本字、正字 and consistency in transcription
This keeps coming up with transcription work. The question is, when transcribing a person speaking their local dialect, what characters should you use? I provide the following definitions, which are up for debate:
本字 běnzì – The character that most accurately represents the word in etymology. In a way, it shows the cognates.
正字 zhèngzì – The “Standard” character. That which represents the meaning of the intended word for a wider audience.
As a semi-hypothetical example, Dialect X has a word that means “high” or “tall”, read “huan”. It’s cognate with Mandarin 懸 xuán as any educated speaker will tell you. A speaker of Dialect X may write it as 懸, or they may just write 高. They wouldn’t say 高 gāo or a cognate of 高. But then they may assume the rest of the country which doesn’t speak their dialect might not know 懸 as having this meaning, since in Standard Mandarin 懸 means “to hang”. So if you can imagine, they’re still writing in their dialect, but they’ve changed the characters to make it just a little easier to read for a wider audience.
I like to think of it as being like יהוה read “Adonai” in the synagogue, even though that’s not what it spells. Or better yet, think of a novel where there’s that one Hakka speaker; You still need to know what he’s saying, but the author also wants to capture a feeling of his Hakka-ness.
In this case, 懸 would be 本字, while 高 is 正字. Another example would be Cantonese 唔, which is not cognate with Mandarin 不. 唔 Is the right character, but it may be written 不 for the same reasons as 懸 may be written 高.
Then there’s one more kind of character. I don’t know what they’re really called. I call them 音字, but I’m probably the only one. This would be when a word is cognate with the Standard Mandarin character for the word, but for one reason or another, a different unrelated character is used. For example we may see 上海宁 written on ads in Shanghai, meant to mean “Shanghainese person” where 人 is replaced with 宁 níng. 宁 doesn’t otherwise have this meaning. Instead it’s used as a sort of phonetic representation, probably for the sake of non-Wu speakers. 人 and 宁 are pronounced exactly the same in Shanghainese: /ɲɪɲ/. Using 宁 essentially serves the purpose of in-group association. You know it’s Shanghainese, and if you’re Shanghainese yourself, maybe you can feel a little smug. It’s an orthographic shibboleth.
This use of 宁 is neither 本字 (It’s not the original character for “person”) nor 正字 (since it’s not Standard Mandarin, but used to distinguish from Mandarin). In transcription, this sort of “音字” character should obviously never be used, since it only detracts from the intended meaning of the utterance.
I brought up 唔 as a negational adverb in Cantonese in part because Cantonese has a much stronger written tradition than other dialect groups in China. But even the many characters used in Cantonese writing aren’t without problem. A quick search returned a BBS post entitled 广东话的 “佢” 的正字可能就是 “伊” (Cantonese 佢 might actually be 伊). To quote:
原来闽南语也是说” 他 ” 为” 佢 ” ,和粤语发音一样, 但写出来是 ” 伊 “, ” 伊 ” 在上古汉语指的是” 他 “, 如果闽南语是写的对,那” 伊 ” 就是” 佢 ” 咯!
In Min one also says “he” as “佢 (/i/)”, the same as the Cantonese pronunciation, but they write “伊”. In classical Chinese, 伊 referred to “he”. If Min is correctly written then 伊 is 佢!
Note the use of the term 正字 above meaning the thing that I’m calling 本字.
佢 is common in Cantonese. 伊 in Min and Wu (although 佢/渠 appears in some dialects), though some sources transcribe Wu “him” as 其. There’s a whole article on Wikipedia for personal pronouns in Sinitic languages which goes into far more detail than I should here. Ultimately, which is it? Another area is negation, where in Wu we might see 不, 弗 or more commonly 勿. Jerry Norman considered the Wu term to be cognate with Mandarin 不, but you’ll rarely see that character used in written Wu, and various dictionaries of Wu dialects disagree on the relationship between /vəʔ/ and 不.
My own policy is to use 本字 whenever available, and to use 音字 (or whatever it’s actually called) when the word lacks a written character, usually a result of being a borrowing from a non-Sinitic substrate language. For example a She 畲 word that seeped into Wenzhou dialect wouldn’t have an “original character”, so something else would have to sit in.
For more on this, see Problems in Comparative Chinese Dialectology: The Classification of Miin and Hakka by Branner and to a lesser extent Written Taiwanese by Klöter.
And if anyone knows what to call what I’ve referred to as 音字, please do let me know in the comments.