Correspondences Between the Chinese Calendar Signs and the Phoenician Alphabet
by Julie Lee Wei
Similarities between the Phoenician alphabet and the Chinese calendar signs, the tiangan dizhi, or heavenly stems and earthly branches, have been remarked upon by a number of linguists. Besides some obvious similarities between the letters in the two sets, each set has 22 symbols. Are the similarities in symbols and the identical number of 22 mere coincidences? Are they anciently related and do they correspond one-to-one? Quite a few Sinologists and Assyriologists have grappled with this question, including Hugh Moran and David Kelley, Edwin Pulleyblank, and Victor Mair. In a recent article, "Early Contacts Between Indo-Europeans and Chinese," Mair stated that "The number of unquestionable, impeccable correspondences of symbols in the two sets sharing similar sounds and shapes is at least 15." (Mair 1996: 35). Earlier, Mair had disclosed, in an article entitled "West Eurasian and North African Influences on the Origins of Chinese Writing", his discovery that the two sets "display an almost perfect fit both graphically and phonetically" (Mair 1990), but due to other major commitments he has written on only a few of the correspondences.
The problem first intrigued me several years ago. Recently I took up the puzzle again, and as a result have now identified all the correspondences that have not been identified in the literature. Indeed, there is a one-to-one correspondence between the 22 letters of the ancient Phoenician alphabet and the 22 of the Chinese ganzhi, a correspondence that seems to have been established in the early years of the Shang dynasty. In addition to phonetic and graphic correspondence, I have found that they also correspond in meaning.
My findings are summarized in two tables (Table 1 and Table 2). It will be seen that I have assigned meanings to letters of the alphabet as well as to ganzhi letters whose meanings have hitherto been unknown or highly uncertain. How I have arrived at those meanings as well as at each of the 22 correspondences will be discussed, after some introductory remarks.
Correspondence or Coincidence?
In identifying the correspondences I have looked for a three-way resemblance in each pair of letters. In other words, any pair should resemble each other in sound, meaning, and symbol (grapheme). I have found that each of the 22 pairs has a three-way resemblance. This study has followed to a large extent the three fundamentals of method used by Joseph Greenberg in his pioneering work, The Languages of Africa (Greenberg 1966). The first is, when seeking correspondences between words, that "the sole relevance is comparison of resemblances in sound and meaning in specific forms." The second principle is that of "mass comparison as against isolated comparisons between pairs of languages." The third principle is that "only linguistic evidence is relevant in drawing conclusions..." (Greenberg 1966:1).
However, the present paper is preliminary in that it falls somewhat short of "mass comparison". To some degree, "mass comparison" has been made to determine the meaning (as reflected by the symbol as well as by its most ancient, Hebrew, name) of each of the Phoenician letters of the alphabet. Several generations of scholars have done this by searching the Sumerian, ancient Egyptian, Babylonian, Assyrian, and other Semitic vocabularies (Diringer 1968: 195ff, Jensen 1969: 255ff), and the meanings they have attributed to the Hebrew names of the Phoenician letters have been based on this search. This surely would qualify as "mass comparison". On the Chinese side, I have searched Chinese dictionaries for the ancient meanings of the ganzhi characters. I have also examined ancient Sumerian and Egyptian symbols as well as Sumerian, Egyptian, Coptic and, to a less extent, Assyrian, Hebrew, and other dictionaries for words and symbols that match a given Chinese character in sound, graph, and meaning and then compared them with the meanings generally attributed to the Hebrew names of the alphabet and to the alphabet letter itself. In some cases, with the assistance of the sinograph, I have been able to arrive at a new explanation of the meaning of the Phoenician-letter-with-Hebrew-name (which will simply be called the Phoen/Heb letter). In each case I argue for the meaning based on the evidence in Chinese, Sumerian, Egyptian, and Coptic, etc., as well as the extensive research already done by other scholars on the subject. (Coptic is later than the Shang dynasty, to which the 22 correspondences date, but since it is a descendant of ancient Egyptian and spells words with vowels, it can throw some light on Egyptian hieroglyphs, which are usually written without vowels.
However, this study still falls short of sufficient "mass comparison" in that, where it has claimed, for a sinograph and Sumerian and ancient Egyptian words, a connection antedating the Phoenician alphabet, I have not had an opportunity to check my conclusions sufficiently against other ancient languages. Further work needs to be done to test my conclusions against the vocabularies of such languages as Hittite, Old Akkadian, Babylonian, Assyrian, Old Persian, and Sanskrit. On the other hand, since Sumeria and Egypt were dominant cultures, the existence of a word in their languages implies the existence of cognates or borrowings in many other contiguous or related languages, just as a word in Latin implies the existence of cognates or borrowings in many Romance and Germanic languages.
As for Greenberg's third fundamental principle of method, that "only linguistic evidence is relevant" in making conclusions about correspondences, I have hewed as closely as possible to it. However, since pictograms are part of the Chinese language as well as of Sumerian and ancient Egyptian, I take "linguistic" to include not only "sound [phonetic shape] and meaning" but also pictorial or pictographic (graphemic) evidence. Resemblance of pictograms can be construed in several ways....include '../includes/navbar.html'; ?> include '../includes/footer.html'; ?>