The Development of Chinese Language

Updated:Sun, Oct 21, 2012 02:01 AM     Related:Chinese tones

Chinese tones

Chinese is a tonale language. In modern Chinese, every syllable has four different tone pitches (sisheng 四聲).


Chinese is a tonale language. In modern Chinese, every syllable has four different tone pitches (sisheng 四聲):

* high pitch (yinsheng 陰聲),

* rising pitch (yangsheng 陽聲),

* lower rising pitch (shangsheng 上聲), and

* falling pitch (qusheng 去聲).

The quickly falling tone pitch (rusheng 入聲) that once marked a final voiceless stop, disappeared during the end of Song and the Yuan Dynasties. Finally, in two-syllable-words, the second syllable is sometimes unaccented, so to say a pitchless tone (lingsheng 零聲). In Cantonese exist eight different tone pitches: high, upper rising, upper falling, upper entering, low, lower rising, lower falling, and lower entering; in daily use they are reduced to six.

The problem in reconstructing old Chinese language is that we do know how words were written, but because Chinese script is not a sound script (at least not in general) but a symbolic script, we do know nothing about the pronunciation of the old words. Only the researches of Bernard Karlgren (1889-1978) and E. G. Pulleyblank (* 1922) helped to reconstruct middle Chinese (Tang to Song Dynasties) and finally old and archaic Chinese. Both used the rime dictionaries of the Tang and Song Dynasties (Qieyun and Guangyun) and rime groups of the oldest poetry book, the Shijing. Frome these studies, we see that the final sound system of old Chinese was much more complex than today. While we have today only open syllables (without consonant: cha, ji, bo, dao) and the two finals -n (fan, lun, jin) and -ng (fang, cheng, qing). In old Chinese there were also finals like -l, -m, -g, -k, -t, and -p, in archaic Chinese even -gs. And there existed sound clusters at the begin of a syllable, like gl-, hl-, tr-, mj-, shw- and so on. Such a sound system makes old Chinese much more similar to Tibetian and Burmese. Compared to this, modern Chinese sounds quite crippled and oversimplified. Even at the begin of the 20th century, there existed not so much vowel-less syllables like in modern Chinese, like the seven syllables [d][t][][],[dz][ts][s]. Syllables like [dzi] or [tsi] have died out. Southern dialects (or languages?) in China still show final consonants like -m, -p, -t and -k. Chinese loanwords in Korean, Japanese and Vietnamese show the vanished syllable endings. The Chinese loanword "law" (modern Chinese falü, old Chinese something like paplüet) in Korean is pôp, in Japanese a little bit forced to hôritsu, in Vietnamese turned around to luât pháp. Southern Chinese dialects like Cantonese still today show the ancient syllable endings: "law" in Cantonese is faatleuht. The simplification of the language was due to the central administration in a vast empire that allowed people to come around. Different dialects had to near each other and step by step threw away difficult sounds.

The classical written language that had developed during the late Zhou and Han Dynasty, had the same importance like Latin in the West. Until the begin of the 20th century, all official documents, and even private essays and letters were written in a 2000 years old monosyllabic language, full of citings of the old books and writings. This language could only be used by scholars and well educated people. The literary form that first used the everyday language were the Yuan Dynasty theatre plays and Ming and Qing novels. Writers of the early 20th century fought for the introduction of everyday language (putonghua 普通話) into the literature. Today, only official letters and documents are written in classic language, but even newspapers and higher literature make use of the short and precise classical written language. People who know to write in classical Chinese (wenyan 文言) are esteemed highly.

During the course of centuries, Chinese language did not only make itself free from a rich but complicated sound system, but the tone pitches assimilated in such a way that some sounds like [dji] or [u] can stand for more than one dozen words of very different meaning. In written language, there is no problem with homophony as every word or almost every word has only one character that can barely misunderstood. Reading alound a text in classical written language, the listeners are hardly able to understand a great part of the text.

Measurements of the spoken language to encounter this homophony was the development of two-syllable words for nouns, verbs, adjectives and even for conjunctions. Today, most words in Chinese consist of two syllables, composed of two single words, like aiqing "love" from ai 愛 "love, affection" and qing 情 "feeling, sentiment, temperament". The classical word fang 方 can have the meanings of "direction" (modern: fangxiang 方向), "location" (difang 地方), "square" (fangxing 方形; fangmi 方米 fangzhang  铀ܐtion), "aspect, side, party" (fangmian 方面), "mode, manner" (fangshi 方式), "method" (fangfa 方法), "plan, concept" (fanglüe 方略), "stategy" (fangce 方策), "recipe" (fangji 方劑, fangzi 方子, fangr 方ㄦ, "occultism" (fangshu 方術, fangji 方技), "honest, upright" (fangzheng 方正), "just now" (fangcai 方才), and so on; to discern between the different meanings, two-syllable words came up (in brackets). Already in the oldest examples of Chinese literature, we find two-syllable words with rhyming or reduplication character, like yaotiao 窈窕 "lonely, pityful; honest", qingting 蜻蜓 "dragonfly", putao 葡萄 "grapes". Another method to enrich a word are suffixes, like the [dz] in [ba-dz] baozi 包子 "filled dumpling" and [i-dz] yizi 椅子 "chair", or the guttural [r] in [ta-r] char 茶ㄦ "tea" (in Peking dialect).




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