A friend of mine just returned from a retreat at a monastery, and I greeted him on Google Chat by typing 阿弥陀佛.  But a strange thing happened.

In the Sogou pinyin IME, I typed “amituofo”, but the first choice given said “阿(ē)弥陀佛” (with the parentheses included).  I wondered at that, and asked the nearest native speaker, who happened to be my second son, who is 7 years old and just finished first grade today.  I said “amituofo…amishenme?”

He very clearly replied “ēmítuófó”.  By that time my friend had typed 阿弥陀佛 in return.  Intrigued, I asked him how he typed it.  He said he typed “amitf”.  This is getting intriguing!  I mentioned the two instances of ē, and he asked his wife and daughter, who both said ā.  I checked Pablo (which is CEDICT-based), and it said ē.  My friend reported that ABC Dictionary says both (but later reports that the only 阿=ē entry is for 阿弥陀佛), Oxford says ē, and Adsotrans says ā, and that his wife says that ē is popular in movies.  I checked the 现代汉语词典, and only ē is given there.

The ā pronunciation could easily be explained by the fact that it is the normal pronunciation for 阿, found in many place names and other transliterations.  But where does ē come from?

And does anyone know of any other Sogou IME entries that have parenthetical alternate pronunciations?

10 responses to “Ē弥陀佛”

  1. Carl says:

    It’s extra confusing too because in Sanskrit and Japanese, it’s an a sound. When would it have evolved into an e just in China?

  2. rm says:

    Sogou always does this when it thinks you’ve chosen the wrong pinyin for a character with two pronunciations, for instance 暴露:the second character is pronounced ‘lu’ here but can also be pronounced ‘lou’, so try typing baolou into Sogou…
    So it looks like Sogou has decided that 阿弥陀佛 should correctly start with an ‘e’ not an ‘a’.

  3. Hans says:

    According to zhongwen.com: 阿 as ā: prefix before names, ē: flatter. Maybe the phrase is more related to the later?

  4. Kevin says:

    I’ve got no idea how the “ē” sound got into the word “Amitabha,” but the character 阿 has that pronunciation in other words. e.g. the 阿房宫, the Ēpáng Palace of Qinshihuang. (Why 房 here is “páng” is another question.) The Xinhua Zidian’s entry on the character notes a few more instances of the “ē” pronunciation; it seems to be the original pronunciation.

  5. Josh says:

    You’ll find the alternate pronunciation with some other Buddhist terms, for example 般若 (bore). BTW I work with a couple of Buddhist nuns and Emituofo is definitely the preferred pronunciation.

  6. pot says:

    @Kevin: Ē is indeed the original pronunciation. The character 阿 originally means curved part and, later, to ingratiate. When used for these meanings, it is pronounced ē, which was derived regularly from Middle Chinese *ʔɑ. On the other hand, the use of 阿 as the prefix ā- is rather recent and dialectal. In transcriptions that date back to Middle Chinese, ē is thus preferable to ā. Unfortunately, the (mis)pronunciation ā is so widespread that language authorities have to make compromises. For example, 《普通话异读词审音表》 lists 阿弥陀佛 under ē, but 阿罗汉 under ā.

    @Carl: China is not the only place where the vowel /a/ or /ɑ/ has raised. Amitābha starts with /ə/ in Hindi.

  7. Karan says:

    I can confirm pot’s statement that Amitābha (अमिताभ) does have an initial Pinyin ‘e’ sound and not an ‘a’ sound, so as a transliteration of that, it makes sense that it’s ‘e’.

  8. Josh says:

    It should be noted, however, that regardless of its original pronunciation (thanks pot for the details), the character 阿 is most commonly used to transcribe the Sanskrit syllable a. For example, there are a number of Chinese translations of Buddhist sutras (such as the Avatamsaka, for example) wherein the entire Sanskrit “alphabet” 字母 is transliterated into Chinese, and 阿 is usually used for अ (and sometimes आ as well).

  9. Claw says:

    Kevin wrote:

    (Why 房 here is “páng” is another question.)

    The /f-/ initial of most of the modern Chinese varieties came from Middle Chinese /pj-/, /pʰj-/, or /bj-/. However, there are a few cases where the expected change to /f-/ did not occur. The most common example of this is the modern pronunciation of the word 不.

    The modern Mandarin pronunciation of 不 is /pu/ (pinyin: bù), which came from Middle Chinese /pjwət/, even though the expected pronunciation would have been /fu/. The expected “literary” /fu/ pronunciation is retained in the character 弗. The “colloquial” /pu/ pronunciation was relegated to the character 不 in Modern Mandarin, replacing the original word that 不 used to represent. The original word that 不 used to represent was pronounced /pjəu/ in Middle Chinese, which became /foʊ̯/ (pinyin: fǒu) in Mandarin; this pronunciation ended up being assigned to a new character: 否.

    Going back to the original question, a similar thing must have happened with 房. Its Middle Chinese pronunciation was /bjaŋ/, which led to Modern Mandarin /fɑŋ/ (pinyin: fáng). The ‘páng’ pronunciation is probably a rare instance where the initial plosive pronunciation was retained.

  10. Kellen says:

    In Sanskrit the full phrase is नमोऽमिताभाय. The ऽमि bit in the middle corresponds to “ami” with the ऽ being in the place of अ, more or less. And while Sanskrit isn’t quite standard in pronunciation these days, I’d say अ is much closer to pinyin a than pinyin e. But, not one to disagree with Karan on things of this sort, and not at all sure how it’s pronounced in any other Indic language, I can’t say this with much confidence.

    But at least as it would be said in Sanskrit the way I learned it, I’d say it’s an a.

    That’s my 2 fen, which even a beggar would reject.

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