The etymology of 我

In the Facebook live video I did last week, I talked a bit about the character 我.

I’ve gotten some questions about our form explanation for that character, so I thought I’d talk about it a bit here.

我 is usually explained as “a hand 手 holding a spear 戈,” and the story usually goes that it had something to do with self-defense, hence the concept of “self” or “I.” That’s the traditional understanding of the character, which (as is usually the case) comes from the 說文解字. But that’s not what’s really going on here.

The character did originally depict a weapon — not a spear 戈, but some sort of long-handled, sawtoothed weapon:



There’s no “hand” in that character at all. You’ll see that the saw teeth on the left side of the character eventually became what today looks a bit like 手.

Here’s another example of the character which looks more like the modern form but still retains its weapon-like form. Note, there’s no hand in this one either:



Here’s an early version of 戈 for comparison:





You can see that there’s some similarity because both are long-handled weapons, but 我 looks like it has some sort of serrated axe-blade attached, rather than a spear point.

So, while the character did depict a weapon, it was not a 戈, and there was no hand holding it. There is in fact one version with a hand, which can be found on a Shang-era bronze, but it’s 又, not 手, and the hand did not make it into the modern form. You can still clearly see the saw teeth which look similar to 手 in the modern form:




At any rate, when a character like this (clearly depicting a concrete object) is used to represent an abstract concept, any sort of cute story purporting to explain the link between form and meaning should be viewed as suspect. The word for this weapon and the word for “I” were pronounced the same or nearly the same, so the character was borrowed for its sound. This is called 假借 (jiǎjiè, “borrowed,” or “sound loan”), and it happens all the time in Chinese characters. It’s similar to how people borrow the number “2” to represent the word “to,” as in “I’m going 2 the store.” In the meaning trees in our dictionary, 假借 meanings are marked with a circle, as in the meaning tree for 又:

So, that’s the etymology for 我. This information will show up in the Expert Edition of the dictionary, of course, and an abbreviated version will show up in the Mini and Essentials Editions too.

The Takeaway

So why is this important? Some people may say “hand + spear = self defense -> self -> I, me” is easier to remember. That may or may not be true, but let’s zoom out a little bit and look at things from a different perspective: not on the level of one individual character, but the writing system as a whole.

Understanding how Chinese characters work as a system makes learning them much easier. In this case, the idea of 假借 borrowed/sound loan meanings is crucial to understanding characters. As I mentioned, this is a phenomenon which occurs over and over again, so it’s essential to know.

Think of learning Chinese characters as putting together a 5000-piece puzzle. If you go piece by piece with no information, it’s going to be difficult and take a long time. Learning how things work on the system level is like being told exactly where each piece of the puzzle goes and how it fits with the other pieces. Of course, with a puzzle, the struggle is part of the fun. But with learning a language you definitely want to maximize your efficiency!

If you instead rely on a cute story to explain things for each individual character, you’re really obscuring how things work on the system level, which in the long run makes things more difficult. You may win the battle (one character is a bit easier to learn), but you’re putting yourself at a disadvantage in the war (that is, learning a few thousand characters). Note that I’m not saying you shouldn’t use memorable mnemonic stories to help you learn characters—they can be very powerful—but if you combine mnemonics with a correct system-level understanding of how characters work, they’ll be even more effective!

2 comments on “The etymology of 我”

  1. Charles A. Laughlin Reply

    This is interesting but why don’t you comment on the fact that this character, whatever it may have meant in ancient times (I don’t know), was not the standard term for “me” or “I” until modern vernacularization. I would like to hear the story about how that came about. My understanding is that “I”/”me” was traditionally 吾,汝, and maybe some other characters I’m not remembering.

    • Outlier Linguistic Solutions Reply

      This is an interesting question! There were several ways of saying “me” or “I” in ancient times, such as 吾、余、予 、朕 and 我 among others. 我 is attested as early as the 《詩經》(written over a long period of time from the 11th to the 7th centuries BCE). Ex.〈邶風·柏舟〉:我心匪鑒、不可以茹。

      The reason it is used in Mandarin is very likely due to the fact that it is the preferred term in modern speech (and not the other way around, i.e., people don’t say wǒ for “I” because there was a change in the orthography). The slogan for the 白話 campaign was 我手寫我口 (which even today is only true for a small number of northerners). In our dictionary, this type of information will appear in the Expert edition. We hadn’t initially planned on talking about this, but since other people will probably have this same question, it would be a good idea to add it.

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