genetic relationships / 發生學 關係

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One of the terms that's always confused me in linguistics is that of languages being genetically related. Linguistic relatedness doesn't necessarily have anything to do biological relatedness, so why use this term?

As it turns out, the term "genetic" here doesn't mean "having to do with genes", but rather "having a common origin" (think "genesis"). I.e., there's two distinct meanings of the word genetic, one for biology and one for linguistics. Of course, no one's ever bothered to explain this to me... a glaring oversight, especially since the biological meaning is the common one.

Now how about the Chinese translation? In Chinese, to say languages x, y, and z are genetically related, you can use an awkward phrase like this: "x, y, z 等語言在發生學上具有淵源關係". WTF? What does that even mean? I mean, I know it's supposed to mean "x, y, z etc. are genetically related", but really what it translates to is something like "in genetics, x, y, and z have a common-origin relationship", since 發生學, short for 發育生物學 (according to the wikipedia redirect), means genetics or developmental biology—in the biological sense. This is a terrible mistranslation of the English term, imbuing it with a biological significance that it really shouldn't have.

So, I object to the use of the term 發生學 to mean "genetic" in the linguistic sense. It's a good thing I've figured this out... Whereas before I would furrow my eyebrows in confusion whenever I encountered the term in Chinese, I will now shake my head in disapproval instead.


andrew said:

This problem also comes up in literary studies in the context of the term "genetic criticism," i.e. " The term "genetic criticism" or "critique génétique" relates not to the field of genetics, but to the genesis of works of art, as studied in a broad and inclusive context." (

Interestingly, in Japanese, the term "hassei" (発生) can mean origin in the ontogenetic sense, but is also widely used to refer generically to origin or emergence ( The first attestation listed in Nihon Kokugo Daijiten is c. 1490:"両儀開て万物発生する迄、皆化也" -- a usage that clearly predates the advent of modern genetics.

The modern ("language of the oppressor") use of the term "fa1sheng1" also seems to correspond to this generic sense of origin, outbreak, or occurrence..(

So yes, wikipedia's explanation of the use of the term "genetic" in the context of linguistics is bad, but the use of 發生 may not be a wholly irredeemable translation.

andrew said:

So yes, 發生學 is a misleading translation since in common usage it refers to "(biological) genetics," but a similar problem exists with the word "genetic" in English too! Hence: "there's two distinct meanings of the word genetic, one for biology and one for linguistics." Cool.

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This page contains a single entry by dom published on October 24, 2009 11:04 AM.

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