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Bones of the Living, Bones of the Dead

7 May 2015 (later updated)

I only recently became conscious that Japanese and Chinese use different words for skulls and skeletons according to whether they are part of the living body or just dead bones. (Of course, I was aware of the Japanese vocabulary involved, but had never given much thought to how it was differentiated.)

One set of words refers to the bones of the body in the same terms as the English word 'frame' (as in, 'He has a large frame'). Another set of words is used for the skeletons or skulls of the dead.

Skeleton

The Chinese term 骨骼 / 骨骼 gǔgé is used for the skeleton or frame in the anatomical sense. Less common is 骨架 / 骨架 gǔjià ‘bone frame’, which may also be found in non-anatomical contexts, such as the framework of a building.

For a dead skeleton (or skull -- it could be either), Chinese uses the term 骷髏 / 骷髅 kūlóu. Other terms are 骸骨 / 骸骨 háigǔ for the bones of the dead (a skeleton), as well as 白骨 / 白骨 báigǔ ‘white bones’ and 尸骨 / 尸骨 shīgǔ ‘cadaver bones’.

In Japanese, the normal word for a skeleton in the anatomical sense is 骨格 kokkaku. This can also refer to the framework of a building. The more homely word 骨組み hone-gumi 'bone framework' similarly refers to the frame of a person, and can also refer to the framework of a presentation or plan.

When referring to dead bones or a dead skeleton, however, the usual term is 骸骨 gaikotsu. The term 白骨 hakkotsu ‘white bones’ is also used.

Skull

The normal Chinese anatomical term for the skull is 頭骨 / 头骨 tóugǔ ‘head-bone’ or 顱骨 / 颅骨 lúgǔ.

For the dead, the term used is 骷髏 / 骷髅 kūlóu (as noted above, also used for the skeleton). The term 髑髏/髑髅 dúlóu is found in more literary contexts.

The everyday Japanese term for the bones of the skull (cranium and mandible) is 頭蓋骨 zugaikotsu. According to Wikipedia, in anatomical contexts this is read tōgaikotsu. In biological anthropology the term is 頭骨 tōkotsu ‘head-bone’.

For the skull of a dead person, on the other hand, the normal Japanese term is 髑髏 dokuro, from the Chinese. This is also read share-kōbe, sare-kōbe or shari-kōbe, meaning ‘bleached head’ and etymologically unrelated to the characters that are used to write it.

Bones

The everyday Chinese word for ‘bone’ is 骨頭 / 骨头, previously read gútou but since ‘standardised’ to gǔtou (at least on the Mainland). This is felt to be a very colloquial term, however, especially since in its written form it includes the suffix / tóu ‘head’. Therefore, in more formal written contexts the normal word for a bone is / .

The native Japanese word for ‘bone’ is hone. This is found in the everyday names of bones like 背骨 se-bone ‘backbone’ and あばら骨 abara-bone ‘rib’. In anatomical usage, however, it is normal to use Chinese names for the bones, much as English prefers to use Latin. This demonstrates the huge influence that Chinese medical and anatomical studies had on Japanese in the pre-modern period.

The character for 'bone' in Japanese and Traditional Chinese is slightly different from that used in Simplified Chinese, although this may not show up properly on this web page.

The Chinese simplified character is gu.

The Japanese and Traditional Chinese character is hone.

That's right, the little box in the top part is facing in a different direction.

Names of major bones

Names of some important bones include (Chinese given traditional character first, simplified second):

English Chinese Japanese
Inferior maxillary bone, jawbone, mandible 下頜骨 / 下颌骨
xiàhégǔ
(or 下顎骨 / 下颚骨
xià’ègǔ)
下顎骨
kagakukotsu
Scapula or shoulder blade 肩胛骨 / 肩胛骨
jiānjiǎgǔ
肩甲骨
kenkōkotsu
Clavicle or collar bone 鎖骨 / 锁骨
suǒgǔ
鎖骨
sakotsu
Vertebrae, spine 脊椎骨 / 脊椎骨
jǐchuígǔ
脊椎骨
sekitsuikotsu
Ribs (costae) 肋骨 / 肋骨
lèigǔ
肋骨
rokkotsu
Sternum or breastbone 胸骨 / 胸骨
xiōnggǔ
胸骨
kyōkotsu
Humerus or arm bone 肱骨 / 肱骨
gōnggǔ
上腕骨
jōwankotsu
Radius 橈骨 / 桡骨
ráogǔ
橈骨
tōkotsu
Ulna or elbow bone 尺骨 / 尺骨
chǐgǔ
尺骨
shakkotsu
Pelvis or hip bone 骨盤 / 骨盘
gǔpán
骨盤
kotsuban
Sacrum 骶骨 / 骶骨
dǐgǔ
仙骨 / 薦骨
senkotsu / senkotsu
Femur or thigh bone 股骨 / 股骨
gǔgǔ
大腿骨
daitaikotsu
Tibia or shinbone 脛骨 / 胫骨
jìnggǔ
脛骨
keikotsu
Fibula or calf bone 腓骨 / 腓骨
féigǔ
腓骨
hikotsu

The clavicle is known literally as the 'chain bone, named for the fact that this was where prisoners were chained together with neck collars.

