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.
Chinese is documented over a long period of time, with the earliest oracle bone writings dated to c. 1250 BC. However, since the writing is mostly with logographic characters, which do not directly specify the phonology of the language, reconstruction is in general quite difficult, and depends to a large extent on ancillary sources that more directly document the language's phonology. On the basis of these sources, historical Chinese is divided into the following basic periods:
Middle Chinese had a structure much like many modern varieties, with largely monosyllabic words, little or no derivational morphology, four tone-classes (though three phonemic tones), and a syllable structure consisting of initial consonant, glide, main vowel and final consonant, with a large number of initial consonants and a fairly small number of final consonants. Not counting the glide, no clusters could occur at the beginning or end of a syllable.
Old Chinese, on the other hand, had a significantly different structure. Most scholars have concluded that there were no tones, a lesser imbalance between possible initial and final consonants, and a significant number of initial and final clusters. There was a well-developed system of derivational and possibly inflectional morphology, formed using consonants added onto the beginning or end of a syllable. This system is similar to the system reconstructed for Proto-Sino-Tibetan and still visible, for example, in the written Tibetan language; it is also largely similar to the system that occurs in the more conservative Mon-Khmer languages, such as modern Khmer (Cambodian).
The main changes leading to the modern varieties have been a reduction in the number of consonants and vowels and a corresponding increase in the number of tones (typically through a pan-East-Asiatic tone split that doubled the number of tones while eliminating the distinction between voiced and unvoiced consonants). This has led to a gradual decrease in the number of possible syllables. In Standard Mandarin, this has progressed to a farther extent than elsewhere, with only about 1,200 possible syllables. The result, in Mandarin especially, has been the proliferation of the number of two-syllable compound words, which have steadily replaced former monosyllabic words, to the extent that the majority of words in Standard Mandarin are now composed of two syllables.
The terms "Old Chinese" and "Middle Chinese" refer to long periods of time in and of themselves, during which significant changes occurred. Although there is no standard system for subdividing these periods, the following is an approximate chronology leading from the oldest writings in the oracle bone script up through modern Standard Mandarin:
A native tradition of Chinese phonology developed in the Middle Chinese period. Chinese linguists had long compiled dictionaries and attempted to identify the pronunciation of difficult characters by specifying homophone characters. During the early centuries AD, however, the more advanced method of fanqie was developed, which allowed the pronunciation of any syllable to be specified unambiguously by using one character to indicate the initial consonant and another to indicate the remainder. By the sixth century AD, systematic attempts were made to compile lists of all characters and specify their pronunciation by way of fanqie, culminating in rime dictionaries such as the Qieyun (601 AD).
During the next few centuries, the increasing influence of Buddhism and Buddhist scholars brought Chinese linguists in touch with the tradition of Sanskrit grammar, which included a highly advanced understanding of phonology and phonetics, including a system of analyzing sounds by distinctive features, such as place of articulation and type of phonation. This led to rime tables such as the Yunjing (c. 1150 AD), a sophisticated analysis of the sound system of the Qieyun.
During the Qing dynasty (1644-1912), scholars such as Duan Yucai diligently studied the sound system of Middle and Old Chinese. Through careful examination of rime tables, rime dictionaries and patterns of rhyming among poets of various eras, these scholars were able to work out the system of categories of rhymes in Old Chinese, and discover additional Middle Chinese categories that had previously been overlooked. However, progress in Chinese linguistics was seriously hampered by the lack of any concept of a phoneme — i.e. a basic unit of sound, including vowels and vowel-like segments as well as consonants. This made it impossible to go beyond determination of systems of rhyming categories to reconstruction of the actual sounds involved.
In some ways, the lack of native Chinese development of the concept of a unit of sound is surprising, as it had already been developed by Sanskrit grammarians such as Pini by the 4th century BC at the latest, and the phonological analysis of the Yunjing shows a close familiarity with the tradition of Sanskrit grammar. Furthermore, some non-Chinese writing systems within the Chinese cultural orbit, such as the Korean script and especially the Tibetan script, were developed under the close influence of Indian writing systems and have the concept of phoneme directly embedded in them. (Furthermore, the 'Phags-pa script, an alphabetic script of Tibetan origin, had been used to write Chinese itself during the Mongolian Yuan dynasty, c. 1270-1360, although it later fell out of use.) It seems likely, however, that
As a result, the first reconstructions of the actual sound systems of Old and Middle Chinese were only done in the early 20th century, by Swedish sinologist Bernhard Karlgren. Armed with his knowledge of Western historical linguistics, he performed field work in China between 1910 and 1912, creating a list of 3,100 Chinese characters and collecting phonological data on the pronunciation of these characters in 19 Mandarin dialects as well as the dialects of Shanghai (Wu), Fuzhou (Eastern Min), and Guangdong (Cantonese). He combined this with the Sino-Japanese and Sino-Vietnamese pronunciations as well as previously published material on nine other dialects, along with the fanqie analysis of the Guangyun rime dictionary (a later version of the Qieyun of 601 AD). In 1915, he published his reconstruction of Middle Chinese, which underlies in one form or another all subsequent reconstructions. Walter Simon and Henri Maspero also made great contributions in the field during the early days of its development. Karlgren himself had no direct access to the Qieyun, which was thought lost; however, fragments of the Qieyun were discovered in the Dunhuang Caves in the 1930s, and a nearly complete copy was discovered in 1947 in the Palace Museum.
