Old Chinese

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Old Chinese
Archaic Chinese
Song ding inscription.jpg
Rubbing of a Zhou dynasty bronze inscription (c.825  BC [1] )
Native toAncient China
Era Shang dynasty, Zhou dynasty, Warring States period
Oracle bone script
Bronze script
Seal script
Bird-worm seal script
Language codes
ISO 639-3 och
Glottolog shan1294   Shanggu Hanyu
Linguasphere 79-AAA-a
Chinese name
Traditional Chinese 上古漢語
Simplified Chinese 上古汉语
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters. For an introductory guide on IPA symbols, see Help:IPA.

Old Chinese, also called Archaic Chinese in older works, is the oldest attested stage of Chinese, and the ancestor of all modern varieties of Chinese. [lower-alpha 1] The earliest examples of Chinese are divinatory inscriptions on oracle bones from around 1250 BC, in the late Shang dynasty. Bronze inscriptions became plentiful during the following Zhou dynasty. The latter part of the Zhou period saw a flowering of literature, including classical works such as the Analects , the Mencius , and the Zuo zhuan . These works served as models for Literary Chinese (or Classical Chinese), which remained the written standard until the early twentieth century, thus preserving the vocabulary and grammar of late Old Chinese.


Old Chinese was written with several early forms of Chinese characters, including Oracle Bone, Bronze, and Seal scripts. Throughout the Old Chinese period, there was a close correspondence between a character and a monosyllabic and monomorphemic word. Although the script is not alphabetic, the majority of characters were created based on phonetic considerations. At first, words that were difficult to represent visually were written using a "borrowed" character for a similar-sounding word (rebus principle). Later on, to reduce ambiguity, new characters were created for these phonetic borrowings by appending a radical that conveys a broad semantic category, resulting in compound xingsheng (phono-semantic) characters (形聲字). For the earliest attested stage of Old Chinese of the late Shang dynasty, the phonetic information implicit in these xingsheng characters which are grouped into phonetic series, known as the xiesheng series , represents the only direct source of phonological data for reconstructing the language. The corpus of xingsheng characters was greatly expanded in the following Zhou dynasty. In addition, the rhymes of the earliest recorded poems, primarily those of the Shijing , provide an extensive source of phonological information with respect to syllable finals for the Central Plains dialects during the Western Zhou and Spring and Autumn periods. Similarly, the Chuci provides rhyme data for the dialect spoken in the Chu region during the Warring States period. These rhymes, together with clues from the phonetic components of xingsheng characters, allow most characters attested in Old Chinese to be assigned to one of 30 or 31 rhyme groups. For late Old Chinese of the Han period, the modern Southern Min dialects, the oldest layer of Sino-Vietnamese vocabulary, and a few early transliterations of foreign proper names, as well as names for non-native flora and fauna, also provide insights into language reconstruction.

Although many of the finer details remain unclear, most scholars agree that Old Chinese differed from Middle Chinese in lacking retroflex and palatal obstruents but having initial consonant clusters of some sort, and in having voiceless nasals and liquids. Most recent reconstructions also describe Old Chinese as a language without tones, but having consonant clusters at the end of the syllable, which developed into tone distinctions in Middle Chinese.

Most researchers trace the core vocabulary of Old Chinese to Sino-Tibetan, with much early borrowing from neighbouring languages. During the Zhou period, the originally monosyllabic vocabulary was augmented with polysyllabic words formed by compounding and reduplication, although monosyllabic vocabulary was still predominant. Unlike Middle Chinese and the modern Chinese dialects, Old Chinese had a significant amount of derivational morphology. Several affixes have been identified, including ones for the verbification of nouns, conversion between transitive and intransitive verbs, and formation of causative verbs. [4] Like modern Chinese, it appears to be uninflected, though a pronoun case and number system seems to have existed during the Shang and early Zhou but was already in the process of disappearing by the Classical period. [5] Likewise, by the Classical period, most morphological derivations had become unproductive or vestigial, and grammatical relationships were primarily indicated using word order and grammatical particles.


Middle Chinese and its southern neighbours Kra–Dai, Hmong–Mien and the Vietic branch of Austroasiatic have similar tone systems, syllable structure, grammatical features and lack of inflection, but these are believed to be areal features spread by diffusion rather than indicating common descent. [6] [7] The most widely accepted hypothesis is that Chinese belongs to the Sino-Tibetan language family, together with Burmese, Tibetan and many other languages spoken in the Himalayas and the Southeast Asian Massif. [8] The evidence consists of some hundreds of proposed cognate words, [9] including such basic vocabulary as the following: [10]

MeaningOld Chinese [lower-alpha 2] Old Tibetan Old Burmese
'I' *ŋa [12] ṅa [13] ṅā [13]
'you' *njaʔ [14] naṅ [15]
'not' *mja [16] ma [13] ma [13]
'two' *njijs [17] gñis [18] nhac < *nhik [18]
'three' *sum [19] gsum [20] sumḥ [20]
'five' *ŋaʔ [21] lṅa [13] ṅāḥ [13]
'six' *C-rjuk [lower-alpha 3] [23] drug [20] khrok < *khruk [20]
'sun' *njit [24] ñi-ma [25] niy [25]
'name' *mjeŋ [26] myiṅ < *myeŋ [27] maññ < *miŋ [27]
'ear' *njəʔ [28] rna [29] nāḥ [29]
'joint' *tsik [30] tshigs [25] chac < *chik [25]
'fish' *ŋja [31] ña < *ṅʲa [13] ṅāḥ [13]
'bitter' *kʰaʔ [32] kha [13] khāḥ [13]
'kill' *srjat [33] -sad [34] sat [34]
'poison' *duk [35] dug [20] tok < *tuk [20]

