Coindexation Between Phonetic Transcription and Semantic Translation as a Method of Ethnonym Decipherment

Penglin Wang

Coindexation Between Phonetic Transcription and Semantic
Translation as a Method of Ethnonym Decipherment

(62nd Meeting Friedensau, 2019)

In this presentation, I want to discuss the coindexation in Inner Asian ethnonyms or state names between phonetic transcription and semantic translation as a method of etymologizing the proper names in areally related languages in Central Eurasia and thus revealing the underlying reasons for recurrence of certain names and their meanings. Having gone through the ancient Chinese sources I see several threads of the coindexation and endeavor to organize them into a series of echoing representations in the various languages. I investigate two types of coindexation operating in the formation of ethnonyms: a) the tendency of animal names converging with ethnonyms, and b) the tendency of numerals overlapping with either animal names or ethnonyms or both. These two tendencies could have resulted in a semantic trinity between animal names, ethnonyms, and higher unit numerals in Central Eurasian languages in a number of instances.

The ethnographic accounts in Chinese sources were a limited display of the coindexation of phonetic transcription with semantic translation. Many tribal groups were certainly named with the words in local languages and sometimes inevitably with Chinese semantic interpretation of the local ethnonyms. Some early authors thought about the meaning of ethnonyms used in interethnic encounters and reflected their comprehension in writing. Therefore, in the Chinese dynastic histories we read a series of meaningful ethnonyms in two categories—zoographic and numerical—relevant to the purpose of this presentation. In the zoographic connection, we have two subcategories.

The first is that of objective observation and translation, which can be exemplified with the ethnonyms in the sense of quanrong (犬戎) ‘canine Rong,’ quanyi (犬夷) ‘canine Yi,’ quanzhong (犬種) ‘(of) canine strain,’ lang (狼) ‘wolf,’ hu (狐) ‘fox,’ baiyang (白羊) ‘white sheep,’ jie (羯) ‘wether,’ and shou (獸) ‘beast.’ The second is about an ill-minded subjective comparison of alien groups to such fierce beasts as ‘jackals and wolves’ owing to the contemporary clash between the agricultural Chinese in China and the tribal groups of nomadic inspiration in the north. As for the numerically-prefixed ethnonyms, the Chinese authors repeatedly used the numeral bai (百) ‘hundred’ and the collective notion qun (群) ‘crowd’ in their onomastic designations of tribal groups with baiman (百蠻) ‘hundred Man(s)’ and qundi (群狄) ‘numerous Di(s)’ and the like.

The depth and width of vocabulary diffusion in Central Eurasia have been severely underestimated in the previous studies. For instance, the fact that wolf, dog, and fox belong to the canine category is supported by the tendency in some Altaic languages to be hard to differentiate one from another or from a ‘herd’ notion conceptually in the course of diffusion. As I propose, Tokharian AB ku ‘dog’ cognate to Old Irish cú, Greek kúōn, and OE hund was etymologically connected with Middle Mongolian hünegen ‘fox’ and fünege ‘a good breed of dogs,’ Dagur hunuğ, EY u heneğen, Monguor funǝgǝ, Kangjia fûnigɔ ‘fox,’ Manchu feniyen ‘flock, herd,’ and Ude huni ‘herd, pack’ as well as Chinese hu ‘fox’. The Middle Mongolian hünegen obviously comprises the root hün(e)- (with the root final vowel e being a phonetic filler) and the suffix -gen. In consideration of the suffixal attachment, we can find Tokharian AB ku diffused also into Dagur as guskǝ ‘wolf’ and Orochun as guykǝ ‘wolf.’ These two words have the root gu- or guy-, which correspond to Tokharian AB ku, and the suffix -kǝ, leaving the Dagur infix -s- as a historical residue to be explained with Mongolic plural suffix -s occurring on Written Mongolian stems ending in vowels or in the diphthong ai, replacing i, e.g., em-e ‘woman’ — emes ‘women,’ noqai ‘dog’ — noqas ‘dogs.’ Henceforth, these widespread canine terms could have been underlying the phonetically transcribed ethnonymic forms attested in Chinese as hu (胡), gui (鬼), kun- (昆), gun- (緄), hun- (匈, 混, 渾, Sogdian xwn), and funie (拂涅) and the like, which would reflect the ‘canine’ and ‘herd’ morphemes with dialectal or cross-linguistic variations across space and time in the vast region. In this research, moreover, some other Indo-European and Altaic zoographic terminology accounts for many other ethnonyms in Inner Asia.

This coindexation approach to Inner Asian ethnonyms has a few merits. First, crosslinguistic comparisons offer an innovative perspective on the chain of vocabulary diffusion throughout Inner Asia: Tokharian, Germanic, and Mongolic form an axial connection, with Iranian, Turkic, and Tungusic involved. Second, it is not uncommon even today for people to utilize animal names for their collective or individual symbolism or identification markers, let alone in the past. As is well-known, the native American Indian groups used as a great variety of animals for their totemic symbolization. Third, the coindexation between phonetic transcription and semantic translation is a constant phenomenon from a source language to a target language. Fourth, as I estimate, despite the presence of contributing semantic seekers, those early Chinese authors who were engaged in ethnographic account of the foreign tribes in the frontiers had often refrained from exploring meaning of the ethnonyms they were transcribing phonetically because of language barriers and intractable semantic opaqueness of many ethnonyms. They had come to the field without knowledge of foreign languages such as Xiongnu. Consequently, they were faced with bilingual difficulty and needed to have an interpreter to communicate with foreign language speakers because of the lack of foreign language teaching institutions and of enthusiasm over new language learning. For instance, according to the Grand Historian Sima Qian, in his diplomatic mission to the Western Regions, Zhang Qian (張騫) along with his team set out with the Hu slave Ganfu (甘父) assigned by the Han dynastic court, who as a bilingual (Xiongnu and Chinese) or a polyglot, in my opinion, served as an interpreter. Although Ganfu was identified as a Hu slave (胡奴 Hunu) in Han China, he appeared to be a Xiongnu individual of voluntary allegiance to Han dynasty. Throughout his trip serving Zhang Qian who was retained in Xiongnu for ten years owing to his violation of the Xiongnu sovereignty, Ganfu had opportunities to reclaim his Xiongnu identity and stay behind there. But he did not do so and instead remained loyal to Zhang Qian and returned to Han China. During the period of Han-Xiongnu confrontation, Ganfu encountered situations similar to the Han Chinese who were in Xiongnu, some of them seeking out their solidarity in search of a sense of Xiongnu belongingness and identity. China and Xiongnu were in dire need of each other’s insiders for service and wisdom.