Grains of progress
From a beginner's mistake to the start of our history as domesticated animals
I thought "rice", but I was wrong. The word meant "come (to); arrive, obtain; get", which derives from wheat grain. Confused? I was.
The word 来 (lái) came up on my flashcard, and I mistook it for 米 (mǐ), the sort of mistake I make frequently as I struggle to build up the mental models needed to recognise the elements of characters and distinguish between them.
It is an interesting mistake to have made. The character 来 (lái) means “to come, arrive,” but its original meaning is wheat.
So was my mistake attributable to an intuitive connection between rice and wheat? Is my mental model beginning to work? If only…
The original meaning of the word 来 (lái) is apparent by looking at its original form. The first version of the character shown below may be seen as a stylised representation of wheat: the vertical line at the top represents the ears, leaves stick out at the side, small roots are indicated at the bottom.
Wheat cultivation started in China over 5000 years ago in the provinces of 甘肃 (Gānsù) and 新疆 (Xīnjiāng). Xīnjiāng is the country’s most northwestern province, and Gānsù stretches out into the centre of China from Xīnjiāng’s southeast border. The geography may indicate that the plant came in through trade routes from Central Asia.
I’m not able to tell grains apart very well. So perhaps it is comforting that in older texts the character 来 is used interchangeably for barley and for wheat, at least according to my dictionary.
Distinctions are said to have emerged in the late Warring States period. Today the modern character for grain is 麦 (mài). Wheat is “little grain” 小麦 (xiǎomài) and barley is “big grain” 大 麦 (dàmài). Is barley bigger than wheat? Perhaps it’s the “longer beard” of bristly material protecting the kernels?
The character 麦 may also be seen as having developed out of the represention of a grain plant. Except this version puts an emphasis on the roots.
So the meaning of the character with stronger roots survived, while the top-heavy character was sound-loaned away.
The word 来 (lái) retains its roots in grain, but the character represents sound rather than meaning. The vowel sound ai is shared by mài and lái, and in old chinese the pronunciations may have been much closer.
So what about rice, 米 (mǐ)? Rice was cultivated in China up to 8000 years ago, 3000 years before wheat. The character shows individual grains. The middle line might represent a sieve?
The character 米 (mǐ) can mean grain in general, so could be used to refer to wheat grain. When I think of rice, I think of the rice grain not the plant. When I think of wheat, an ear of wheat or a field of wheat come to mind. It’s natural then that 米 (mǐ) associates with rice as the default grain.
Most of our calories still come from the grains that ancient farmers began cultivating over 10,000 years ago. In many ways, we haven’t changed much: we just make more of the same. China produced about 134 million tons of wheat in 2019 (making it the largest producer in the world), but only 900 thousand tons of barley (Russia, France, Germany, Canada each produced over 10 million tons). China produced 210 million tons of rice grain after threshing and winnowing. (India produced 177 million tons, Indonesia produced the third highest amount, approx 55 million tons).
…new agricultural tasks changed their way of life. We did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us. The word ‘domesticate’ comes from the Latin domus, which means ‘house’. Who’s the one living in a house? Not the wheat. It’s the Sapiens.
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,Yuval Noah Harari.
Our language developed gradually through our transition to a domesticated existence. The words 来 (lái) and 米 (mǐ) remind us of the layers of historical information compressed into the languages that we speak or try to learn.
Going back to the roots of 来 (lái) and 米 (mǐ) shows the scale of my mistake. I was off by a borrowed sound, 3000 years of history, and by the difference between individual grains and a plant still rooted in a field.
The Outlier Dictionary of Chinese Characters, see this article for interesting background: https://chinaeconomicreview.com/ash-henson-outlier-dictionary/