Although the relationship was first proposed in the early 19th century and is now broadly accepted, reconstruction of Sino-Tibetan is much less developed than that of families such as Indo-European or Austronesian. [36] Although Old Chinese is by far the earliest attested member of the family, its logographic script does not clearly indicate the pronunciation of words. [37] Other difficulties have included the great diversity of the languages, the lack of inflection in many of them, and the effects of language contact. In addition, many of the smaller languages are poorly described because they are spoken in mountainous areas that are difficult to reach, including several sensitive border zones. [38] [39]

Initial consonants generally correspond regarding place and manner of articulation, but voicing and aspiration are much less regular, and prefixal elements vary widely between languages. Some researchers believe that both these phenomena reflect lost minor syllables. [40] [41] Proto-Tibeto-Burman as reconstructed by Benedict and Matisoff lacks an aspiration distinction on initial stops and affricates. Aspiration in Old Chinese often corresponds to pre-initial consonants in Tibetan and Lolo-Burmese, and is believed to be a Chinese innovation arising from earlier prefixes. [42] Proto-Sino-Tibetan is reconstructed with a six-vowel system as in recent reconstructions of Old Chinese, with the Tibeto-Burman languages distinguished by the merger of the mid-central vowel *-ə- with *-a-. [43] [44] The other vowels are preserved by both, with some alternation between *-e- and *-i-, and between *-o- and *-u-. [45]


Timeline of early Chinese history and available texts
c. 1250 BC
c.1046 BC
771 BC
476 BC
221 BC Qin unification

The earliest known written records of the Chinese language were found at the Yinxu site near modern Anyang identified as the last capital of the Shang dynasty, and date from about 1250 BC. [46] These are the oracle bones, short inscriptions carved on tortoise plastrons and ox scapulae for divinatory purposes, as well as a few brief bronze inscriptions. The language written is undoubtedly an early form of Chinese, but is difficult to interpret due to the limited subject matter and high proportion of proper names. Only half of the 4,000 characters used have been identified with certainty. Little is known about the grammar of this language, but it seems much less reliant on grammatical particles than Classical Chinese. [47]

From early in the Western Zhou period, around 1000 BC, the most important recovered texts are bronze inscriptions, many of considerable length. Even longer pre-Classical texts on a wide range of subjects have also been transmitted through the literary tradition. The oldest sections of the Book of Documents , the Classic of Poetry and the I Ching , also date from the early Zhou period, and closely resemble the bronze inscriptions in vocabulary, syntax, and style. A greater proportion of this more varied vocabulary has been identified than for the oracular period. [48]

The four centuries preceding the unification of China in 221 BC (the later Spring and Autumn period and the Warring States period) constitute the Chinese classical period in the strict sense, although some authors also include the subsequent Qin and Han dynasties, thus encompassing the next four centuries of the early imperial period. [49] There are many bronze inscriptions from this period, but they are vastly outweighed by a rich literature written in ink on bamboo and wooden slips and (toward the end of the period) silk and paper. Although these are perishable materials, and many books were destroyed in the burning of books and burying of scholars in the Qin dynasty, a significant number of texts were transmitted as copies, and a few of these survived to the present day as the received classics. Works from this period, including the Analects , the Mencius , the Tao Te Ching , the Commentary of Zuo , the Guoyu , and the early Han Records of the Grand Historian , have been admired as models of prose style by later generations.

During the Han dynasty, disyllabic words proliferated in the spoken language and gradually replaced the mainly monosyllabic vocabulary of the pre-Qin period, while grammatically, noun classifiers became a prominent feature of the language. [49] [50] While some of these innovations were reflected in the writings of Han dynasty authors (e.g., Sima Qian), [51] later writers increasingly imitated earlier, pre-Qin literary models. As a result, the syntax and vocabulary of pre-Qin Classical Chinese was preserved in the form of Literary Chinese (wenyan), a written standard which served as a lingua franca for formal writing in China and neighboring Sinosphere countries until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. [52]


Shang dynasty oracle bone script on an ox scapula Shang dynasty inscribed scapula.jpg
Shang dynasty oracle bone script on an ox scapula
Seal script on bamboo strips from the Warring States period Manuscript from Shanghai Museum 1.jpg
Seal script on bamboo strips from the Warring States period

Each character of the script represented a single Old Chinese word. Most scholars believe that these words were monosyllabic, though some have recently suggested that a minority of them had minor presyllables. [53] [54] The development of these characters follows the same three stages that characterized Egyptian hieroglyphs, Mesopotamian cuneiform script and the Maya script. [55] [56]

Some words could be represented by pictures (later stylized) such as 'sun', rén 'person' and 'tree, wood', by abstract symbols such as sān 'three' and shàng 'up', or by composite symbols such as lín 'forest' (two trees). About 1,000 of the oracle bone characters, nearly a quarter of the total, are of this type, though 300 of them have not yet been deciphered. Though the pictographic origins of these characters are apparent, they have already undergone extensive simplification and conventionalization. Evolved forms of most of these characters are still in common use today. [57] [58]

Next, words that could not be represented pictorially, such as abstract terms and grammatical particles, were signified by borrowing characters of pictorial origin representing similar-sounding words (the "rebus strategy"): [59] [60]

Sometimes the borrowed character would be modified slightly to distinguish it from the original, as with 'don't', a borrowing of 'mother'. [57] Later, phonetic loans were systematically disambiguated by the addition of semantic indicators, usually to the less common word:

Such phono-semantic compound characters were already used extensively on the oracle bones, and the vast majority of characters created since then have been of this type. [63] In the Shuowen Jiezi , a dictionary compiled in the 2nd century, 82% of the 9,353 characters are classified as phono-semantic compounds. [64] In the light of the modern understanding of Old Chinese phonology, researchers now believe that most of the characters originally classified as semantic compounds also have a phonetic nature. [65] [66]

