The origin of 學(学) and Dr. Ash attends the 
Research into Integrating – Outlier Linguistics

The origin of 學(学) and Dr. Ash attends the 
Research into Integrating Old Chinese Phonology and Paleography conference in Hangzhou, China 9-10 March 2024

The origin of ()
Ash attends the “Research into Integrating Old Chinese Phonology and Paleography” conference in Hangzhou, China 9-10 March 2024

by Ash Henson

March 9th and 10th of 2024, dozens of scholars interested in the intersection of Chinese paleography (the study of the origin and evolution of the Chinese script), and Old Chinese phonology (reconstruction of the sounds of the Chinese language as of roughly 3000 years ago) convened at Westlake University (西湖大學) for two days of presenting papers and academic discussion.

The conference was done in honor of Dr. William Baxter's 75th birthday and his lifetime of work on Old Chinese. Congrats Dr. Baxter!

古文字與上古音整合研究:慶賀白一平先生七秩晉五華誕國際學術研討會 is the conference's official name in Chinese.

Image 1: Westlake University 西湖大学

The Setting

West Lake of Hangzhou is a famous lake that has gone by several names over the years, but ended up with the name West Lake as of the Song Dynasty (960 to 1279 AD). It has inspired many poets and writers with its natural beauty over the centuries. As such, it's an apropos location for conversations about historical phonology. The university is about an hour drive from the lake itself.

Image 2: Dr. Baxter presenting his recent findings

One of the goals of the conference was to honor the 75th birthday of Dr. William Baxter (白一平) of the University of Michigan, and to honor his lifetime of research into Old Chinese phonology.

I first met Dr. Baxter back in 2007 at Leiden University for a two-week seminar on Old Chinese phonology and Paleography.

Having known Dr. Baxter the past 17 years, I can say that he is truly a scholar and a gentlemen. He is originally from Alabama, but hasn't lived there in decades. My parents are both from Mississippi, so we share a common, and very Southern, background!

Other scholars that attended include (in no particular order): 葉玉英、李守奎、來國龍、野原將揮、王志平、張富海、顧史考 (Scott Cook)、陳家寧、金理新、程薇.

Image 3: The Preliminary Conference Proceedings

The paper I presented (which is listed under my Chinese name: 李艾希) is a discussion of how yáo can be used to represent () xué in the Oracle Bone script, which from a phonological perspective, does not really seem to make sense (on the surface!).

Not only can be used to represent (), but is tightly related to the origin of the character () itself. One very interesting part of this discussion is related to whether early versions of () contain the component liù or the component mián (which became in the modern form), referring to early forms like this:

The question at hand here is whether the bottom part of the above image (8304) is liù or mián.

In reality, these two components look very similar in the ancient script. Some scholars even think that the two are a single character. There are scholars, like 季旭昇 Jì Xùshēng, that think it's , representing the building in which children learn, i.e., a school.

Others, such as 黃德寬 Huáng Dékuān, think that it is . It's important to note that the reason 黃德寬 thinks the form is is due to reasons purely related to the character's form, and not its sound.

But, let's look at the Old Chinese reconstructions for the characters / components involved:

  ():  *m-kˤruk

It's not important to understand all of the symbols, but we can see that the sounds for () and are very similar. The initials (*kˤ- & *k-) are related, the main vowels (*-u-) are the same, and the finals (*-k) are the same.

That makes a very good sound component for (). If the form is actually , then it would be giving a meaning instead of a sound.

Another clue that this form isn't is that generally appears on the top of a character, and not on the bottom.

So, the combination of the phonological similarity and the form appearing on the bottom of the character indicate that the form is indeed and is giving a sound!

And what's really interesting about this is that the *k.- in the reconstruction has nothing to do with this character. Dr. Baxter and Dr. Sagart reconstruct it as *k.ruk due to the internal rules of their reconstruction system, and not due to any paleographic considerations.

