Why does 熊 have 能 in it? What do the four dots mean, and what is that stroke called? When I say why does it have it in it, does anyone have either a linguistic interpretation, or am interpretive definition?

  • I figured out it is れっか... I still don't know why it has skill and fire? Is it from a picture of a bear? – user3457 Dec 7 '13 at 1:12

It's clear at least that the 能 portion literally represents a bear. ChineseEtymology.org describes it this way:

Primitive pictograph 能. A bear which is strong with mouth 厶 with meat 月肉 and feet 匕匕. Meaning able.

Henshall describes it similarly, giving 厶 instead as nose, 肉 as flesh/of the body, and 匕匕 as representing claws. It came to represent ability later, either as a borrowed meaning or in reference to some attributes of a bear (strength, agility, etc.). But details aside, I think everyone agrees on what 能 literally represents.

So 熊 contains 能 because it represents a bear.

As for 灬, those four dots are typically taken as a form of 火 fire, but the reason for its presence in 熊 is less clear. Every source I've checked explains it differently. Zhongwen gives it as an abbreviated phonetic (from 炎), while ChineseEtymology.org says it comes from a representation of the four feet of the bear. Henshall has this to say:

Bear is now conveyed in practice by the [...] character 熊, that adds fire 灬, but it should be noted that 熊 technically means raging fire (literally a fire as strong and fierce as a bear), a meaning still found by association in the lesser meaning of bright/glare that 熊 has in Chinese.

So there you have three different explanations for 灬.

  • "Nearly all compound characters contain phonetics." What do you mean by this? Doesn't that just mean speech sounds? You mean that they pull from all the objects? – user3457 Dec 7 '13 at 1:27
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    The majority of kanji are made of two parts, a semantic component and a phonetic component. For example, 銘 is made of the semantic 金 (metal) and the phonetic 名 (name). The former is related to its literal meaning (inscribing a name in metal), and the latter is related to its sound; it's the reason why 銘 has the same ON reading 名 does (メイ). In contrast, a character like 人 cannot be broken into two pieces like this. (In many cases it's possible to guess that the phonetic component is also related to the meaning in some way. This is probably true some of the time, but not everyone agrees.) – snailplane Dec 7 '13 at 1:37
  • Oh so you're saying KanjiNetworks thinks that not most but all have a phonetic part? Which ones have two semantic parts? Or only semantic parts? – user3457 Dec 7 '13 at 1:54
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    @Anonymous A majority of characters are agreed to be semantic-phonetic compounds, but there are also several other types of compounds which don't have phonetic elements (see here for more information). KanjiNetworks disagrees that there are other types of compounds; they think all compounds are phonetic in some way, and they have a unique theory about sound symbolism that they use to explain it. Professor Victor Mair wrote a post about their theory and website on Language Log. – snailplane Dec 7 '13 at 1:58
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    @Sjiveru It's not clear to me that 能 and 熊 were homophones at one point. Zhongwen lists them as néng and xíong respectively and says the phonetic in the latter is 灬 representing 炎. Looking at the Baxter reconstructions, I don't see evidence that they were homophones. – snailplane Dec 7 '13 at 3:47

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