These developments were already present in the oracle bone script, [67] possibly implying a significant period of development prior to the extant inscriptions. [53] This may have involved writing on perishable materials, as suggested by the appearance on oracle bones of the character 'records'. The character is thought to depict bamboo or wooden strips tied together with leather thongs, a writing material known from later archaeological finds. [68]

Development and simplification of the script continued during the pre-Classical and Classical periods, with characters becoming less pictorial and more linear and regular, with rounded strokes being replaced by sharp angles. [69] The language developed compound words, so that characters came to represent morphemes, though almost all morphemes could be used as independent words. Hundreds of morphemes of two or more syllables also entered the language, and were written with one phono-semantic compound character per syllable. [70] During the Warring States period, writing became more widespread, with further simplification and variation, particularly in the eastern states. The most conservative script prevailed in the western state of Qin, which would later impose its standard on the whole of China. [71]


Old Chinese phonology has been reconstructed using a variety of evidence, including the phonetic components of Chinese characters, rhyming practice in the Classic of Poetry and Middle Chinese reading pronunciations described in such works as the Qieyun , a rhyme dictionary published in 601 AD. Although many details are still disputed, recent formulations are in substantial agreement on the core issues. [72] For example, the Old Chinese initial consonants recognized by Li Fang-Kuei and William Baxter are given below, with Baxter's (mostly tentative) additions given in parentheses: [73] [74] [75]

Labial Dental Palatal
[lower-alpha 4]
Velar Laryngeal
plain sibilant plain labialized plainlabialized
Stop or
voiceless *p*t*ts*k*kʷ*ʔʷ
aspirate *pʰ*tʰ*tsʰ*kʰ*kʷʰ
voiced *b*d*dz*ɡʷ
Nasal voiceless*m̥*n̥*ŋ̊*ŋ̊ʷ
Lateral voiceless*l̥
Fricative or

Various initial clusters have been proposed, especially clusters of *s- with other consonants, but this area remains unsettled. [77]

Bernhard Karlgren and many later scholars posited the medials *-r-, *-j- and the combination *-rj- to explain the retroflex and palatal obstruents of Middle Chinese, as well as many of its vowel contrasts. [78] *-r- is generally accepted. However, although the distinction denoted by *-j- is universally accepted, its realization as a palatal glide has been challenged on a number of grounds, and a variety of different realizations have been used in recent constructions. [79] [80]

Reconstructions since the 1980s usually propose six  vowels: [81] [lower-alpha 5] [lower-alpha 6]


Vowels could optionally be followed by the same codas as in Middle Chinese: a glide *-j or *-w, a nasal *-m, *-n or *-ŋ, or a stop *-p, *-t or *-k. Some scholars also allow for a labiovelar coda *-kʷ. [85] Most scholars now believe that Old Chinese lacked the tones found in later stages of the language, but had optional post-codas *-ʔ and *-s, which developed into the Middle Chinese rising and departing tones respectively. [86]


Little is known of the grammar of the language of the Oracular and pre-Classical periods, as the texts are often of a ritual or formulaic nature, and much of their vocabulary has not been deciphered. In contrast, the rich literature of the Warring States period has been extensively analysed. [87] Having no inflection, Old Chinese was heavily reliant on word order, grammatical particles, and inherent word classes. [87] [88]

Word classes

Classifying Old Chinese words is not always straightforward, as words were not marked for function, word classes overlapped, and words of one class could sometimes be used in roles normally reserved for a different class. [89] The task is more difficult with written texts than it would have been for speakers of Old Chinese, because the derivational morphology is often hidden by the writing system. [90] [91] For example, the verb *sək 'to block' and the derived noun *səks 'frontier' were both written with the same character . [92]

Personal pronouns exhibit a wide variety of forms in Old Chinese texts, possibly due to dialectal variation. [93] There were two groups of first-person pronouns: [93] [94]

  1. *lja , *ljaʔ , [lower-alpha 7] *ljə and *lrjəmʔ
  2. *ŋa and *ŋajʔ

In the oracle bone inscriptions, the *l- pronouns were used by the king to refer to himself, and the *ŋ- forms for the Shang people as a whole. This distinction is largely absent in later texts, and the *l- forms disappeared during the classical period. [94] In the post-Han period, came to be used as the general first-person pronoun. [96]

Second-person pronouns included *njaʔ , *njəjʔ , *njə , *njak . [97] The forms and continued to be used interchangeably until their replacement by the northwestern variant (modern Mandarin ) in the Tang period. [96] However, in some Min dialects the second-person pronoun is derived from . [98]

Case distinctions were particularly marked among third-person pronouns. [99] There was no third-person subject pronoun, but *tjə , originally a distal demonstrative, came to be used as a third-person object pronoun in the classical period. [99] [100] The possessive pronoun was originally *kjot , replaced in the classical period by *ɡjə . [101] In the post-Han period, came to be used as the general third-person pronoun. [96] It survives in some Wu dialects, but has been replaced by a variety of forms elsewhere. [96]

There were demonstrative and interrogative pronouns, but no indefinite pronouns with the meanings 'something' or 'nothing'. [102] The distributive pronouns were formed with a *-k suffix: [103] [104]

As in the modern language, localizers (compass directions, 'above', 'inside' and the like) could be placed after nouns to indicate relative positions. They could also precede verbs to indicate the direction of the action. [103] Nouns denoting times were another special class (time words); they usually preceded the subject to specify the time of an action. [105] However the classifiers so characteristic of Modern Chinese only became common in the Han period and the subsequent Northern and Southern dynasties. [106]

