A collection of etymologies (mainly Chinese) I've summarised (some proposed), some of which have already been posted on talk pages in Wiktionary. Not to be used as an accredited reference.
Modern dì, Middle Chinese tejH (Baxter), Old Chinese *tee(g)s (Zhengzhang Shangfang). Original meaning: "God, the Deity".
Related to 諦 (dì, OC *tee(g)s, "to examine carefully"). Some people (e.g. Zhou Jixu) have argued a relationship between 帝 and Proto-Indo-European *deywós ("God", > Sanskrit देव, Latin deus, diēs, Ancient Greek Ζεύς).
Modern dú, Middle Chinese dəwk (Pulleyblank), Old Chinese *loːg (Zhengzhang Shangfang). Character etymology: Phono(𧸇, not 賣)-semantic(言). Derived character: 讟 (dú, homophonic in OC, "resentment, slander < complaint, grumble"). Original sense: "to say aloud, to tell" (Shijing). "To read" cannot be the primary sense, since existence of the concept "to read" before the invention of writing is questionable.
Sagart considered Written Tibetan ཀློག་པ (klog-pa, "to read, to recite") to be possibly a loanword from Old Chinese, as "to read" is a derived meaning in Chinese. Instead they might be cognates with parallel semantic changes. Yao languages and Vietnamese had loanwords with d-initial (Viet. đọc), which were borrowed after the sound change *l- > d- in Old Chinese.
讀 in Middle Chinese had another reading dəw 去 ("a pause in a sentence"), which became Modern dòu and is now written as 逗 (dòu), as in 逗號 (dòuhào, "comma"). 逗 obviously had the primary meaning "to pause, to stop". Change in the written form to 逗 was probably etymologically correct.
- "To read" in German (lesen) came from a root meaning "to gather, to collect".
- Interestingly, "to read" in Latin (legō, note the similarity to OC) also came from a root meaning "to gather", through the intermediary stages "to gather > to say, to tell > to say aloud > to read".
- Finnish (lukea) (Estonian lugema too?) came from a root meaning "to count".
- Korean (읽다, ilk- < nilk-, Chinese l- often corresponds to native Korean n-) and 외다 (oy-, "to recite") were probably from a different root from 읊다 (ulph- < iph-, "to recite"). The latter is probably derived from 입 (ip, "mouth").
Modern niăo, Middle Chinese tɛwX (Pulleyblank), Old Chinese *tɯːwʔ (Zhengzhang Shangfang). Original sense: "a bird (possibly a bird with long uropygial plumes)". Character etymology: Pictographic. Cognate character: 鵰 (diāo, OC *tɯːw, "eagle").
The sound change t- > n- in Late Middle Chinese was unexpected and interesting. It occurred in most of the major dialects, although a few still retained the older t-initial, usually at the vernacular level. The reason for this change was probably to avoid confusion with the homophonic sense "penis". There was no character homophonic with 鳥 in Middle Chinese. However, apart from "bird", 鳥 had a second sense: "(vulgar) penis". One could hypothesise that it was because this colloquialism became so widespread that the public felt a need to use an unusual sound change to disambiguate between the two. Similar sound changes are also observed in characters homophonic or similar-sounding with 屄 (bī, "vagina") and 肏 (cào, "to fuck").
The sense "penis" may have originally been derived from the sense "bird". In Chinese sex-related terms are not infrequently associated with birds (for unknown reasons); compare, for example, the colloquial terms: 雞巴/𣬠𣬶/雞雞 (jība/jījī, "penis", from 雞, "chicken"), 雀兒/雀雀 (quèér/quèquè, "penis", from 雀, "sparrow"), 雞 (jī, "female prostitute", also from 雞, "chicken"). This vulgar sense is now written as 屌 (diǎo, "penis", graphically: "something hanging outside the body"), and this character is thought to be a Cantonese influence of other dialects (not necessarily, however). Modern niăo is still associated with the vulgar sense. Also compare 吊, 弔 (diào, OC *tiːwɢs, "to hang", originally: "to condole"), perhaps a sense derived from "penis".
Modern 鳥 has a third sense: "to pay attention to" (jocular, often in negation). It came from 嬲 (niǎo, "to flirt with; to annoy", graphically: "one female between two males", part of the 嬈 family) and is unrelated to the sense "bird".
Graphically cognate characters include: 島 (dǎo, OC *tuːwʔ, "island", unrelated), 烏 (wū, OC *qaː, "crow", unrelated, probably onomatopoeic in origin). Derived characters: 裊 (niăo, "slender, delicate", a late character, unrelated), 梟 (xiāo, OC *keːw, "owl", graphically: "bird on tree", unrelated). Other characters: 禽 (qín, OC *grɯm, "bird; animal"), 隹 (zhuī, OC *kljul, "bird (with short uropygial plumes)").