Karlgren was also instrumental in early reconstruction of Old Chinese. His early work on Middle Chinese made various suggestions about Old Chinese, and a detailed reconstruction appeared in Grammata Serica (1940), a dictionary of Middle and Old Chinese reconstructions. An expanded version, Grammata Serica Recensa, was published in 1957 and is still a commonly cited source.
The reconstruction of Middle Chinese draws its data (in approximate order of importance) from:
Karlgren suggested that the Middle Chinese documented in the Qieyun was a live language of the Sui-Tang period. Today, with direct access to the Qieyun, this notion has been replaced by the view that the sound system in Qieyun represents (or proposes) a literate reading adopted by the literate class of the period throughout the country, not any live language that once existed. For example, in some cases a former three-way distinction A, B, C among initials or finals gave way to a situation where one dialect group of the Qieyun period merged AB vs. C, while another group merged A vs. BC. In these cases, the Qieyun specifies A, B, C as all distinct, even though no living dialect of the time period made such a three-way distinction, and any earlier dialect that did make this distinction would have differed in other ways from the Qieyun system.
The reconstruction of Old Chinese is more controversial than that of Middle Chinese since it has to be extrapolated from the Middle Chinese data. Phonological information concerning Old Chinese is chiefly gained from:
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William H. Baxter pointed out that some of the words that were reconstructed with Middle Chinese palatal initials were perhaps words that had velar initials. For example, Baxter indicated that ?, reconstructed as nyet in Middle Chinese, was perhaps pronounced as ngjet. He noted the distinction between ? (tsye), which had a MC palatal initial, and ?, which had a velar initial in MC (gjeX, III). The two are reconstructed by Baxter to be kje and grje? respectively. Baxter posited that the medial -rj- cluster had blocked palatalisation.
The voiced velar plosive, *?, was lenited to a voiced fricative (*?~?) during this development from Old Chinese to Middle Chinese. According to Lawrence Sagart, this change is reflected when the Old Chinese plosive occurred in type A syllables. This is supported by Baxter's observation that modern Min dialects show a difference in pronunciation between ? and ?, both of which belong to the Middle Chinese ? initial (reconstructed as *?~?). For the first character, the Fuzhou dialect, the Amoy Hokkien and Teochew, show pronunciations with a velar plosive (*k-). This pronunciation is consistent with an earlier pronunciation with a velar plosive, most likely the Old Chinese *?. The second character is pronounced by these dialects with a null initial, possibly reflecting a voiced laryngeal in Old Chinese. The OC *? remained intact in Type B syllables, which correspond to Division III Middle Chinese words.
The loss of the reconstructed OC medial "r", or the r-infix in Sagart's reconstruction, had not only influenced vowel quality in Middle Chinese, but had also caused the retroflexion of coronal consonants.
Both Baxter and Sagart have pointed out that Old Chinese had a series of voiceless sonorants, which typically do not occur in most modern varieties. These voiceless sonorants are hm /m?/, hn n?, hng //, hngw //, hl /l?/ and possibly hr /r?/. Their reflexes in Middle Chinese are postulated to be:
|OC Voiceless Sonorant||MC Reflex|
|*hn-||th-, thr(j)-, sy-|
|*hl-||th-, sy-, thr(j)-|
|*hr-||x-(?), thrj-, th(r)-|
The j in parenthesis correspond to developments from a Type B syllable. The MC palatal sibilant reflex, sy, is only found in Type B syllables.
Additionally, the OC lateral consonant /*l/ is shown to have fortified to a coronal plosive /d/ in Type A syllables. Meanwhile, it developed into /j/ in Type B syllables, which developed palatalisation in Middle Chinese. Sagart pointed out, however, that these changes are not true if the lateral is preceded by a reconstructed prefix. This position, whereby OC /l/ underwent fortition to become a plosive, is upheld by Baxter. Baxter pointed out xiesheng contacts between plosive series, sibilants and MC y-, and made the following reconstructions.