Old Chinese verbs, like their modern counterparts, did not show tense or aspect; these could be indicated with adverbs or particles if required. Verbs could be transitive or intransitive. As in the modern language, adjectives were a special kind of intransitive verb, and a few transitive verbs could also function as modal auxiliaries or as prepositions. [107]

Adverbs described the scope of a statement or various temporal relationships. [108] They included two families of negatives starting with *p- and *m-, such as *pjə and *mja . [109] Modern northern varieties derive the usual negative from the first family, while southern varieties preserve the second. [110] The language had no adverbs of degree until late in the Classical period. [111]

Particles were function words serving a range of purposes. As in the modern language, there were sentence-final particles marking imperatives and yes/no questions. Other sentence-final particles expressed a range of connotations, the most important being *ljaj , expressing static factuality, and *ɦjəʔ , implying a change. Other particles included the subordination marker *tjə and the nominalizing particles *tjaʔ (agent) and *srjaʔ (object). [112] Conjunctions could join nouns or clauses. [113]

Sentence structure

As with English and modern Chinese, Old Chinese sentences can be analysed as a subject (a noun phrase, sometimes understood) followed by a predicate, which could be of either nominal or verbal type. [114] [115]

Before the Classical period, nominal predicates consisted of a copular particle *wjij followed by a noun phrase: [116] [117]









予 惟 小 子

*ljaʔ *wjij *sjewʔ *tsjəʔ

I be small child

'I am a young person.' ( Book of Documents 27, 9) [117]

The negated copula *pjə-wjij is attested in oracle bone inscriptions, and later fused as *pjəj . In the Classical period, nominal predicates were constructed with the sentence-final particle *ljaj instead of the copula , but was retained as the negative form, with which was optional: [118] [119]























其 至 爾 力 也 其 中 非 爾 力 也

*ɡjə *tjits *njəjʔ *C-rjək *ljajʔ *ɡjə *k-ljuŋ *pjəj *njəjʔ *C-rjək *ljajʔ

its arrive you strength FP its centre not you strength FP

(of shooting at a mark a hundred paces distant) 'That you reach it is owing to your strength, but that you hit the mark is not owing to your strength.' ( Mencius 10.1/51/13) [90]

The copular verb (shì) of Literary and Modern Chinese dates from the Han period. In Old Chinese the word was a near demonstrative ('this'). [120]

As in Modern Chinese, but unlike most Tibeto-Burman languages, the basic word order in a verbal sentence was subject–verb–object: [121] [122]












孟子 見 梁 惠 王

*mraŋs-*tsəjʔ *kens *C-rjaŋ *wets *wjaŋ

Mencius see Liang Hui king

'Mencius saw King Hui of Liang.' (Mencius 1.1/1/3) [123]

Besides inversions for emphasis, there were two exceptions to this rule: a pronoun object of a negated sentence or an interrogative pronoun object would be placed before the verb: [121]









歲 不 我 與

*swjats *pjə *ŋajʔ *ljaʔ

year not me wait

'The years do not wait for us.' ( Analects 17.1/47/23)

An additional noun phrase could be placed before the subject to serve as the topic. [124] As in the modern language, yes/no questions were formed by adding a sentence-final particle, and requests for information by substituting an interrogative pronoun for the requested element. [125]


In general, Old Chinese modifiers preceded the words they modified. Thus relative clauses were placed before the noun, usually marked by the particle *tjə (in a role similar to Modern Chinese de): [126] [127]











不 忍 人 之 心

*pjə *njənʔ *njin *tjə *sjəm

not endure person REL heart

'... the heart that cannot bear the afflictions of others.' (Mencius 3.6/18/4) [126]

A common instance of this construction was adjectival modification, since the Old Chinese adjective was a type of verb (as in the modern language), but was usually omitted after monosyllabic adjectives. [126]

Similarly, adverbial modifiers, including various forms of negation, usually occurred before the verb. [128] As in the modern language, time adjuncts occurred either at the start of the sentence or before the verb, depending on their scope, while duration adjuncts were placed after the verb. [129] Instrumental and place adjuncts were usually placed after the verb phrase. These later moved to a position before the verb, as in the modern language. [130]


The improved understanding of Old Chinese phonology has enabled the study of the origins of Chinese words (rather than the characters with which they are written). Most researchers trace the core vocabulary to a Sino-Tibetan ancestor language, with much early borrowing from other neighbouring languages. [131] The traditional view was that Old Chinese was an isolating language, lacking both inflection and derivation, but it has become clear that words could be formed by derivational affixation, reduplication and compounding. [132] Most authors consider only monosyllabic roots, but Baxter and Laurent Sagart also propose disyllabic roots in which the first syllable is reduced, as in modern Khmer. [54]


During the Old Chinese period, Chinese civilization expanded from a compact area around the lower Wei River and middle Yellow River eastwards across the North China Plain to Shandong and then south into the valley of the Yangtze. There are no records of the non-Chinese languages formerly spoken in those areas and subsequently displaced by the Chinese expansion. However they are believed to have contributed to the vocabulary of Old Chinese, and may be the source of some of the many Chinese words whose origins are still unknown. [133] [134]

Jerry Norman and Mei Tsu-lin have identified early Austroasiatic loanwords in Old Chinese, possibly from the peoples of the lower Yangtze basin known to ancient Chinese as the Yue. For example, the early Chinese name *kroŋ ( jiāng) for the Yangtze was later extended to a general word for 'river' in south China. Norman and Mei suggest that the word is cognate with Vietnamese sông (from *krong) and Mon kruŋ 'river'. [135] [136] [137]

Haudricourt and Strecker have proposed a number of borrowings from the Hmong–Mien languages. These include terms related to rice cultivation, which began in the middle Yangtze valley:

Other words are believed to have been borrowed from languages to the south of the Chinese area, but it is not clear which was the original source, e.g.

