29 Dec 2007

Fun with Old Chinese rhymes

Between data-mining all things Etruscan and pondering on the issues of Pre-Proto-Indo-European, I'm becoming increasingly enchanted by Old Chinese. Old Chinese is absolutely nothing like modern Mandarin or Cantonese. In fact, all of the tones that we now take for granted in Chinese come purely from sound changes in the language that occured since Augustus Caesar crowned himself divine emperor of the newly forged Roman Empire. (I've wrote about Chinese tonogenesis before.) Vis-à-vis the number of tones, Mandarin was the more economical of the Sinitic languages, settling with four tones; the so-called "fifth tone" (as in the interrogative particle, 吗 ma) being in reality a misnomer for what is the reduced variant of any of these four tones. In Cantonese, the number of distinct tones is six.

The reconstruction of Old Chinese depends on who does the reconstructing but there is no question that Old Chinese had interesting consonant clusters that would make Russian speakers feel right at home. You can see these same clusters in Classical Tibetan, a language which shares a common ancestry with Chinese within the past 6000 years. In 1992, William Hubbard Baxter authored A Handbook of Old Chinese phonology, clarifying all of the interesting changes that took place. We can tell in part what happened during the course of history of the language based on old rhymes. Words that originally rhymed now no longer do. In fact, in many cases, the changes are absolutely dramatic. Below, I will talk about some of these "used-to-but-no-longer" rhymes, showing pronunciation of the characters in Modern Mandarin.

For example, we know that 人 rén "person" and 年 nián "year" used to rhyme but they don't now. Even in Cantonese, the two words have deviated a fair amount: /jɐn/ "person" & /nin/ "year". So some propose that the two words in Old Chinese were pronounced *znen and *ʕznen (yes, with pharyngeal onset!), respectively. This is what is represented on Wikipedia... but I would recommend that people take Wikipedia with a large pinch of salt. Baxter shows instead *njin "person" (where j is for IPA /j/ as in the y- of "yeller") and *nin "harvest, year" (see p.424).

Likewise, we are told that *b-rjɨŋ and *prjɨŋ both mean "ice" in Old Chinese (on p.273) and that they are undoubtedly related. However in Modern Mandarin, these two words are quite different: 凌 líng and 冰 bīng. In the first word, the prefix *b- has been omitted in Middle Chinese while *p- in the second word is not a prefix and therefore remains intact. Prefix deletion is a common change in Middle Chinese which is half the reason why modern Chinese seems so completely removed from its original pronunciation. Note that the voicing or voicelessness of the initial and final consonants of these words played a part in determining the eventual tone of the word and also keep in mind that different Chinese languages reflect different tones. What is usually high flat tone in Mandarin (which sounds like "singing" to English ears and which is identical in sound with the French tonal accent) will often be high falling tone in Cantonese (sounding like an exclamation in English).

(Mar 25 2008) Based on the input from Movenon, I realize now that my initial statement in the first paragraph of this entry ("Mandarin was the more conservative of the Sinitic languages, settling with four tones,[...] ") is too vague and may cause confusion. I was thinking of changing it to "Mandarin was the more conservative (in the number of tones)" but I guess the word "conservative" is the crux of the problem since I'm using it to mean "reserved, limited" while it can also be interpreted as meaning "traditional". Arrgh. Damn the English language. So I guess we'll have to try this: "Vis-à-vis the number of tones, Mandarin was the more economical of the Sinitic languages, settling with four tones,[...]".


  1. Yes, Baxter's work was a real nice piece of scholarship.

    Please note that he has since concluded that the ubiquitous OC *-j- really represents a short vowel, so your two words only really differ in the length of the vowel.

  2. Interesting. Strange too, because I myself was getting the sense that this is a matter of length rather than a *-j- medial.

    I was thinking of this because of the problematic Indic loans that Baxter himself was complaining about in this same book (p.287): Middle Chinese Byut (佛)from Sanskrit Buddha and Kjuwmaladzyip (鸠摩羅什) from Sanskrit Kumārajīva. There's really no sense why a "j" would pop up out of the blue like that.

    So you're saying that he's updated them to Būt and Kūmaladzīp then? Because that would fit muuuuuuuch better with these loans and would be a lot smoother on the eyes.

