Faculty publication explores the pronunciation of ancient Chinese and beyond

Prof. Zev Handel’s new book, Old Chinese Medials and their Sino-Tibetan Origins (Institute of Linguistics, Academia Sinica, 2010) traces the development of pronunciation from Old Chinese and other even earlier languages into their modern Chinese counterparts. Old Chinese is the name given by linguists to the spoken language underlying the Confucian classics and prevalent in the first millennium BCE. This language is ancestral to the Chinese languages (such as Mandarin, Cantonese, Taiwanese, and Shanghainese) spoken today, much as Latin is ancestral to the modern Romance languages (such as French, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese).

Over the course of the 20th century and into the 21st, scholars have made great progress in uncovering the pronunciation of Old Chinese. Techniques include the analysis of ancient rhyming texts (principally the Confucian classic Shijing, known in English as the Book of Odes or Book of Songs), the analysis of phonetic components of early Chinese characters, and comparative analysis of modern Chinese languages and documented intermediate stages. Handel’s work focuses on one part of the Old Chinese syllable, the so-called “medial element.” These are l, r, w, and y-like sounds that occur between the beginning consonant sound and the main vowel sound of the syllable. An example is the r sound in the Old Chinese word “krong” (river) (which has developed into the word jiang in Modern Mandarin). Chinese languages today entirely lack l and r sounds in this position within a syllable.

In addition to the techniques mentioned above, Handel’s research makes extensive use of comparative data from other languages. Just as Latin is itself related to Greek, Sanskrit, Slavic, Germanic, and many other languages constituting the Indo-European family of languages, Chinese is related to Tibetan, Burmese, and dozens of other languages that together form the great Sino-Tibetan family of languages, which is spoken over a great swath of Asia, from northeast India, across the Himalayas, and into Southeast Asia. Comparison of Chinese with these other languages can yield insights into ancient pronunciations, not only of Chinese itself, but also of the hypothesized ancestor tongue of all the Sino-Tibetan languages, termed Proto-Sino-Tibetan.

Work like Prof. Handel’s, technically abstruse as it may be at times, is part of a broader humanistic enterprise aimed at understanding the history and interactions of the peoples of Asia. Because of the complexity of the migrations that have taken place over the last 5000 years, the cultural, demographic, and linguistic histories of Asia present us with an incomplete picture full of unsolved mysteries and fascinating puzzles. How did different civilizations develop, and by what pathways did cultural and agricultural innovations spread? What kinds of interactions, whether peaceful trade or warlike conflict, have shaped the peopling of Asia? Linguistic reconstruction, along with archeological investigation, genetic analysis, and ethnographic studies, is helping us to slowly fill in some of the missing pieces. By uncovering ancient pronunciations, we can sometimes trace the paths of borrowed words across languages, in turn revealing the pathways by which cultural artifacts and concepts traversed the continent, and the locations and interactions of ancient peoples.

For his second book, Prof. Handel plans to investigate the spread and development of the Chinese writing system as it was adapted to the representation of non-Chinese languages like Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese.

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