It's also noteworthy that “six” is *kruk in proto Hmong-Mien and *d-k-ruk in proto Tibeto-Burman.

Another hint that this is the correct interpretation is related to another very early form, namely this one:

This character (花東473) is a variant of the character above (8304). This one is composed of yáo and 𦥑 jǔ (NOTE: This is character is “two hands reaching down from above,” not the similar looking  jiù “mortar”).

Once again, if we look at the Old Chinese, we get:

   ():  *m-kˤruk
𦥑 *k(r)uk 


Once again, we have a very suitable sound component. The reason the “r” is in parentheses is because there is not enough evidence available to determine if there is an “r” present here or not. But, this character has the same structure as 8304 above, which also provides additional confirmation that our analyses are correct.

This is a very good example of how Old Chinese phonology can inform paleographic analysis: independent evidence from multiple fields come together to solve a longstanding problem!


  • In answer to Kenneth’s question regarding how common cross-pollination between phonological studies and paleography is:
    In general, people that study paleography only know the very basics of historical phonology. In my experience, they aren’t very comfortable with using it. And, they generally learn what is called the Traditional Analysis (roughly speaking, the results of Qing scholars’ research; scholars only using the Traditional Analysis (or something very close to it) are often called 舊學派 [Old School]), not more modern phonological analysis, like that of Dr. Baxter and his research partner, Laurent Sagart. In Chinese, Baxter and Sagart are often called 新學派 (new school). Of course, there are a lot of scholars in the New School other than Baxter and Sagart. Likewise, phonologists, historically speaking, are not trained in paleography. Often, when something phonologically weird is going on with a character, it’s because the real issue is paleographical. And many phonologists aren’t equipped to solve those problems. Phonologists often try to use lexicographical tools and resources to solve paleographical issues (and that is not going to have a good result).

    In the last 20 years or so, this has started to change, but it’s really up to the individual scholar as to how much training they get. In other words, if there are any changes in the way universities train people, I don’t know about them (which means maybe they do exist somewhere). Dirk Meier put on a series of two-week seminars where Dr. Baxter was the phonological expert and Chén Jiàn (陳劍) was the paleographic expert, and they both taught important aspects of their respective fields, and analyzed problems together, which was very enlightening. This is actually how I got into paleography, having attended the seminar in 2007 and 2009. Yè Yùyīng (葉玉英) was at the conference in Hángzhou. She published《古文字構形與上古音研究》(Research on the Structure of Ancient Characters and Old Chinese Phonology) in 2009. But I would say that the people who are well versed in both fields are still in the minority, though most scholars in both fields know something about the other field. And, as you point out, the fact that there are still conferences with the theme of mixing the two fields points to the fact that there is still work to be done on integration.

    So, to answer your questions directly, no, it’s not uncommon that both are used together. What IS uncommon is that a given scholar is well versed in both fields, such that they do high quality analyses in both. And, that is what the conference is promoting. It was put on by Lái Guólóng (來國龍), who is well versed in both. Though phonologists, Baxter and Sagart do take paleography very seriously.

  • Given the theme of the conference, I’m curious if cross-pollination between phonological studies and paleography is that uncommon. Is this an under-explored method of research in the respective fields would you say, or regularly practiced?

  • Hey Brendan!

    Yes, we do think there’s also a semantic connection. For the full (later) form of 學 which includes 𦥑 (“two hands,” not 臼 “mortar”) and 子, our dictionary gives this explanation:

    學 depicts 𦥑 “two hands” doing numerical calculations on 爻 “two fives” (“five” is usually written 五) and 六 “six,” though the 六 got corrupted into 宀 “building.” 子 “child” was added later to strengthen the image of learning as children often learn via instruction. The original meaning is “to learn.” 六 also gave the sound.

    John Renfroe
  • This is really interesting! Do you suspect a semantic connection between “learning” and the 六爻, as well, or is that just coincidental?


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