Zero-derivation in the Analects?
Most advanced students of Mandarin, even if they’ve never dabbled in Classical Chinese, will probably have seen the famous sentence 君君，臣臣，父父，子子 (CTP) from the Analects at some point during their studies. This is Confucius’s reply to Duke Jing of Qi’s enquiry about the essence of good government, and means “Rulers act as rulers, ministers act as ministers, fathers act as fathers and sons act as sons.”
This sentence is often upheld as an example of a process in Classical Chinese which turns nouns into verbs without any change in form, known in linguistic terms as zero-derivation. In 君君, for example, the first 君 is a noun meaning “the ruler”, and the second 君 is a verb meaning “to act as a ruler”, derived from the noun 君. Both are pronounced as jūn in Mandarin, and thus it appears the noun 君 has indeed been verbed without any change in form.
But when analysing the grammar of early Chinese texts, we should be careful not to jump to conclusions based on readings in Mandarin, which are of course completely different from the original readings in the language of the Spring and Autumn Period. To be certain that a verb was derived from a noun without any morphological changes in form (which is to say, by zero-derivation), we need to look at the reconstructed pronunciations of the noun and the derived verb. This is necessary because recent research into the phonology of Old Chinese, a language phase slightly earlier than Classical Chinese, has made it clear that derivational morphological affixes were a feature of at least some early Sinitic languages/dialects, which are however generally speaking not reflected in the script.
We cannot, therefore, be certain that what appears to be zero-derivation in this famous passage was, in fact, zero-derivation (and not just normal derivation by morphology which is not reflected in modern Mandarin) without reference to the massive body of literature on the historical phonology of the Sinitic languages. 君 君 may well be pronounced as jūn jūn now, but what about two thousand years ago? The advances made in the field of Old Chinese phonology mean views on syntactic and morphological analysis of the early Sinitic languages such as those put forth by William Dobson in his Early archaic Chinese: A descriptive grammar (1962) are now no longer tenable. He writes:
In short, a description can be extracted from EAC [Early Archaic Chinese, i.e. Old Chinese] material of the morphology and syntax of the language, without reference to its phonology, because the script system is based upon an empirical, and empirically useful, morphemic analysis of the language. (p. xviii)
Now that we know the script system does not fully and accurately reflect morphology in early Sinitic languages, analysing their grammar without reference to their phonology can no longer be done. All the same, in the case of 君君 at least, it appears that the theory suggested by the Mandarin reading is true, for a reading *kun is given for both the noun and the derived verb in Axel Schuessler’s ABC Etymological Dictionary of Old Chinese (2007). It seems unlikely, then, that this will have been different in the slightly later language phase of Classical Chinese, by which time derivational morphology was probably already on the way out. At least, that’s my, admittedly limited, understanding. Thoughts?