  3. Whoops, wait a minute. I'm slow. Maybe you mean the other way around, don't you. So But "Buddha" (佛), Kumaladzip "Kumarajiva" (鸠摩羅什), nin "person" (人) and nīn "harvest; year" (年). Yes, that might be better. I'm slow, but I get it eventually :)

  4. I wonder though, what is it about the Sanskrit u and i which made the Old Chinese want to transcribe them with long vowels?

  5. No, I think I may have misunderstood the first time. The *-j- in the onset is to be ommitted and the following vowel to be understood as short, in opposition to long vowels in those that lack this *-j-.

    If that's correct, that makes sense to me because Indic short vowels would then become Old/Middle Chinese short vowels... so then to respond to your question, there is nothing abnormal about the vowels at all, only in our modern understanding of the phonetics of Old and Middle Chinese.

    Also if Old Chinese *njɨʔ "ear" is in reality simply *nɨʔ with short *i, then it correlates better with Tibetan rna-ba, and then there would also be a gain in our understanding of Proto-Sino-Tibetan and the development of Proto-Sinitic (ancestor of Chinese). I believe Stephen above has called the onset medial *-j- "ubiquitous" in reference to the fact that in terms of markedness, it's rather bizarre why palatal onsets would be so prevalent in Old Chinese syllabics at the expense of non-palatal onsets. The problem is similar to the violations of markedness created by traditionally reconstructed Indo-European palatal velar stops.

    At any rate, clearly I have a lot of more studying on this to do :)

  6. You got it right: Baxter would now understand the short-vowel nin "person" (人) and the long vowel nīn "harvest; year" (年).

  7. Mandarin is NOT the more conservative form of Chinese when it comes to tones (Especially when compared to Cantonese, generally acknowledged to be one of the most conservative forms of Chinese when it comes to tones). Yes, Middle Chinese had four tones; these were Ping, Shang, Qu, and Ru. However, the four tones of Mandarin are NOT a direct continuation of this tonal system. All modern varieties of Chinese experienced a "Yin-Yang" split in the four tones of Middle Chinese. However, most subsequently began to merge these now eight categories into each other over time. This is what happened to Mandarin, the eight tones merged into four tones.

    The four tones of Mandarin correspond to Yin-ping, Yang-ping, Yinshang, and Qu. Basically, Mandarin still maintains a Yin-Yang split in the Ping tone, the Yin-qu and Yang-qu tones merged back together, and the Yang-shang tone merged into the new Qu tone. Yin-shang tone remained intact. Both Ru tones were completely lost in Standard Mandarin, where the Yin-ru tone merged into the Yin-ping, Yang-ping, Yin-shang, and Qu tones, and the Yang-ru tone merged into both Yang-ping and Qu, depending on the initial consonant. However, there are certain dialects of Mandarin which preserve Ru tones, such as the Jianghuai dialects of Mandarin, spoken around Nanjing, Yangzhou, and other areas of Jiangsu province. Most southern varieties of Chinese happen to preserve the Ru tones, particularly Wu, Min, and Yue/Cantonese.

    Thus, it is important to stress that one cannot determine which language is more conservative in tonal structure just by comparing the number of tones with the ancestral language, as you do not necessarily know which tones became which during language development. Assuming Mandarin to be more conservative simply because it happens to have the same number of tones as Middle Chinese is analogous to determine what language is more conservative in consonants just by comparing the number of consonants with the number in the protolanguage.

  8. Even though you've misunderstood me, I must admit that this is actually **my fault** because I didn't explain myself accurately enough. Eek! Alas, I have a long way to go before I achieve perfection. ;)

    When I wrote "Mandarin was the more conservative of the Sinitic languages", I failed to specify clearly what sort of "conservatism" I was referring to although I allude to it immediately after this phrase. Here, I intended to say simply that Mandarin is more conservative *in its number of tones*, and thus certainly more conservative in that regard compared with Cantonese, although there are Chinese languages with even less tones than Mandarin.

    On the other hand, if I were referring to your sense of "conservatism", that is, regarding the preservation of archaicisms from Middle Chinese, then of course Mandarin is rather the opposite and very innovative in even more ways than just tones. Don't worry. We're on the same page but we're lost in a fog of words.

    I've updated the article to reflect better what I initially meant. Sorry about that.