In ancient times, the Tarim Basin was occupied by speakers of Indo-European Tocharian languages, the source of *mjit ( ) 'honey', from proto-Tocharian *ḿət(ə) (where *ḿ is palatalized; cf. Tocharian B mit), cognate with English mead . [141] [lower-alpha 8] The northern neighbours of Chinese contributed such words as *dok ( ) 'calf' – compare Mongolian tuɣul and Manchu tuqšan. [144]


Chinese philologists have long noted words with related meanings and similar pronunciations, sometimes written using the same character. [145] [146] Henri Maspero attributed some of these alternations to consonant clusters resulting from derivational affixes. [147] Subsequent work has identified several such affixes, some of which appear to have cognates in other Sino-Tibetan languages. [148] [149]

A common case is "derivation by tone change", in which words in the departing tone appear to be derived from words in other tones. [150] If Haudricourt's theory of the origin of the departing tone is accepted, these tonal derivations can be interpreted as the result of a derivational suffix *-s. As Tibetan has a similar suffix, it may be inherited from Sino-Tibetan. [151] Examples include:

Another alternation involves transitive verbs with an unvoiced initial and passive or stative verbs with a voiced initial: [156]

Some scholars hold that the transitive verbs with voiceless initials are basic and the voiced initials reflect a de-transitivizing nasal prefix. [160] Others suggest that the transitive verbs were derived by the addition of a causative prefix *s- to a stative verb, causing devoicing of the following voiced initial. [161] Both postulated prefixes have parallels in other Sino-Tibetan languages, in some of which they are still productive. [162] [163] Several other affixes have been proposed. [164] [165]

Reduplication and compounding

Old Chinese morphemes were originally monosyllabic, but during the Western Zhou period many new disyllabic words entered the language. For example, over 30% of the vocabulary of the Mencius is polysyllabic, including 9% proper names, though monosyllabic words occur more frequently, accounting for 80–90% of the text. [166] Many disyllabic, monomorphemic words, particularly names of insects, birds and plants, and expressive adjectives and adverbs, were formed by varieties of reduplication (liánmián cí連綿詞/聯緜詞): [167] [168] [lower-alpha 9]

Other disyllabic morphemes include the famous *ɡa-lep ( 胡蝶 [lower-alpha 11] húdié) 'butterfly' from the Zhuangzi . [176] More words, especially nouns, were formed by compounding, including:

However the components of compounds were not bound morphemes: they could still be used separately. [179]

A number of bimorphemic syllables appeared in the Classical period, resulting from the fusion of words with following unstressed particles or pronouns. Thus the negatives *pjut and *mjut are viewed as fusions of the negators *pjə and *mjo respectively with a third-person pronoun *tjə . [180]


  1. The time interval assigned to Old Chinese varies between authors. Some scholars limit it to the early Zhou, based on the availability of documentary evidence of the phonology. Many include the whole Zhou period and often the earliest written evidence from the late Shang, while some also include the Qin, Han and occasionally even later periods. The subsequent Middle Chinese period is deemed to begin sometime after Qin unification and no later than the Sui dynasty and the phonological system of the Qieyun . [2] The ancestor of the oldest layer of the Min dialects is believed to have split off from the other varieties of Chinese during the Han dynasty at the end of the Old Chinese period. [3]
  2. Reconstructed Old Chinese forms are starred, and follow Baxter (1992) with some graphical substitutions from his more recent work: for [11] and consonants rendered according to IPA conventions.
  3. The notation "*C-" indicates that there is evidence of an Old Chinese consonant before *r, but the particular consonant cannot be identified. [22]
  4. Baxter describes his reconstruction of the palatal initials as "especially tentative, being based largely on scanty graphic evidence". [76]
  5. The vowel here written as is treated as , or by different authors.
  6. The six-vowel system represents a re-analysis of a system proposed by Li and still used by some authors, comprising four vowels *i, *u, and *a and three diphthongs. [82] Li's diphthongs *ia and *ua correspond to *e and *o respectively, while Li's *iə becomes *i or in different contexts. [83] [84]
  7. In the later reading tradition, 予 (when used as a pronoun) is treated as a graphical variant of 余. In the Shijing, however, both pronoun and verb usages of 予 rhyme in the rising tone. [94] [95]
  8. Jacques proposed a different, unattested, Tocharian form as the source. [142] Meier and Peyrot recently defended the traditional Tocharian etymology. [143]
  9. All examples are found in the Shijing.
  10. This word was later written as 鶬鶊. [169]
  11. During the Old Chinese period, the word for butterfly was written as 胡蝶. [175] During later centuries, the 'insect' radical (虫) was added to the first character to give the modern 蝴蝶.

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Sino-Tibetan, also known as Trans-Himalayan in a few sources, is a family of more than 400 languages, second only to Indo-European in number of native speakers. The vast majority of these are the 1.3 billion native speakers of Chinese languages. Other Sino-Tibetan languages with large numbers of speakers include Burmese and the Tibetic languages. Other languages of the family are spoken in the Himalayas, the Southeast Asian Massif, and the eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau. Most of these have small speech communities in remote mountain areas, and as such are poorly documented.

Min Chinese Primary branch of Chinese spoken in southern China and Taiwan

Min is a broad group of Sinitic languages spoken by about 30 million people in Fujian province as well as by the descendants of Min speaking colonists on Leizhou peninsula and Hainan, or assimilated natives of Chaoshan, parts of Zhongshan, three counties in southern Wenzhou, Zhoushan archipelago, and Taiwan. The name is derived from the Min River in Fujian, which is also the abbreviated name of Fujian Province. Min varieties are not mutually intelligible with one another nor with any other variety of Chinese.