Note that these reconstructions included voiceless sonorants, of which the developments have been consisted with their fortition and reflexes.
According to Sagart, this fortition was impeded if the lateral was preceded by an unspecified consonant or minor syllable. He reconstructs ? to be *C?-lim, yielding MC lim. Furthermore, MC /l/ was said to have derived from an OC /r/.
The following are the main developments that produced Early Middle Chinese (EMC) from Old Chinese (OC):
Note that OC type-B syllables correspond closely to division-III, and (in Baxter's reconstruction at least) to EMC syllables with /i/ or /j/.
To a large degree, Late Middle Chinese (LMC) of c. 1000 AD can be viewed as the direct ancestor of all Chinese varieties except Min Chinese; in other words, attempting to reconstruct the parent language of all varieties excluding Min leads no farther back than LMC. See below for more information.
Exactly which changes occurred between EMC and LMC depends on whose system of EMC and/or LMC reconstruction is used. In the following, Baxter's EMC reconstruction is compared to Pulleyblank's LMC reconstruction. To the extent that these two systems reflect reality, they may be significantly farther apart than the 400 or so years normally given between EMC and LMC, since Baxter's EMC system was designed to harmonize with Old Chinese while Pulleyblank's LMC system was designed to harmonize with later Mandarin developments. Furthermore, Baxter considers all the distinctions of the Qieyun to be real, while many of them are clearly anachronisms that no longer applied to any living form of the language in 600 AD. Finally, some of the resulting "changes" may not be actual changes at all so much as conceptual differences in the way the systems have been reconstructed; these are noted below.
Changes mostly involve initials, medials, and main vowels.
Few changes to final consonants occur; the main ones are the loss of /j/ after a high vowel, the disappearance of /?/ (which might or might not be reckoned as a final consonant) in the rhyme /-/, and (potentially) the appearance of /j?/ and /jk/ (which are suspect in various ways; see below).
The tones do not change phonemically. However, allophonically they evidently split into a higher-pitched allophone in syllables with voiced initials, and a lower-pitched allophone in syllables with unvoiced initials. All modern Chinese varieties reflect such a split, which produces a new set of phonemic tones in most varieties due to later loss of voicing distinctions.
The following changes are in approximate order.
Early Middle Chinese (EMC) labials (/p, p?, b, m/) become Late Middle Chinese (LMC) labiodentals (/f, f, bv, ?/, possibly from earlier affricates) in certain circumstances involving a following glide. When this happens, the glide disappears. Using Baxter's reconstruction, the triggering circumstances can be expressed simply as whenever a labial is followed by a glide /j/ and the main vowel is a back vowel; other reconstructions word the rule differently. According to Baxter, however, labiodentalization might have occurred independently of each other in different areas. For example, some variants retain OC /m/ before the glide, while in other variants, it had developed into a labiodental initial (?): compare Cantonese ? man4 and Mandarin ? wén.
In approximate order:
The following table illustrates the evolution of initials from Early Middle Chinese, through Late Middle Chinese, to Standard Mandarin.
before /j/ + back vowel
|/?/||/?/||/?~?/ or syllable |
|/p/, /p?/, /b/||/p/, /p?/, /b?/||/p/, /p?/|
before /j/ + back vowel
|/t/, /t?/, /d/||/t/, /t?/, /d?/||/t/, /t?/|
|/?/, //, /?/||/?/, //, //||//, //|
|/t?/, //, //||//, //, //|
|/t?/, /t/, /d?/|
|/ts/, /ts?/, /dz/||/ts/, /ts?/, /dz?/||/ts/, /ts?/|
before /i/, /y/, or /j/
|/k/, /k?/, /?/||/k/, /k?/, //|
|/?/, /?/||/?/, //||/?/|
|/s/, /z/||/s/, /z?/||/s/|
before /i/, /y/, or /j/
|/x/, /?/||/x/, // or dropped before /j/|
In general, Mandarin preserves the LMC system of medials and main vowels fairly well (better than most other varieties) but drastically reduces the system of codas (final consonants). The systematic changes to medials and main vowels are loss of the chongniu distinctions i/ji and y/jy (which occur in all modern varieties) and loss of the distinction between /a/ and /a:/. All final stop consonants are lost, and final nasals are reduced to a distinction between /n/ and /?/.
The exact changes involving finals are somewhat complex and not always predictable, in that in many circumstances there are multiple possible outcomes. The following is a basic summary; more information can be found in the table of EMC finals in Middle Chinese.
