We present here an etymological hypothesis for the pronunciation of the name of the tile game of 麻雀. For the card game of 麻雀 however, where it is prior to the tile game’s presence in a particular locale according to documentary evidence, the game is therefore inferred to be the card game with a different pronunciation. This pronunciation is taken from observations of Sir W. H. Wilkinson found in section 3.6 1888-1890 in the article Máquè/Májiàng/Mahjong Terms 1780 – 1920.
This hypothesis is found throughout the pages of various articles on this site and is here presented in a form separate from those texts.
The modern Standard Chinese (Guo/Putonghua) began to be standardised from 1909. (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Standard_Chinese#History.)
According to A Chinese-English Dictionary by Herbert A. Giles, 2nd Edition, Kelly and Walsh 1912 (see http://ebook.lib.hku.hk/CADAL/B33646119/
雀 in the Ningbo dialect would have read as ts’iah (Pinyin cia).
However, at an earlier date 雀 would have read as zia in the Ningbo dialect and in 麻雀 would have had a 儿 tone added, to produce mo zia + ng, hence mo ziang.
Later, the zia pronunciation for 雀 then developed into cia, while the pronunciation of 雀 in 麻雀 was kept as ziang. The pronunciation of 麻雀 as mo ziang for sparrows was kept since it was a colloquialism (spoken in the everyday or vernacular language) in Ningbo. But Giles (1912) failed to record both the zia and ziang pronunciations.
Since in the Shanghainese/Suzhou dialects 雀 reads as cia, then 麻雀 in Shanghai and Suzhou reads as mo cia for sparrows (birds), not mo ziang as in the Ningbo dialect. Hence mo ziang originated from the Ningbo dialect.
Further, literature evidence points to a version of the tile game – also called mo ziang – that had reached prominence in Ningbo and spread to Shanghai by the late 1880s.
Therefore both the literature and linguistic evidence suggests the mo ziang pronunciation originated from the Ningbo dialect.
Since the pronunciations of ziang and jiang were merged into a common jiang pronunciation in the Beijing dialect in the early Qing, then Northern Mandarin-speaking peoples upon encountering the Shanghainese pronunciation mo ziang, would pronounce it as má jiàng (Mandarin pronunciations are based on the Beijing dialect).
Hence the original and correct pronunciation of the name for the tile game of 麻雀 is taken to be mo ziang in Shanghainese and má jiàng in Mandarin (based on the Beijing dialect)). Where the name for the tile game is written as 麻雀, the pronunciation will appear as mo ziang, and in parentheses as the Mandarin pronunciation má jiàng.
The pronunciation má jiàng eventually had its own written form 麻將 to represent the tile game. The earliest record of this written form for má jiàng appeared in a 1913 issue of the Shanghai Shen Bao newspaper.
For the card game of 麻雀 (not necessarily the same game as the tile game), the pronunciation is má què.