Using Naxi pictographs to examine Chinese etymology: the original meaning of gu 古 was ku 苦

Ever since Xu Shen 许慎 explained the etymology of the character gu 古, ‘ancient’, in his Shuowen Jiezi 《说文解字》 thus: “gu; from ten mouths, i.e. the knowledge of past words”, people have used it as a good example of an ideogrammic compound (会意字) for the meaning of ‘ancient’ – something that has passed through ten (shi 十) mouths (kou 口).Naxi scholar Fang Guoyu 方国瑜 claims that this explanation is “completely erroneous”, and in doing so provides possibly the best example of how comparative research into the Naxi pictographs can help us come to a clearer understanding of Chinese etymology. The following is a summary of the article 《古之本意为苦说-汉字甲骨文,金文,篆文与纳西象形文字比较研究一例》, which was first published in the Journal of Beijing Normal University 北京师范大学学报, 1982 vol 5.

In the oracle bone script, 古 is written gu oracle2, in the bronze script it is written gu bronze. The character shi 十, ‘ten’, the “from ten mouths” in the Shuowen, is not the number ten, but is instead derived from the shi oracle in the oracle character or the  shi bronze in the bronze character.

One can use the character’s tu 土 and wu 午 as examples: in the oracle bones, tu is tu oracle, and in the bronze script, it is tu bronze. The shi oracle and shi bronze represent pieces of earth, whose form later developed into piece evolution; they do not represent the numerical ten, ‘十’, in modern Chinese. The Chinese wu in the oracle script is wu oracle, and wu bronze1 in the bronze script. The bottom part of the character, shi oracle or wu bronze2, represents a stone pestle, and is not the numerical ten. So the ‘十’ in ‘午’ and ‘土’ developed from shi oracle or wu bronze2. Similarly, the ‘十’ in ‘古’ developed from shi oracle or shi bronze. The shi oracle or shi bronze in ‘古’ can be taken to represent a physical substance, therefore gu oracle2 is an ideogrammic compound for ’something outside of the mouth’.

It’s difficult to understand what ’something outside of the mouth’ may mean, but if we look at similar characters in the Naxi script things become clearer. The Naxi naxi bitter, k’a33, is recorded in the Register of Naxi Pictographs as having the meaning “bitter, an object coming out of the mouth, ‘naxi bitter object’ represents bitter flavour.” The oracle bone script gu oracle2 and bronze script gu bronze have precisely this original meaning: something bitter coming out of the mouth. This being the case, we can presume that the original meaning of gu 古 was in fact ku 苦, bitter. Gu is therefore a simple ideogram (指事字) and not an ideogrammic compound.

In order to provide further evidence for this theory, Fang uses the example of the Chinese gan 甘, which means sweet, the antonym of bitter.  Gan is described in the Shuowen as “from ‘mouth’, holding one [thing]“. When we compare the character for gan 甘 in the oracle bone script, gan oracle, with the Naxi pictograph naxi sweet, tɕʼi21, which means ’sweet’, we can see that the ‘one [thing]‘ that is being held in the mouth is a piece of food, being held in and not spat out, hence sweet – the character is a simple ideogram.

Many of the representations of oracle bone and bronze characters in this article are taken from Chinese etymology, a most excellent resource on the subject.

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