Derived from 你 (nǐ) + Altaic genitive -yın/yin, -ün/un. This character was not listed in Sui/Tang rhyme books. First attested in Jin/Yuan-era novels, when it was also written as 恁 (original MC pron. ȵʑǐĕm), and occurred predominantly in attributive environments, forming complementary distribution with 你 in other cases. Originally, 您 was a pronoun for both 2nd sg. and 2nd pl., and 你每 (> 你们) was an (equilibrating) disyllabic version of 您, which retains the -m syllable coda of 您 disappearing in Mandarin. Later, in Beijing dialect, -们 was restricted to purely a plural suffix, and 您 restricted to purely a 2nd sg. honorific pronoun, although the 2nd pl. hon. 您们 is still considered ungrammatical. The plural sense of 您 is retained in Tianjin dialect (as in 您了先聊，我到外头溜达溜达。 "Please continue your conversation, I'll just be having a walk outside.") and in Min 恁.
- 吕叔湘 (Lü Shuxiang)，《释您，俺，咱，喒，附论们字》，《吕叔湘全集》第二卷 汉语语法论文集。
Modern niŭ, Middle Chinese ɳuwX (Pulleyblank), Old Chinese *nuʔ (Zhengzhang Shangfang). Character etymology: phono(丑)-semantic(糸). Original senses: "loop handle, handling loop (of a utensil)" (Rites of Zhou), "button" (Classic of Rites), "origin, basis" (Zhuangzi), "classifier for seals" (Book of Zhou). Derived senses: "to tie", "to link, to connect".
Note: This word family is very likely derived from a word meaning "nose". Compare Tibetan སྣ (sna, "nose"), as well as Tibetan རྣ (rna, "ear") (These are likely cognate, compare Chinese 聞 (wén, OC *mɯn, "to hear; to smell")). Also compare Proto-Indo-European *nā́s, *(H)néh₂s (< **sna, "nose"), possibly from a root meaning "to flow", which produced English sn-words such as "snout, snort, sniff, snuff, sniffle, snuffle, snore, snitch, sneeze, snot".
"Nose" in Old Chinese was 鼻 (bí, OC *blids, "nose"), a differentiated form of 自 (zì, OC *sbids, "self < nose", note the graphical resemblance to a nose). Graphical derivations from this include: 臭 (chòu, OC *kʰljus, "unpleasant smell", graphically: smell of a dog), 臭, 嗅 (xiù, OC *qʰlus, "to smell, to sniff").
Modern shuǐ, Middle Chinese ɕ(j)wijX. It rhymed with -ujʔ and -unʔ characters in Shijing, which points to an earlier -r coda. Dialectal data and cognate characters (川, 沝) indicate that the initial in Old Chinese was *l̥-. Current reconstructions are: Zhengzhang Shangfang *qhʷljilʔ, Pan Wuyun *qhʷljiʔ, Li Fanggui *hrjidx, William Baxter *hljijʔ, Laurent Sagart *bhlu[r]ʔ.
Modern wèi, Middle Chinese mujH, Old Chinese *mɯds (Zhengzhang Shangfang).
Vietnamese "mùi" ("scent, odour"), which doesn't conform to Sino-Vietnamese correspondences, is probably an earlier loanword. Korean ablaut doublets 맛 (mas, "taste") / 멋 (mes, "fig. taste, smartness") (transcription in Yale to avoid 받침 neutralisation) are also possibly related. mes is possibly related to 魅 (mèi, OC *mrɯds, "charm", note it shares the same phonetic part with 味), 媚 (mèi, OC *mrils, "charm, love"), 美 (měi, OC *mriʔ, "beauty").
Original sense: "lip" (Rites of Zhou); "corner of the mouth" (Book of Han); "mouth" (Mozi). Derived senses: "loquacious", "tone, manner (of speaking)", "to be spatially close to, to touch", "to kiss" (last sense possibly [from 19th century]). Compare 抿 (mĭn, "(of mouth) to close slightly").
Modern yè, Middle Chinese jiɛp (Pan Wuyun), Old Chinese *leb (Zhengzhang Shangfang). Original sense: "leaf" (Shijing). Character etymology: Phono(枼)-semantic(艸). Derived characters: 頁 (yè, "page, leaf of paper").
