In oracle bone inscriptions 亼 looks like .
The graph 今 consists of and an additional horizontal line, creating . In oracle bone inscriptions (OBI) most instances of show a symmetrically placed horizontal line, a few show a short line to the right or to the left. Ochiai (and other scholars) think represents a roof or a lid for a container (certainly a cover of some sort). The additional line in symbolizes according to Ochiai “something that covers or conceals something,” which would fit the associated meaning that 今 often has when used as a phonetic.¹
However, Qiú thinks it probable that 今 is not a cover of some sort with an extra line, but an inverted version of speak 曰. He argues that “for convenience’s sake” the originally rounded form of 曰 was written in an angular form.²
Note that OBI of 曰 usually have a symmetrically placed horizontal line as well.
In a similar way, Jì Xùshēng argues that actually represents an inverted version of mouth 口/ (which is simply 曰 without the extra line). This leads to two different interpretations of (令). Ochiai assumes that represents a roof, and suggests a story for in which the kneeling person below has been summoned to the palace to receive orders,³ while Jì sees a kneeling person with a mouth above him that gives him a command.⁴
Finally there is 念. The last three examples are variants of 念, one OBI and two taken from bronze inscriptions (BI). Scholars seem to agree that 念 consists of heart 心 and, in a phonetic role, 今.⁵ However, bronze inscriptions use both and to write 念. Even more interestingly, the one oracle bone inscription that the Sinica database has, uses neither one. Instead it shows what looks like an inverted form of 口/, supporting Jì Xùshēng, it seems.
Perhaps the somewhat older theory that sees as some sort of cover is incorrect.⁶
1. Ochiai, 2016, p. 490; Seeley et al., p. 80 and p. 194. Qiú writes that 今 often expresses “the notion of containment” (Qiú, 2000, p. 260).
2. Qiú, 2000, p. 207. Qiú thinks that 今 is ‘probably the protoform of “吟” yín whose original meaning was “close the mouth and remain silent.”’ For support he quotes a sentence from the late 2nd century text Shǐjì 史記 (as one example of more that he knows of) but adds ‘This meaning of “吟” is different from the more usual one of “moan.”’
3. Ochiai, 2016, p. 48.
4. Jì Xùshēng, p. 710 (referenced in Outlier).
5. Seeley et al. p. 194; Lǐ Xuéqín, p. 927 (referenced in Outlier).
6. After posting this article I looked at 會 and 合. Scholars disagree about the top part in these being a “lid” or an “inverted mouth” as well.