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Every breath you take: notes on the etymology of ài 愛

Behr, Wolfgang


The Sino-Tibetan etymon reflected by the Written Tibetan (WT) noun snying ‘heart, mind, breast’, also used verbally as ‘to love, show affection towards’, was replaced by xin 心 ‘heart’ as a noun in Old Chinese (OC). As first shown in Baxter (1991), snying is cognate with OC rén 仁 ‘to show affection for others, love’, a semantic layer reflected in the famous gloss 愛人 in Lunyu 12.22 or in the Yucong 語叢 slips (3.35), where we read: 愛,<身+心>(仁)也. Behr (2015) has argued that concomitant to the Confucian appropriation of rén 仁 (OC *niŋ) as an ethical category and to the semantic narrowing of its exoactive derivation *niŋ-s represented by 佞 ‘be eloquent’, the lexical gap left for the activity of ‘loving’ was filled by ài 愛 (OC *qˁəp-s). Graphically a corruption of 夊 below ài 㤅 ‘to love’, as shown by the Chǔ manuscripts, ài belonged to a word-family meaning ‘to draw towards oneself’ (Schwermann 2011), whence the at first sight counterintuitive polysemy with ‘go easy on someone, be sparing’. But where does this root come from, if it was not, as Xǔ Shèn thought in his gloss on the phonetic 旡, simply onomatopoetic of a choking, sucking sound?
Building upon the observation that an OC homophone of ài spelled 僾 means ‘to pant, lose breath’ the new uvular reconstruction of ài in Baxter & Sagart (2014) opens an interesting link with a fairly distributed breath related word-family, minimally including xī 歙 < *qhəp ‘suck, inhale’, xì 翕 < *qhəp ‘draw in, inhale’, xī 噏 *qh(r)əp ‘draw together’, hē 欱 < *qhˁəp ‘sip’, xī 吸 < *qh(r)əp ‘inhale’, kài 愾 *qhəp-s ‘sigh out’, and, of course, the notoriously untranslatable qì 氣 < *C.qhəp-s ‘odem, pneuma’. ‘To love’ would thus originally not have been conceptualized as just any ‘drawing near’ but as a kind of ‘sucking in’. Building upon manuscript attestations, the paper will explore this word family connection within and beyond OC and argue for its crosslinguistic typological plausibility.


Location: St. Peterburg

More Info: 21st Biannual Conference of the European Association of Chinese Studies

Organization: St. Petersburg State University

Conference End Date: Aug 28, 2016

Conference Start Date: Aug 23, 2016

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