(Apologies if this is off-topic.)

The Chinese character「能」was originally a picture of a kind of bear. The character was once used to represent a word meaning bear, but this word doesn't appear to have any modern descendants.

「能」was also used as a borrowed glyph to represent a wide range of other words via the rebus principle. The Old Chinese reconstructions of some of these words are given below:

The modern Chinese word for bear uses the derivative glyph「熊」, and is reconstructed as

  • /*C.[ɢ]ʷ(r)əm/ (Baxter-Sagart)
  • /*ɢʷlɯm/ (Zhengzhang)

in Old Chinese, and it is this word that is traced back to Proto-Sino-Tibetan /*dɣwjəm/ on the Wiktionary page.

As far as I know, there have been no suggestions that「熊」(/*C.[ɢ]ʷ(r)əm/, /*ɢʷlɯm/) is cognate to any of the words that「能」represented. There also doesn't appear to have been any attempt to trace the word meaning bear for「能」any further back than Old Chinese.


Is it plausible that something that sounded like (/*nˤə/, /*nˤə(ŋ)/, /*nˤə(ʔ)/, /*nɯːŋ/, /*nɯːs/, or /*nɯː/) was also (along with「熊」) descended from Proto-Sino-Tibetan /*dɣwjəm/, or is /*dɣwjəm/ incompatible with any of the word reconstructions of「能」?

2 Answers 2


Do you know this database: http://starling.rinet.ru/cgi-bin/query.cgi?root=config&morpho=0&basename=\data\china\bigchina
If you search for xiong, it gives you several pieces of information. Chinese is apparently reconstructed *whǝm "bear", this word has Sino-Tibetan cognates like *(ɣ)wom, some of which have an extra initial dental t- (possibly some kind of prefix).
It's unclear to me why a character sounding like *whǝm was used to write something that sounded like *nˤə(ŋ). Possibly the link is more semantic than phonetic.

  • 1
    Thank you, I was aware of Starostin's database. For studies on Chinese, there has long been a disconnect between linguistics and paleography, and I fear that it is the case with this database too. A search on「能」reveals no attempt to find a PST word for bear ancestral to /*nˤə/ or /*nɯ/ here, but only attempts to link its modern (likely rebus) meaning ability with other languages in the family. I'm curious as to whether the dental initial that sometimes occurred for /*(ɣ)wom/ cognates is compatible with /*n-/, hmm?
    – dROOOze
    Apr 9, 2019 at 19:36
  • yes, your question is extremely technical and requires very serious competences on those matters.
    – user23769
    Apr 9, 2019 at 21:40
  • 2
    Well, personally, I would deal with the dental stop as an extra prefix, present in some languages only. As for the two words, it's possible to make some sense if we posit that *(ɣ)wom may have been *m(ɣ)om at an earlier stage, and then this structure better compares with *nˤə(ŋ): that is nasal+pharyngeal+vowel+nasal. Just guesswork and food for thinking.
    – user23769
    Apr 9, 2019 at 21:40

Please consider comparing the ‘bear’ meaning of the Chinese character with the sound of the sign that forms the word ‘oxen’ 牛.

It might be that Arctic Ursa’s epithet Septentrio may have the clue you are looking for. Then the “/*nˤə/, /*nˤə(ŋ)/, /*nˤə(ʔ)/, /*nɯːŋ/, /*nɯːs/, or /*nɯː/” sounds of the Chinese bear character can be understood as a Chinese sign used for the Western constellation carrying the phonetic association of the Chinese word for oxen instead of the Chinese meaning ‘ability’ together referring to the Western Bear/Plough constellation in symbol meaning bear 能 and in sound meaning oxen 牛.

/*ɢʷlɯm/ may be related to голема, Macedonian ‘great’ and ‘large’ which in relation to the northern sky constellations is significant for Ursa Major.

Maybe the text in which the bear context is found provides more context for the astrological interpretation.

+1 for this good question!

  • 2
    The Greeks associated certain stars with a bear, the Romans with a plow, but I don't think the Chinese ever associated them with either. The only association I can find with those stars in eastern astrology is the Right Wall, which has nothing to do with bears or plows.
    – Draconis
    Sep 6, 2019 at 23:41
  • Herodotus wrote about Egypt and Egyptian words and knowledge reached Greece. Why couldn’t Western Astrology be known to the Chinese?
    – Ajagar
    Sep 6, 2019 at 23:57
  • Anyway my answer is an option. Maybe there are better answers to thus question than mine.
    – Ajagar
    Sep 6, 2019 at 23:58
  • 2
    The Chinese definitely learned about western astrology at some point, but this question is about Old/Archaic Chinese, the language spoken ~1250 BCE. The Silk Road for comparison started somewhere around 200 BCE.
    – Draconis
    Sep 7, 2019 at 0:15
  • 1
    Thanks for the answer! It has a lot of food for thought. @Draconis is correct, Western astrology reached China much later than the time frame in the question - the names for the days of the week in Korea and Japan are a direct result of Western astrology. I must also point out that Peking 北京 doesn’t mean pole-star. You might be referring to 北極星 instead - AFAIK 京 is not cognate to 星, but we also have the problem that Peking was only given its name in the last few centuries.
    – dROOOze
    Sep 7, 2019 at 0:53

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.