Changes to medials:
Changes to main vowels:
Changes to codas:
A tone split occurs as a result of the loss of the voicing distinction in initial consonants. The split tones then merge back together except for Middle Chinese tone 1; hence Middle Chinese tones 1,2,3 become Mandarin tones 1,2,3,4. (Some syllables with original Mandarin tone 3 move to tone 4; see below.) Syllables with a final stop consonant, originally toneless, get assigned to one of the four modern tones; for syllables with Middle Chinese unvoiced initials, this happens in a completely random fashion.
The specific relationship between Middle Chinese and modern tones:
|Middle Chinese||Tone||Ping (?)||Shang (?)||Qu (?)||Ru (?)|
|Standard Chinese||Tone name||Yin Ping
with no pattern
|to Qu||to Yang Ping|
|Tone contour||55||35||214||51||to 51||to 35|
Most modern varieties can be viewed as descendants of Late Middle Chinese (LMC) of c. 1000 AD. For example, all modern varieties other than Min Chinese have labiodental fricatives (e.g. /f/), a change that occurred after Early Middle Chinese (EMC) of c. 600 AD. In fact, some post-LMC changes are reflected in all modern varieties, such as the loss of the chongniu distinction (between e.g. /pian/ and /pjian/, using Edwin Pulleyblank's transcription). Other changes occurring in most modern varieties, such as the loss of initial voiced obstruents and corresponding tone split, are areal changes that spread across existing dialects; possibly the loss of chongniu distinctions can be viewed in the same way.
Min Chinese, on the other hand, is known to have branched off even before Early Middle Chinese (EMC) of c. 600 AD. Not only does it not reflect the development of labiodental fricatives or other LMC-specific changes, but a number of features already present in EMC appear never developed. An example is the series of retroflex stops in EMC, which developed from earlier alveolar stops followed by /r/, and which later merged with retroflex sibilants. In Min, the corresponding words still have alveolar stops. This difference can be seen in the words for "tea" borrowed into various other languages: For example, Spanish te, English tea vs. Portuguese chá, English chai, reflecting the Amoy (Southern Min) [te] vs. Standard Mandarin [a].
In the case of distinctions that appear to have never developed in Min, it could be argued that the ancestral language did in fact have these distinctions, but they later disappeared. For example, it could be argued that Min varieties descend from a Middle Chinese dialect where retroflex stops merged back into alveolar stops instead of merging with retroflex sibilants. However, this argument cannot be made if there are distinctions in Min that do not appear in EMC (and which reflect ancient features going back to Old Chinese or - ultimately - even Proto-Sino-Tibetan, so that they cannot be explained as secondary developments), and this does indeed appear to be the case. In particular, Proto-Min (the reconstructed ancestor of the Min varieties) appears to have had six series of stops corresponding to the three series (unvoiced, unvoiced aspirated, voiced) of Middle Chinese. The additional three series are voiced aspirated (or breathy voiced), unvoiced "softened", and voiced "softened".
Evidence for the voiced aspirated stops comes from tonal distinctions among the stops. When voiced stops became unvoiced in most varieties and triggered a tone split, words with these stops moved into new lowered (so-called yang) tone classes, while words with unvoiced stops appeared in raised (so-called yin) tone classes. The result is that the yin classes have words with both aspirated and unaspirated stops, while the yang classes have only one of the two, depending on how the formerly voiced stops developed. Min varieties, however, have both kinds of words in yang classes as well as yin classes. This has caused scholars to reconstruct voiced aspirates (probably realized as breathy voiced consonants) in Proto-Min, which develop into unvoiced aspirates in yang-class words.
In addition, in some Min varieties, some words with EMC stops are reflected with stops while others are reflected with "softened" consonants, typically voiced fricatives or approximants. Such "softened stops" occur in both yin and yang classes, suggesting that Proto-Min had both unvoiced and voiced "softened stops". Presumably "softened stops" were actually fricatives of some sort, but it is unclear exactly what they were.
Scholars generally assume that these additional Proto-Min sounds reflect distinctions in Old Chinese that vanished in Early Middle Chinese but remained in Proto-Min. Until recently, no reconstructions of Old Chinese specifically accounted for the Proto-Min distinctions, but the recent reconstruction of William Baxter and Laurent Sagart accounts for both voiced aspirates and softened stops. According to them, voiced aspirates reflect Old Chinese stops in words with particular consonant prefixes, while softened stops reflect Old Chinese stops in words with a minor syllable prefix, so that the stop occurred between vowels. The postulated development of the softened stops is very similar to the development of voiced fricatives in Vietnamese, which likewise occur in both yin and yang varieties and are reconstructed as developing from words with minor syllables.