Query on var.nabheda

Wolfgang Behr w.behr at em.uni-frankfurt.d400.de
Wed Mar 5 17:59:34 UTC 1997

An outsider's query to all the vyAkara.na-wallahs out there ----

One of the most important sources for the phonological
reconstruction of Old and Middle Chinese are the so-called
"_fan3qie4_-spellings", found fur each Chinese character
in Middle Chinese rhyming dictionaries. The _fan3qie4_-tech-
nique, first mentioned in a text from the mid-3rd century, but
possibly dating back to the first century CE, splits up the target
syllable to be "spelled" into onset and rhyme, which are then
represented by seperate characters (=syllables) in the following
fashion (T=lexical tone):
     C1-V2-C3+T ---> C1(-anyV-anyC)-(anyC-)V2-C3+T

        A syllable like wang2 "king" could thus be rewritten as by
any of the disyllabic combinations of the type _w(oT)-(l)ang2_,
_w(engT)-(k)ang2_, _w(aiT)-(f)ang2_ etc. Since the the medi-
eval period, Chinese scholars have commonly associated this
peculiar technique of "syllable dimidation"  with the introduction
of Buddhism in China. It has been argued over and over in the
literature that the emergence of _fan3qie2_ notations must have
been triggered by the newly acquired knowledge about alpha-
betical systems of writing employed in the Sanskrit or Central
Asian sources underlying Chinese Buddhist translations. Leaving
aside the considerable historical and philological problems surroun-
ding this "contact induction"-hypothesis for a moment, it has often
been noted that the term _fan3_ (lit. "to reverse, return")-_qie4_
("to split, cut, splice, cleave") has no convincing etymology in Chi-
nese, i.e. "turning-and-cutting[-spelling]" ,"reverse cutting[-spelling]"
etc., commonly found as glosses in standard dictionaries, don not
seem particularly convincing. Moreover, the first syllable of the
compound is sometimes written with a Middle Chinese near-hom-
onym of _fan3_ (pronounced _fan1_ today) meaning "to overturn,
upset, come back; flutter" etc., which would seem to point into the
direction of a loan interpretation for the enigmatic technical term. 
        Building upon these (and other) observations, Victor Mair
(UPenn) has recently advanced a new explanation for the com-
pound in an unfortunately little-known article entitled "A Hypothesis
Concerning the Origin of the Term _fanqie_ ('Countertomy')"
(_Sino-Platonic Papers_ 34, 1992, 1-4). Noting that derivations
of the Sanskrit root v.r- "to cover" etc. are usually translated into
Buddhist Hybrid Chinese by a synonym of _fan3_, he  suggests
that _fan3_ (< Early Middle Chinese *puan', '=glottal stop) may
in fact have been a phonetic *and* semantic represantation of
Sanskrit var.na, and that the whole Chinese compound would have
been a hybrid translation of Sanskrit var.nabheda- as encountered
in var.nabheda-vidhi, a Sanskrit "method of spelling or letter di-
vision" (cf. MW 924c). While this scenario would seem quite
impeccable from the viewpoint of Chinese historical phonology,
the backdraw to it is that Mair was neither able to find "any Sans-
krit text (Buddhist or otherwise) in which the term _var.na-bheda_
occurs and which has been translated into Chinese", nor has he
been able to locate a copy of the treatise on spelling named
*Var.na-bheda-vidhi* quoted in MW.
        The question I would thus like to ask the most erudite
members of this list is:
        (a)  What is the exact meaning and usage of var.na-bheda
               in Sanskrit grammatical literature (or Tibetan translations
               thereof) and/or BHS literature?
        (b)   Where does it occur and how can the occurences be
        (c)   Is there anything like an edition of a work named
               *Var.na-bheda-vidhi*, and if so which library holds it?
        (d)   Have there been similar techiques of "syllable dimidation"
               around in ancient India, and if so, how did they work?

Any pointers & comments will be highly appreciated. Thanks & cheers,




Wolfgang Behr <w.behr at em.uni-frankfurt.d400.de>
Sinologie, J.W. Goethe-Universitaet, Dantestr.4-6,
P.O.B. 111 932, D-60054 Frankfurt/Main, Germany
Tel.: (o) +49-69-798-22852, Fax: +49-69-798-22873

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