This is derived from a root *leb, meaning "flat, planar > plate; layer", typically associated with the phonetic component 枼. Other derivations from this root include: 蝶 (dié, OC *l̥eːb, "butterfly"), 鰈 (dié, OC *l̥eːb, "plaice"), 牒 (dié, OC *l̥eːb, "writing slip > document"), 鍱 (yè, OC *leb, "slice of iron"), 楪 > 碟 (dié, OC *l̥eːb, "plate, dish"), 屟 > 屜 > 屧 (tì, OC *l̥eːbs, "drawer"; xiè, OC *sleːbs, "shoe-pad"), 疊/曡 (dié, OC *l̥ɯːb, "to pile up, to fold"), 迭 (dié, OC *l̥iːg, "to alternate"). This root corresponds remarkably well with the word family *nap ("flat, wide") in Korean:
- 나비 (napi, "butterfly") - 蝶 (dié, OC *l̥eːb, "butterfly")
- 넙치 (nepchi, "plaice, halibut") - 鰈 (dié, OC *l̥eːb, "plaice")
- 나비질, 나비치다 (napicil, napichita, "winnowing; to winnow"); 넉가래 < 넙가래 (nekqkalay < nepqkalay, "wooden shovel") - 𥷕 (dié, OC *l̥eːb, "to winnow")
- 잎 < 닢 (iph < niph, "leaf") - 葉 (yè, OC *leb, "leaf")
- 잎 (iph < *niph, "(obsolete) door") (cf. 창문(窓門), "window", lit. "window and door") - 枼 > 楪 (dié, OC *l̥eːb, "window")
- 넓다 < 넙다 (nelp- < nep-, "to be wide"), 납작 (napqcak, "flat"), 너르다 (nelu-, "wide"), 너그럽다 (nekulep-, "generous")
Words in other languages to compare with:
- Indo-European: *plat- ("to spread") (This root, in another form, was also very productive in Old Chinese.), *lep- ("to peel"), *legh- ("to lie down"), *plō- ("to fold")
- English: leaf, flat, place, plate, plane, plan, plant, plain, plot, field, plat, plateau, flan, plaice, flake, platypus, palm, glove, floor, please [to smooth, to make even]
- Old English: fiffealde < PIE *pāpel- ("butterfly")
- English: lie > lay > layer
- English: fold, plait, pleat, ply
- Latvian: lapa, Lithuanian: lapas (both "leaf")
- Uralic: *lEpV
- Altaic: *li̯àp`[a]
- Afro-Asiatic: *ʕal- ("leaf")
- Hebrew: עָלֶה (alé, "leaf")
Modern zì /ʦz̩˥˩/, Middle Chinese ʣɨH (Pulleyblank), Old Chinese *zlɯ (Zhengzhang Shangfang), *dzjəgh (Li Fanggui). Original sense (1): "to become pregnant, to give birth to, to nurture, to love" has essentially become obsolete. The sense (2) "letter, character" is either from a different root or a derivation from the sense "to produce, to generate".
Cognate characters include: (1) 子 (zǐ, OC *sɯʔ, "child, son"), 慈 (cí, OC *zɯ, "to be kind, loving"), 滋 (zī, OC *sɯ, "to nourish, to grow"); (2) 詞 (cí, OC *ljɯ, "word, term"), 辭 (cí, OC *ljɯ, "word < testimony"). Possible Sino-Tibetan cognates (Quan Guangzhen, 1996):
- Written Tibetan ཚ་བོ (tsha bo, "nephew")
- Written Tibetan ཚ་རུས (tsha rus, "descendant")
- Written Tibetan བཙའ་བ (btsa' ba, "to give birth to; to guard")
- Written Tibetan མཛའ་བ (mdza' ba, "kind, peaceful, friendly")
From PIE *ǵʰans- ("goose"). Another translingual commonality, compare:
- Sino-Tibetan: *ŋran ("goose", Coblin 1986)
- Kartvelian: *ɣrɣad-
- Georgian: ყეყეჩი (q’eq’eč’i)
- Uralic: *karke ("crane")
- Altaic: *gā̀ŕV ("wild goose"), *gi̯ằlá ("goose, duck") (Starostin 2003)
- Yurok: kelok
- Proto-Algonquian: *ki:la:hkwa
- Austroasiatic: *haːn (Sidwell, 2006) ~ Thai: ห่าน (hààn, "goose")
- Chinese: 鶴 (hè, OC *gloːwɢ, "crane"), 鵝 (é, OC *ŋaːl, "duck"); Tibetan: ངུར་བ (ngur ba, "duck"); Korean: 오리 (oli, "duck")
- crane (< PIE *gerh₂- (“to cry hoarsely”), ~ L. grūs)
- PIE *h₂enh₂-ti- ("duck") (> L. anas, R. утка < BSl. *ɑnʔt-)
- *dn̥ǵʰwéh₂s ("tongue")
- (The change *dn̥- > l- occured in three branches: Lithuanian, Armenian, Latin. Latin dingua was poorly attested. More likely that the original form was *l- and cognate with *leig̑h-.)
- *leiǵʰ- ("to lick")
- Chinese: 舐/舓/咶/狧/𦧧/𦧇 (shì, OC *ɦljeʔ, "to lick"), 舌 (shé, OC *ɦbljed, "tongue"), 餂 > 舔 (tiăn, OC *l̥eːmʔ, "to lick"), 脷 (lì, Cant. lei6, "animal tongue; (dialectal) tongue")
- Tibetan: ལྕེ (lce < *ltye, "tongue"), ལྗགས (ljags < *ldyags, (polite) tongue), ལྡག་པ (ldag pa, "to lick")
- Burmese: လျှာ (hlya, "tongue", /ʃà/), လျက် (lyak, "to lick")
- Afroasiatic: *lis- ("tongue"), *lVḳ- ("to lick")
- Georgian: ლოკვა (lok’va, "to lick")