This continues a discussion about 亼 from here.
Jì takes 合 as consisting of an (inverted) mouth “speaking down from above” and (on the bottom) the regular form of “mouth”. This makes sense for the meaning “to answer” (with other meanings like “to be together, joined”... “ to put together, match” as derivative or loan usage).¹
Other scholars agree with the regular form of “mouth” at the bottom, but take the top part as a phonetic. Seeley at al mention an “associated sense ‘reply’” for the phonetic.² In order to make the phonetic plausible Katō assumes a sound shift and posits that the phonetic suggests the meaning “respond to a question” (apparently assuming that 答 is the underlying word).³
Ochiai takes 合 as consisting of in its meaning of “cover, lid, cap” and interprets as “a receptacle”.⁴ This makes sense for the meaning “to join together”. Note that Schuessler starts with “to be together, joined”... “ to put together, match” ... “agree with” and only then arrives at “to answer”. Note also that Schuessler sees “respond” 答 as an unrelated word.⁵ The sense of “to answer” that the word 合 has seems to come from “put together, match”, not the meaning of “respond” that underlies the word 答.⁶
Ochiai’s analysis of 合 looks a lot like his analysis of 會. In fact, the original graphs look very similar, the only difference being that 會 has a steamer put in between and . Yet, I’ve not seen the theory that is a “mouth” in 會 as well.⁷ Just a thought here: maybe
does indeed depict an “inverted (open) mouth”, but has that sign been adopted to signify “to cover” (as in cover with one’s mouth) as well.
More complications. Schuessler adds an “etymological comment” to his items on 合, 蓋 and 會 saying that the “unrelated etyma ... 合 ... 蓋 and ... 會 have partially converged in [old or archaic Chinese].”⁸
Perhaps an example for this is “to join, come together (two rivers, people) ＞ causative “to bring together, join” 會 having the semantic extension “lid, cover” “formed in analogy to the common association of ‘join’ with ‘close, lid’ in the [word families] ... 合 and ... 蓋”.⁹
Given that the word 答 is not related to the word 合, and that while they have the same rime they have different initials, I think that the theory that 亼 acts as phonetic is less likely. Further, looking at early shapes of 合 (and 會)¹⁰ I see lots of variation that allows for multiple interpretations. An approach that I’m inclined to is thinking that just like can be either a receptacle or a mouth (it’s a “homograph”) might just as well be an inverted receptacle; or, an inverted mouth that can also mean a cover or a lid. For 合 and 會 that would mean that the primary meaning has to do with “join”. For 合 it means that “to answer” is not its primary meaning. And further, that perhaps 合 was loaned to write the word 答 (in other words the word 答 was not an extended meaning of 合, otherwise Schuessler and Kanō would have included it the word family of 合, and would their pronunciation have been more similar).
This is a draft. I’m likely to change it, perhaps substantially as I find more information.
1. Jì, p. 438 (referenced in Outlier). Outlier writes: «indicating the original meaning “to answer”».
2. Seeley et al. do not mention were this “associated sense” comes from, nor specifically which scholar makes this claim (currently I can’t verify it, since I don’t have access to all their sources).
3. Katō, p. 175.
4. Ochiai, 2016, p. 111.
6. Conjecture from me.
7. I haven’t got my own copy of Jì yet!
8. Schuessler, p. 288.
9. Schuessler, pp. 274-275; p. 288.