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Linguistics, Languages and Chinese Dialects - BY Wing C. Ng
I find linguistics to be a fascinating field of study. I am not a professional linguist, but I read quite a few books on the subject.|
As a Chinese from Hong Kong, I wondered as a child how my language relates to my cousins from other provinces, to my Chinese ancestors in history, and to more distantly related peoples. I found some of these answers in my amateur studies, and I want to share them on this forum. There are sure to be inaccuracies in my account from the scientific linguistic point of view, and so please bear with me.
The Western discipline of linguistics was started by Europeans coming into contact with the languages of India, especially the ancient language of Sanscrit. People noticed that there are many similarities between Sanscrit and the ancient language of Latin. Scholars pursued these features, and eventually came to the grand "Indo-European" synthesis that most of the European and Persian-Indian languages are related, and that these diverse peoples ultimately are descendants originating from a compact community probably located in Eastern Europe north of the Black Sea, say 5,000 years ago.
The linguists then applied these techniques to the other languages of the world, and classified them into groups. In particular, the Chinese language is classified into the Sino-Tibetan group, whose members include Chinese, Tibetan, Burmese, and many minor languages in the Tibet-Burma-Himalaya region. The study is based on the similarity in the basic vocabulary and grammatical structure, and excludes the borrowed words. So even though Vietnamese, Korean, and Japanese superficially look very similar to Chinese, (and one can read a Japanese newspaper and understand much of its contents,) these similarities are due to loan words that were borrowed during historic times because of close cultural contacts. Vietnamese, Korean, and Japanese are not related to the Chinese language.
Most scholars say that Tibetan and Burmese are closer to each other than either is to Chinese. Some say that Chinese and Tibetan are closer to each other. I look at the Tibetan vocabulary and there are many words which are similar to some Chinese counterpart, simply by casual examination. Scholars have compiled extensive lists of words with common ancestry in these two languages.
Here is a list of the numerals in Mandarin, Cantonese and Tibetan; the family relationship is self-evident:
yi yat chi
er yi nyi
san saam sum
si sei shi
wu ng nga
liu luk truk
qi tsat du"n
ba baat gye
jiu gau gu
shi sap chu
Ng (man-five) is my family name. I find it gratifying that the "ng" sound is very ancient, and is even still retained in the Tibetan pronunciation of "five".
What is clear is that Tibetan probably split off from Chinese about 4,-5,000 years ago. The Tibetan word for Chinese is "rgya". I have a personal theory, utterly unsupported by other linguists, that this word is related to "xia" (summer). Xia is the name of an ancient dynasty in China, and is also one of the words Chinese used to call themselves. It is possible that the split-off occurred sometime in the Xia dynasty.
Linguists speculate that, among the Sino-Tibetans, the Chinese moved east, the Tibetans moved south-west, while the Burmese moved almost directly south. They reconstructed that the original Sino-Tibetan community may be located somewhere near the Qinghai Lake. Similarly, linguists reconstructed the path of migration of the Malayo-Polynesians and some concluded that they all originated from Taiwan.
Chinese language was not written in a phonetic script, and this posed a problem, but not an insurmountable one, it seems, for Chinese have ancient poetry that used rhymes. From study of these rhyming words, linguists were able to reconstruct the ancient pronunciation of words up to the Zhou dynasty, which reconstruction primarily uses the rhyming scheme in the Shi Jing (Poetry Classic). As a result, we have fairly scientifically reliable way of knowing how Confucius spoke!
The consensus is that Chinese people even in the Zhou dynasty spoke differently in different regions, but these dialect differences were not as large as those today. As the Chinese speaking people spread from the Central Plains, they intermarried with and assimilated the locals in the South, who might have spoken a Thai-Zhuang language.
There was a song recorded in the Zhou dynasty of the locals in the South, transcribed phonetically in Chinese characters, that did not make any sense. Modern Chinese scholars took the ancient Chinese pronunciation of these characters and matched them against the Zhuang language, and succeeded in deciphering the meaning of the song in the Zhuang language, an amazing feat in my opinion.
The various Chinese groups in the south-east hilly regions became isolated from the Central Plains, and their dialect differences became more and more pronounced. Apparently these isolated groups tended to be conservative linguistically: they tended in their separate evolution to keep more of the ancient features of Chinese than the main group in the Central Plains. The Min (Fujian) groups seem to retain the oldest features, of the Han dynasty. One of the features of Han Dynasty of Chinese is that there was no "f" sound, and that is kept in the Min dialects. The name "Buddha" is now "fotuo" in modern Mandarin, but it was exactly accurate in Han dynasty Chinese, when those characters sounded like "byut dha". Also, "o" was an addition to Chinese sounds after Han, all "o"s used to be "a".
The Chinese language probably underwent a big change during the Nan-Bei Dynasties period of nomadic invasions from the north. In the Sui and Tang dynasties, a rhyming book "Qie Yun" was compiled, which attempted to regulate the rhyming schemes in poetry, and to have the rhyming scheme apply to all the major dialects at the time. So they classified any words as rhyming only when they rhymed in all the major dialects, not just in some standard Chinese of the Central Plains. As a result, the resulting rhyming scheme is extremely detailed, and modern linguists discover many details of the various dialects at the time. A big wave of immigration into Guangdong took place in the Tang dynasty, and again, linguistic conservatism ruled in subsequent developments, and as a result, the Cantonese (Yue) dialect retained many of the features recorded then in Qie Yun. A by-product is that Tang period poetry sounds especially good in Cantonese, being closest to the Qie Yun scheme among modern dialects.
So roughly speaking, to find out how Han dynasty Chinese sounds like, ask a Fujianer; to find out how Tang Chinese sounds like, ask a Cantonese.
There was another wave of invasion from nomads in the north in the Song dynasty, and the Chinese language in the Central Plains undertook yet another major change. This is reflected most prominently in the loss of p,t,k endings (which correspond to Ru Sheng) in the main Chinese group. These endings are however retained in many of the southern, more isolated and "conservative" dialects.
The big changes were recorded in the Yuan Dynasty in Zhongyuan Yinyun, which again is supposed to regulate rhyming, now in the Yuan Qu's. The Yuan Qu rhyming schemes are quite different from the Tang rhyming schemes, and the effects of losing p,t,k became clear in that some of these Ru Sheng words were used to rhyme with Ping Sheng words. The Koreans, being in the north, modified their pronunciation of their Chinese loan words in accordance with these sound changes, while the Vietnamese maintained the old sounds, which were also retained by their Cantonese neighbors.
Thus modern Mandarin already existed by the Yuan Dynasty, and presumably a Yuan Dynasty person's speech would be understood today by a Mandarin speaker. The effects of the Mongol Yuan and Manchu Qing invasions on Chinese speech appear to be not very large.