. Daan says:

    Excellent posts, thank you. Sinoglot’s quickly making a name for itself. One minor comment: although Pulleyblank definitely wrote the book on Early Middle Chinese, the book you link to, [i]Outline of Classical Chinese Grammar[/i], does not deal with Middle Chinese (ca. Tang dynasty) but with the language of the high classical period (ca. Warring States).

  4. You’re absolutely right. Thanks for that. I’ll leave the link in all the same for those otherwise not familiar with Pulleyblank.

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