Chinese and Indo-European Roots and Analogues

Here's some nuttiness for you: Chinese and Indo-European Roots and Analogues (1861), by Pliny Earle Chase.

The Chinese has usually been regarded as essentially different from the Indo-European languages, not only in its grammatical construction, but also in its radical etymology. Resemblances have been occasionally pointed out [...] but it has generally been assumed that the resemblances were merely accidental, and no systematic attempt appears to have been made to render this venerable idiom tributary to the fascinating though bewildering investigation of linguistic germs.

Spoiler: Chase would like to suggest that the Roman alphabet (and its sister scripts) are derived from the Chinese writing system. For example:

阝 [...] fa'u, a mound, numerous. The name and the hieroglyphic or phonetic value of this character, are retained precisely, and the form very nearly, in the German 𝔙.


日 [...] ɟi, sun ; day. 旦 [...] ta'u, sunrise. This hieroglyph has the form of Greek theta, and the ideas of warmth and power are found in θάλπω, θέρω, Ζέυς, dies, deus. If there is a radical connection between these several words, the primitive root was probably di. The several changes of di into dɟi and ɟi, θε and Ζε, are easy and natural.

To be fair, Chase shows an earlier, round form of 日 that really did look remarkably like a theta.

Comparisons to cursive forms are also made. ("It is hardly credible that so many resemblances to our guttural script are all accidental.") But the most interesting moments are the so-close ones. Are Cyrillic Ш, Hebrew ש and Greek Σ all related? Yes (was this really not known in 1861?), but they do not descend from the Chinese character 山 (mountain).

Similarly, Chase correctly notes that Chinese 三 and Roman III are structurally equivalent, as are 十 and X, more or less, if the "tally marks" hypothesis is correct — it's just the idea of direct influence that's unsupportable.

Incidentally, Victor Mair's Sino-Platonic Papers have published a couple of rather less freewheeling monographs on related ideas, except with the lines of influence going from Near East to Far: Julie Lee Wei's Correspondences Between the Chinese Calendar Signs and the Phoenician Alphabet, and Brian R. Pellar's The Foundation of Myth, On the Origins of the Alphabet, and On the Origins of the Alphabet: New Evidence.

Popularity factor: 8


Dehaene has this very interesting book on the neurology of reading: http://amzn.com/B002SR2Q2I

He shows that writing systems evolve to make efficient use of the built-in capacities of the brain, including the primitives of the visual system. Thus they prefer to make distinctions with one-dimensional lines, intersections, curves and other fundamentals of edge detection; but avoid relying on, say, distinctions of line thickness, color shades, or gradations of line length, angle etc.

That is, we're all trying to make up symbols that are easy for humans to identify, and as a result all writing systems end up employing the same general type of graphical notation. It's to be expected that a lot of symbols will look alike (especially when you have like a thousand primitives, as in the Chinese system).


Hey, I thought I had tried to post a comment relating this to Dehane's work on the neurology of reading. Did the comment arose into nothingness or was it some sorta bug?


It got stuck behind the cushions of my hand-made commenting system, sorry!

It's interesting that for me at least decoding the extremes of cursive Chinese-character-based calligraphy really does require paying attention to line thickness, gradations of angle, etc. Maybe that's why I'm so bad at it -- I haven't yet managed to synthesize a discrete understanding of the analogue input yet, so I have to scrutinize it in all its variety.


I think that's the reason why learning to read Chinese cursive is harder for everyone :) (or one of the reasons, at least, and an important one.)

I'd very much like to read some Dehaene-style explanation of the stages of visual/linguistic processing when people read cursive…


I've been advised that learning to write the cursive is key to deciphering it (admittedly not from an unbiased source)*. I'm not certain of the universality of the method, but I find I do use some muscle memory in reading calligraphy/handwriting.

*my calligraphy teacher, natch.


My limited experience with calligraphy made me feel like this too (that I now read handwriting somewhat "kinetically") but I didn't practice long enough to learn to read full-blown cursive, so I couldn't claim anything :)

An author that explores the kinetic side of calligraphy in an interesting way is anthropologist Tim Ingold in his delightful book about lines. Turns out that Western calligraphy used to be seen in that gestural light too, complete with stroke orders and so on; it was called "ductus".


Yes! For me, too, mentally recreating the strokes that must have been involved in writing an obscure (as in hard to read, not necessarily rare) character is key to decoding it. My strategy of getting better at Japanese faster by using kanji practice time for more reading instead made komonjo my achilles heel.


It's to be expected that a lot of symbols will look alike (especially when you have like a thousand primitives, as in the Chinese system).

Aime la vérité, mais pardonne à l'erreur

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