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I noticed that the first two syllables of the pronunciation of 翼 is tsuba, which sounds very similar to Chinese word 翅膀(chibang). 翅膀 is the colloquial form of 翼 in Chinese. Is this a coincidence? Or it's that when this word was borrowed from Chinese, the writing of 翼 while the pronunciation of 翅膀 was imported?

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To answer the question directly,「[翼]{つばさ}」is a kun'yomi.

There is no proposed link between つばさ and Mandarin chìbǎng.

  • The academic attempt to derive the most ancient etymology for つばさ can be found in The Tower of Babel, where in their Japanese Etymology database there is a proposal that it is derived from a Proto-Japanese root /*tumpasa/, and cognate to a Mongolian word ǯiber. As far as I know, there is no proposal that つばさ is a compound of other morphemes.

  • 「翅膀」is a compound comprised of「翅」and「膀」.「翅」(Old Chinese: /*s-kʰe-s/) is of unknown origin, with variants「翨」and「𦐊」in old texts used largely as family names, but also sometimes used as a phonetic substitute for「啻」(also in old texts).「膀」just means shoulder.


Even if there was a link, having a Chinese-derived pronunciation does not mean that something is on'yomi. On'yomi are constructed or derived from systematic pronunciations of Chinese characters as recorded in rime dictionaries, and Chinese-originated pronunciations which are not based on these phonological references are not actually on'yomi. Examples:

  • [麻婆豆腐]{まーぼーど​ーふ} - the reading for this word is irregular, derived straight from Modern Mandarin. Apart from「腐」, the individual characters do not correspond to the on'yomi of the characters, although they are very close; an on'yomi reading would look like [麻婆豆腐]{まばとうふ}.

  • [梅]{うめ} - A kun'yomi, believed to come from Middle Chinese, according to Daijirin and Daijisen. The proposed evolution is: Middle Chinese /muʌi/, Old Japanese */mme/ (written as むめ), Heian pronunciation mume2 freely changing into ume, then finally settling to the modern pronunciation ume.

  • [茗]{ちゃ} - A kun'yomi, derived from the on'yomi of「茶」.

  • 1
    Starostin is interesting, but his connections can be ... dodgy, at times. I cannot find any Mongolian term жибэр (ǯiber), for instance. The closest I can find is живэр (ǯiver), which apparently means "moustache". If Wiktionary's etymology is to be believed, this term is a compound, rendering any direct connection to Proto-Japanese /*tumpasa/ unlikely. – Eiríkr Útlendi Jul 9 '18 at 7:32
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    @EiríkrÚtlendi yep, I was cautious to not put too much weight on the connection. I know the Altaic hypothesis itself is very controversial, and I also couldn't find this word ǯiber when I tried, but I supposed that the word being provided in Khalkha (ǯiver), Buriat (žeber), and Kalmuck (ǯiwṛ) meant that ǯiber is just something that went out of fashion in Modern Mongolian. – dROOOze Jul 9 '18 at 7:38
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    Very confusing then that Starostin should include that line stating, "Mongolian: *ǯiber". I don't know how else to interpret that but that Starostin believes there is such a term in Mongolian; the other Mongolic terms clearly don't have the same spellings. Clicking through, it looks like Starostin cites the Mongolian to a 1960 Mongolian-English dictionary. – Eiríkr Útlendi Jul 9 '18 at 7:41

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