    I'm glad though that it inspired you to share some valuable information about tonal evolution in Chinese languages. You've read much on this topic. Thank you.

  9. Thank you for taking the time to read my comments. However, let me reiterate that Middle Chinese, which was protolanguage to virtually all present-day Chinese languages, went through a tonal split that made the four tone categories (Ping, Shang, Qu, Ru) divide into Yin and Yang categories, based on whether or not the initial consonant was voiced or voiceless. From this, we can see that most dialects went through innovations after this, mostly in the direction of dropping some of the tonal categories. Thus, the less conservative trend is to lower the number of tones, not to increase the number of tones. Mandarin in a previous level of language development definitely had more tones. This is apparent because different dialects of Mandarin preserve different tones of the eight tone system of Middle Chinese. Therefore, to use the word "conservative" loosely is rather misleading, because this is how the number of tone categories changed over time:

    0>4>8>Yue: 8-10 depending on dialect. (Standard Cantonese has 9 tone categories, but 6 different tone contours).

    0>4>8>Minnan: 7-8 depending on dialect.

    0>4>8>Wu: 5-8 depending on dialect.

    0>4>8>Mandarin: 3-5 depending on dialect. (Standard Mandarin has 4, neutral tone is not a separate tone category)

    Therefore, it is actually rather inaccurate to use the word conservative here; if we compare for example Standard Cantonese (SC) with Standard Mandarin (SM), then the number of tones in each would be, starting from the first attested protolanguage, Old Chinese (as far as we know, nontonal):


    Remember that the above is not even taking into account that the new tonal categories do not necessarily merge back into their original categories. This is what happened with Mandarin, as the 4 tone categories left in Standard Mandarin are not analogous to the old 4 tone categories of Ping, Shang, Qu, Ru. I realize that you are talking about when only looking at the number of tones when you call Mandarin conservative. However, because Mandarin went through a point in history when it had 8 tones, then merged and lost tones during its evolution, I do not believe that one can really consider this to be comparatively conservative to any other dialect in any way, it is just one of those coincidences that happen over time. This changing in the number of tones from 8 to 4 is just as innovative as from 8 to 10; it is not "un-innovating" or purifying the language of innovations either, as the 4 tones of Standard Mandarin are not the 4 tones of Middle Chinese. An example of undoing innovations over time would be Standard Cantonese, which previously split its Yin-ping tone into two, but now the two have merged back together into the original Yin-ping again.

    My main point that I'm trying to emphasize (but you may probably be aware, and I'm just being dense) is that Mandarin went through an earlier stage when it had a lot more tones, then reduced them to 3, 4, or 5 tones; Mandarin has not been "conserving" its tones at 4 since Middle Chinese while the rest of the languages went crazy with adding tones, it is a coincidence that Modern Standard Mandarin happens to have the same number of tones as Middle Chinese.

    Anyway, this is all probably due to some misunderstandings of each others true intentions despite what we wrote, and I apologize for writing such longwinded comments. Please take this to be an encouragement to blog more about Sino-Tibetan topics in general.

  10. Movenon: "My main point that I'm trying to emphasize [...] is that Mandarin went through an earlier stage when it had a lot more tones,[...]"

    Yes, I already know. Trust me :) Poor wording is not necessarily indicative of a lack of knowledge.

    Right after your first comment, I already adapted my text to read: "Vis-à-vis the number of tones, Mandarin was the more economical of the Sinitic languages, settling with four tones; [...]". If my latest revision is insufficient, please suggest a better alternative.

    My observation on number of tones here was a lighthearted non sequitur, if anything, which doesn't affect the reasoning of subsequent paragraphs. If you reread my entry, you'll see that my focus here wasn't on the exact date and specific developments of Chinese tones. I was only musing on the general mechanisms that cause tonal development in languages. This entry is really just an add-on of my previous rants on tonogenesis which were also generalized in nature.

    So what you say is an excellent addendum to my entry which more than makes up for the professorial nitpicking, hehehe. :) A sincere thanks to you once more.

    Moveon: "Please take this to be an encouragement to blog more about Sino-Tibetan topics in general."

    Thank you. So many languages, so little time. For right now, Etruscan has got my mind in a knot but I have no intention on abandoning Sino-Tibetan in the future.