The languages of East Asia belong to several distinct language families, with many common features attributed to interaction. In the Mainland Southeast Asia linguistic area, Chinese varieties and languages of southeast Asia share many areal features, tending to be analytic languages with similar syllable and tone structure. In the 1st millennium AD, Chinese culture came to dominate East Asia. Classical Chinese was adopted by scholars in Vietnam, Korea, and Japan. There was a massive influx of Chinese vocabulary into these and other neighboring languages. The Chinese script was also adapted to write Vietnamese, Korean, and Japanese, though in the first two the use of Chinese characters is now restricted to university learning, linguistic or historical study, artistic or decorative works and newspapers.

Middle Chinese Pronunciation system for Chinese recorded in the Qieyun dictionary (601)

Middle Chinese or the Qieyun system (QYS) is the historical variety of Chinese recorded in the Qieyun, a rime dictionary first published in 601 and followed by several revised and expanded editions. The Swedish linguist Bernard Karlgren believed that the dictionary recorded a speech standard of the capital Chang'an of the Sui and Tang dynasties. However, based on the more recently recovered preface of the Qieyun, most scholars now believe that it records a compromise between northern and southern reading and poetic traditions from the late Northern and Southern dynasties period. This composite system contains important information for the reconstruction of the preceding system of Old Chinese phonology.

Burmese language Sino-Tibetan language of Myanmar

Burmese is a Sino-Tibetan language spoken in Myanmar where it is an official language and the language of the Burmans, the country's principal ethnic group. Although the Constitution of Myanmar officially recognizes the English name of the language as the Myanmar language, most English speakers continue to refer to the language as Burmese, after Burma, the country’s once previous and currently co-official name. In 2007, it was spoken as a first language by 33 million, primarily the Burman people and related ethnic groups, and as a second language by 10 million, particularly ethnic minorities in Myanmar and neighboring countries. In 2014 the Burmese population was 36.39 million, and has been estimated at 38.2 million as of April 2020.

Fanqie is a method in traditional Chinese lexicography to indicate the pronunciation of a monosyllabic character by using two other characters, one with the same initial consonant as the desired syllable and one with the same rest of the syllable . The method was introduced in the 3rd century AD and used in dictionaries and commentaries on the classics until the early 20th century.

Rime dictionary Ancient type of Chinese dictionary that collates characters by tone and rhyme

A rime dictionary, rhyme dictionary, or rime book is an ancient type of Chinese dictionary that collates characters by tone and rhyme, instead of by radical. The most important rime dictionary tradition began with the Qieyun (601), which codified correct pronunciations for reading the classics and writing poetry by combining the reading traditions of north and south China. This work became very popular during the Tang dynasty, and went through a series of revisions and expansions, of which the most famous is the Guangyun (1007–1008).

Historical Chinese phonology deals with reconstructing the sounds of Chinese from the past. As Chinese is written with logographic characters, not alphabetic or syllabary, the methods employed in Historical Chinese phonology differ considerably from those employed in, for example, Indo-European linguistics; reconstruction is more difficult because, unlike Indo-European languages, no phonetic spellings were used.

Sino-Xenic or Sinoxenic pronunciations are regular systems for reading Chinese characters in Japan, Korea and Vietnam, originating in medieval times and the source of large-scale borrowings of Chinese words into the Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese languages, none of which are genetically related to Chinese. The resulting Sino-Japanese, Sino-Korean and Sino-Vietnamese vocabularies now make up a large part of the lexicons of these languages. The pronunciation systems are used alongside modern varieties of Chinese in historical Chinese phonology, particularly the reconstruction of the sounds of Middle Chinese. Some other languages, such as Hmong–Mien and Kra–Dai languages, also contain large numbers of Chinese loanwords but without the systematic correspondences that characterize Sino-Xenic vocabularies.

In historical linguistics, the history of the Chinese language includes the various changes over time of the Chinese language in its various incarnations. Earliest known origins of the Chinese language date back 6,000 years. Modern day characters had not been introduced until centuries later, leaving many components of Chinese language quite obscure and unknown.

The Bai language is a language spoken in China, primarily in Yunnan Province, by the Bai people. The language has over a million speakers and is divided into three or four main dialects. Bai syllables are always open, with a rich set of vowels and eight tones. The tones are divided into two groups with modal and non-modal phonation. There is a small amount of traditional literature written with Chinese characters, Bowen (僰文), as well as a number of recent publications printed with a recently standardized system of romanisation using the Latin alphabet.

Chinese family of scripts Writing systems derived from the ancient Oracle Bone script

The Chinese family of scripts are writing systems descended from the Chinese Oracle Bone Script and used for a variety of languages in East Asia. They include logosyllabic systems such as the Chinese script itself, and adaptations to other languages, such as Kanji (Japanese), Hanja (Korean), Chữ nôm (Vietnamese) and Sawndip (Zhuang). More divergent are Tangut, Khitan large script, and its offspring Jurchen, as well as the Yi script and possibly Korean Hangul, which were inspired by Chinese although not directly descended from it. The partially deciphered Khitan small script may be another. In addition, various phonetic scripts descend from Chinese characters, of which the best known are the various kana syllabaries, the zhuyin semi-syllabary, nüshu, and some influence on hangul.

Chóngniǔ or rime doublets are certain pairs of Middle Chinese syllables that are consistently distinguished in rime dictionaries and rime tables, but without a clear indication of the phonological basis of the distinction.

Proto-Tibeto-Burman is the reconstructed ancestor of the Tibeto-Burman languages, that is, the Sino-Tibetan languages except for Chinese. An initial reconstruction was produced by Paul K. Benedict and since refined by James Matisoff. Several other researchers argue that the Tibeto-Burman languages sans Chinese do not constitute a monophyletic group within Sino-Tibetan, and therefore that Proto-Tibeto-Burman was the same language as Proto-Sino-Tibetan.

