Traditional East Asian dictionaries do not explicitly state whether characters can only occur in combinations or not. At first glance, one might get the idea that both 麒 and 麟 are Chinese words, but in fact the first only occurs in the disyllabic word 麒麟 'qilin'*, whereas the second can be found as an independent word in Classical Chinese** and as a part of other words. A 'distributional dictionary' could make a three-way distinction between

- superbound (appearing solely as part of a single polysyllabic word): e.g., 麒

- bound (appearing as part of two or more polysyllabic words): e.g., 麟 in modern Mandarin

- free (able to appear as an independent word): e.g., 麟 in Classical Chinese

Even finer distinctions may be possible, but that's a start.

Such distinctions could be carried over into a Tangut character dictionary since Tangut, like Chinese, has a large number of monosyllabic morphemes. However, the scheme might have to be altered somewhat for Khitan and Jurchen which have a large number of polysyllabic morphemes. Nonetheless, I still think it is important to know that, for example, as far as I know, Jurchen


may be superbound, as it only appears in

<ja.hu.dai1> 'the name Jahudai'

whereas its homophone


has a far wider distribution: it can represent dai 'girdle' (< Chinese 帶) and the syllable dai in many words other than the name Jahudai. The two characters do not appear to be interchangeable. And even if they were interchangeable, it would be nice to know when that was the case: e.g., from the start or only from the Ming Dynasty onward.

Once we determine that two or more homophonous characters were not interchangeable, then we can try to determine why. In some cases the homophony may not turn out to be original: i.e., the two characters originally had different readings that merged over time, and the original functions of the characters blurred. Since <dai2> resembles Jin Chinese 大 *dai, I think it had always been read dai, whereas <dai1> may have originally stood for a rarer Jurchen syllable that later became dai.

*I am not counting the use of 麒 in definitions such as


'The male qilin is called the qi; the female is called the lin'

from the Book of Han. This explanation for the disyllabic word qilin is a folk etymology.

**In modern Mandarin, 麟 only occurs in morpheme combinations. I would be surprised if 麟 is a monosyllabic word in any modern Chinese language. It is possible that very early attestations of 麟 as an independent word were pronounced *grin, a contraction of 麒麟 *gərin.

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Tangut radical and Khitan fonts by Andrew West
Jurchen font by Jason Glavy
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