Despite being almost identical, Japanese has slightly different terminology for the humerus and the femur. The difference is not greatly significant -- for instance, 大腿 dàtǔi is simply the Chinese word for 'thigh'. Note also that Japanese substitutes the simpler character for the original in 肩胛骨 kenkōkotsu 'scapula'.

Surprisingly, the other main languages of the Sinosphere, Korean and Vietnamese, don't rely nearly as much on Chinese.

For the sacrum, the Japanese is a translation from Western languages.

For the names of bones, Korean has both Chinese-based vocabulary (based on Japanese usage) and native vocabulary. The native names for the bones use the Korean word for 'bone', which is 뼈 ppyeo. The Chinese-based vocabulary uses gol, which is the Korean reading of . The native vocabulary appears to be somewhat more common in general Korean usage than the Chinese-based.

Vietnamese uses mainly native vocabulary based on the native word for 'bone', xương. There are exceptions, such as the word for 'pelvis', cột sống, which uses the Chinese-based morpheme cột (the Vietnamese reading of ), but Chinese-based namings, which theoretically must have existed at some stage in some form, are not even listed in most dictionaries. Names of bones tend to be based on body parts. Note that the đùi in xương đùi (femur) is from Chinese tuǐ.

English Korean Vietnamese
Inferior maxillary bone, jawbone, mandible 아래턱뼈
araeteokppyeo
하악골 (下顎骨)
ha-akgol
hàm dưới
Scapula or shoulder blade 어깨뼈
eokkaeppyeo
견갑골 (肩胛骨)
gyeongapgol
xương vai
Clavicle or collar bone 빗장뼈
bisjangppyeo
쇄골 (鎖骨)
swaegol
xương đòn
Vertebrae, spine 척추뼈 (脊椎骨)
cheogchuppyeo
cột sống
Ribs (costae) 갈비뼈
galbippyeo
늑골 (肋骨)
neukgol
xương sườn
Sternum or breastbone 흉골 (胸骨)
hyunggol
xương ức
Humerus or arm bone 위팔뼈
wipalppyeo
상완골 (上腕骨)
sangwangol
xương cánh tay
Radius 노뼈
noppyeo
요골 (橈骨)
yogol
xương quay
Ulna or elbow bone 자뼈
jappyeo
척골 (尺骨)
cheokgol
xương trụ
Pelvis or hip bone 골반 (骨盤)
golban
xương chậu
Sacrum 엉치뼈
eongchippyeo
천골 (薦骨)
cheongol
xương mông
Femur or thigh bone 넙다리뼈
neopdarippyeo
대퇴골 (大腿骨)
daetoegol
xương đùi
Tibia or shinbone 정강뼈
jeonggangppyeo
경골 (脛骨)
gyeonggol
xương ống chân, xương chày
Fibula or calf bone 종아리뼈
jongarippyeo
비골 (腓骨)
bigol
xương mác

Since this site now includes Mongolian within its scope, we'll finally list the Mongolian names of the major bones. While they differ somewhat between Mongolia and Inner Mongolia, there has been no lexical borrowing from Chinese.

English Mongolia Inner Mongolia
Inferior maxillary bone, jawbone, mandible эрүү
erüü
доод эрүү
dood erüü
эрүү
erüü
Scapula or shoulder blade дал
dal
далын яс
dalin yas
Clavicle or collar bone эгэм
egem
эгэм яс
egem yas
Vertebrae, spine нуруу
nuruu
нуруун яс
nuruun yas
Ribs (costae) хавирга
xav'rag
хавирга
xav'rag
Sternum or breastbone өвчүү
övchüü
өвчүүн яс
övchüün yas
Humerus or arm bone бугалга
buglag
атгаал яс
atgaal yas
Radius шуу
shuu
шуу яс
shuu yas
Ulna or elbow bone богтос
bogtos
тохойн яс
tokhoin yas
Pelvis or hip bone аарцаг
aartsag
аарцаг, аарцаг яс
aarchag, aarchag yas
Sacrum ууц
uuts
ууцан яс
uutsan yas
туух нуруу
tuukh nuruu
Femur or thigh bone дунд чөмөг
dund chömög
дунд чөмөг
dund chömög
Tibia or shinbone шаант
shaant
шилбэний чөмөг
shilbeni: chömög
Fibula or calf bone тахилзуур
takhilzuur
нарийн шилбэний чөмөг
nari:n shilbeni: chömög

While the Inner Mongolian names differ to some extent, most names in the Inner Mongolian column are also known or used in Mongolia, and vice versa. The addition of яс yas 'bone' to many names in Inner Mongolia is possibly due to the influence of Chinese models.


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