William Hubbard Baxter III is an American linguist specializing in the history of the Chinese language and best known for his work on the reconstruction on Old Chinese.

Scholars have attempted to reconstruct the phonology of Old Chinese from documentary evidence. Although the writing system does not describe sounds directly, shared phonetic components of the most ancient Chinese characters are believed to link words that were pronounced similarly at that time. The oldest surviving Chinese verse, in the Classic of Poetry (Shijing), shows which words rhymed in that period. Scholars have compared these bodies of contemporary evidence with the much later Middle Chinese reading pronunciations listed in the Qieyun rime dictionary published in 601 AD, though this falls short of a phonemic analysis. Supplementary evidence has been drawn from cognates in other Sino-Tibetan languages and in Min Chinese, which split off before the Middle Chinese period, Chinese transcriptions of foreign names, and early borrowings from and by neighbouring languages such as Hmong–Mien, Tai and Tocharian languages.

Although Old Chinese is known from written records beginning around 1200 BC, the logographic script provides much more indirect and partial information about the pronunciation of the language than alphabetic systems used elsewhere. Several authors have produced reconstructions of Old Chinese phonology, beginning with the Swedish sinologist Bernard Karlgren in the 1940s and continuing to the present day. The method introduced by Karlgren is unique, comparing categories implied by ancient rhyming practice and the structure of Chinese characters with descriptions in medieval rhyme dictionaries, though more recent approaches have also incorporated other kinds of evidence.

Proto-Min is a comparative reconstruction of the common ancestor of the Min group of varieties of Chinese. Min varieties developed in the relative isolation of the Chinese province of Fujian and eastern Guangdong, and have since spread to Taiwan, Southeast Asia, and other parts of the world. They contain reflexes of distinctions not found in Middle Chinese or most other modern varieties, and thus provide additional data for the reconstruction of Old Chinese.

Eastern Han Chinese Form of Chinese spoken in the Eastern Han period

Eastern Han Chinese or Later Han Chinese is the stage of the Chinese language revealed by poetry and glosses from the Eastern Han period . It is considered an intermediate stage between Old Chinese and the Middle Chinese of the 7th-century Qieyun dictionary.



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  2. Tai & Chan (1999), pp. 225–233.
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  9. Coblin (1986), pp. 35–164.
  10. Norman (1988), p. 13.
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  12. GSR 58f; Baxter (1992) , p. 208.
  13. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Hill (2012), p. 46.
  14. GSR 94j; Baxter (1992) , p. 453.
  15. Hill (2012), p. 48.
  16. GSR 103a; Baxter (1992) , p. 47.
  17. GSR 564a; Baxter (1992) , p. 317.
  18. 1 2 Hill (2012), p. 8.
  19. GSR 648a; Baxter (1992) , p. 785.
  20. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Hill (2012), p. 27.
  21. GSR 58a; Baxter (1992) , p. 795.
  22. Baxter (1992), p. 201.
  23. GSR 1032a; Baxter (1992) , p. 774.
  24. GSR 404a; Baxter (1992) , p. 785.
  25. 1 2 3 4 Hill (2012), p. 9.
  26. GSR 826a; Baxter (1992) , p. 777.
  27. 1 2 Hill (2012), p. 12.
  28. GSR 981a; Baxter (1992) , p. 756.
  29. 1 2 Hill (2012), p. 15.
  30. GSR 399e; Baxter (1992) , p. 768.
  31. GSR 79a; Baxter (1992) , p. 209.
  32. GSR 49u; Baxter (1992) , p. 771.
  33. GSR 319d; Baxter (1992) , p. 407.
  34. 1 2 Hill (2012), p. 51.
  35. GSR 1016a; Baxter (1992) , p. 520.
  36. Handel (2008), p. 422.
  37. Norman (1988), p. 14.
  38. Handel (2008), pp. 434–436.
  39. Norman (1988), pp. 15–16.
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  41. Handel (2008), pp. 425–426.
  42. Schuessler (2007), pp. 58–63.
  43. Gong (1980), pp. 476–479.
  44. Schuessler (2007), pp. 2, 105.
  45. Schuessler (2007), pp. 110–117.
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  47. Boltz (1999), pp. 88–89.
  48. Boltz (1999), p. 89.
  49. 1 2 Norman, Jerry, 1936–2012. Chinese. Cambridge. pp. 112–117. ISBN   0521228093. OCLC   15629375.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
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  51. Pulleyblank (1996), pp. 4.
  52. Boltz (1999), p. 90.
  53. 1 2 Norman (1988), p. 58.
  54. 1 2 Baxter & Sagart (2014), pp. 50–53.
  55. Boltz (1994), pp. 52–72.
  56. Boltz (1999), p. 109.
  57. 1 2 Wilkinson (2012), p. 36.
  58. Boltz (1994), pp. 52–57.
  59. Boltz (1994), pp. 59–62.
  60. Boltz (1999), pp. 114–118.
  61. 1 2 GSR 403; Boltz (1999) , p. 119.
  62. 1 2 GSR 952; Norman (1988) , p. 60.
  63. Boltz (1994), pp. 67–72.
  64. Wilkinson (2012), pp. 36–37.
  65. Boltz (1994), pp. 147–149.
  66. Schuessler (2009), pp. 31–32, 35.
  67. Boltz (1999), p. 110.
  68. Boltz (1999), p. 107.
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  70. Boltz (1994), pp. 171–172.
  71. Norman (1988), pp. 62–63.
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  73. Li (1974–1975), p. 237.
  74. Norman (1988), p. 46.
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  76. Baxter (1992), p. 203.
  77. Baxter (1992), pp. 222–232.
  78. Baxter (1992), pp. 235–236.
  79. Schuessler (2007), p. 95.
  80. Baxter & Sagart (2014), pp. 68–71.
  81. Baxter (1992), p. 180.
  82. Li (1974–1975), p. 247.
  83. Baxter (1992), pp. 253–256.
  84. Handel (2003), pp. 556–557.
  85. Baxter (1992), p. 291.
  86. Baxter (1992), pp. 181–183.
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  88. Schuessler (2007), p. 12.
  89. Norman (1988), pp. 87–88.
  90. 1 2 Herforth (2003), p. 60.
  91. Aldridge (2013), pp. 41–42.
  92. Baxter (1992), p. 136.
  93. 1 2 Norman (1988), p. 89.
  94. 1 2 3 Pulleyblank (1996), p. 76.
  95. Baxter (1992), p. 805.
  96. 1 2 3 4 Norman (1988), p. 118.
  97. Pulleyblank (1996), p. 77.
  98. Sagart (1999), p. 143.
  99. 1 2 Aldridge (2013), p. 43.
  100. Pulleyblank (1996), p. 79.
  101. Pulleyblank (1996), p. 80.
  102. Norman (1988), pp. 90–91.
  103. 1 2 Norman (1988), p. 91.
  104. Schuessler (2007), pp. 70, 457.
  105. Norman (1988), pp. 91, 94.
  106. Norman (1988), pp. 115–116.
  107. Norman (1988), pp. 91–94.
  108. Norman (1988), p. 94.
  109. Norman (1988), pp. 97–98.
  110. Schuessler (2007), pp. 172–173, 518–519.
  111. Norman (1988), pp. 94, 127.
  112. Norman (1988), pp. 94, 98–100, 105–106.
  113. Norman (1988), pp. 94, 106–108.
  114. Pulleyblank (1996), pp. 13–14.
  115. Norman (1988), p. 95.
  116. Pulleyblank (1996), p. 22.
  117. 1 2 Schuessler (2007), p. 14.
  118. Pulleyblank (1996), pp. 16–18, 22.
  119. Schuessler (2007), p. 232.
  120. Norman (1988), pp. 125–126.
  121. 1 2 Pulleyblank (1996), p. 14.
  122. Norman (1988), pp. 10–11, 96.
  123. Pulleyblank (1996), p. 13.
  124. Herforth (2003), pp. 66–67.
  125. Norman (1988), pp. 90–91, 98–99.
  126. 1 2 3 Pulleyblank (1996), p. 62.
  127. Norman (1988), pp. 104–105.
  128. Norman (1988), p. 105.
  129. Norman (1988), pp. 103–104.
  130. Norman (1988), pp. 103, 130–131.
  131. Schuessler (2007), pp. xi, 1–5, 7–8.
  132. Baxter & Sagart (1998), pp. 35–36.
  133. Norman (1988), pp. 4, 16–17.
  134. Boltz (1999), pp. 75–76.
  135. Norman & Mei (1976), pp. 280–283.
  136. Norman (1988), pp. 17–18.
  137. Baxter (1992), p. 573.
  138. Haudricourt & Strecker (1991); Baxter (1992) , p. 753; GSR 1078h; Schuessler (2007) , pp. 207–208, 556.
  139. Norman (1988) , p. 19; GSR 728a; OC from Baxter (1992) , p. 206.
  140. Schuessler (2007) , p. 292; GSR 876n; OC from Baxter (1992) , p. 578.
  141. Boltz (1999) , p. 87; Schuessler (2007) , p. 383; Baxter (1992) , p. 191; GSR 405r; Proto-Tocharian and Tocharian B forms from Peyrot (2008) , p. 56.
  142. Jacques (2014).
  143. Meier & Peyrot (2017).
  144. Norman (1988) , p. 18; GSR 1023l.
  145. Handel (2015), p. 76.
  146. Sagart (1999), p. 1.
  147. Maspero (1930), pp. 323–324.
  148. Baxter & Sagart (2014), pp. 53–60.
  149. Schuessler (2007), pp. 14–22.
  150. Downer (1959), pp. 258–259.
  151. Baxter (1992), pp. 315–317.
  152. GSR 381a,c; Baxter (1992) , p. 768; Schuessler (2007) , p. 45.
  153. GSR 393p,t; Baxter (1992) , p. 315.
  154. GSR 695h,e; Baxter (1992) , p. 315; Schuessler (2007) , p. 45.
  155. GSR 920f; Baxter (1992) , p. 178; Schuessler (2007) , p. 16.
  156. Schuessler (2007), p. 49.
  157. GSR 241a,e; Baxter (1992) , p. 218.
  158. GSR 1166a, 1167e; Baxter (1992) , p. 801.
  159. GSR 721h,a; Baxter (1992) , p. 324.
  160. Handel (2012), pp. 63–64, 68–69.
  161. Handel (2012), pp. 63–64, 70–71.
  162. Handel (2012), pp. 65–68.
  163. Sun (2014), pp. 638–640.
  164. Baxter & Sagart (1998), pp. 45–64.
  165. Schuessler (2007), pp. 38–50.
  166. Wilkinson (2012), pp. 22–23.
  167. 1 2 Norman (1988), p. 87.
  168. Li (2013), p. 1.
  169. Qiu (2000), p. 338.
  170. 1 2 Baxter & Sagart (1998), p. 65.
  171. Li (2013), p. 144.
  172. Schuessler (2007), p. 24.
  173. Baxter & Sagart (1998), pp. 65–66.
  174. Baxter & Sagart (1998), p. 66.
  175. GSR 49a'.
  176. GSR 633h; Baxter (1992) , p. 411.
  177. Baxter & Sagart (1998), p. 67.
  178. Baxter & Sagart (1998), p. 68.
  179. Norman (1988), p. 86.
  180. Norman (1988), pp. 85, 98.

Works cited

Further reading