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?

4 responses to “Zero-derivation in the Analects?”

  1. Zev Handel says:

    Interesting post.

    The question about zero-derivation in this particular case may not be answerable. The problem is that Old Chinese reconstruction can only be effectively done if there is some evidence that can provide us with a clue to the older pronunciation. That evidence generally comes in one or more of these forms:

    1) rhyme (in Shījīng, for example)
    2) Middle Chinese or dialectal pronunciations
    3) phonetic elements in characters
    4) transcriptional evidence involving other languages
    5) early commentaries, glosses, fanqie, or the like indicating features of pronunciation

    In the case of the presumably verbal forms 君,臣,父,子, all of this is lacking. Schuessler has no choice but to reconstruct identically with the nouns, since there is no basis to do otherwise. But that is really just a “default” reconstruction; it is not in any way definitive.

  2. Daan says:

    Thanks for your comment! Looking at Schuessler’s definition, it wasn’t immediately obvious to me that this is a “default” reconstruction, but I am happy to stand corrected.

    I ought to take out some time this summer to read a bit more on Old Chinese reconstruction. I wrote a term paper on it last year, but that was all quite basic, really. As is this post, of course. But it’s an interesting topic.

  3. Jeff says:

    I’m curious about this line from the Shijing poem Daming (#236):

    I first thought this was verb/noun, then realized that ‘mingming’ and ‘hehe’ are actually considered words themselves. But I also have the feeling this can be understood as adjective/noun, which seems to be how Zhou Zhenfu understands it in his modern Chinese translation of these lines: 明显的恩德在下面/喧赫的神灵在天上.

    Is there any way to really know for sure if something is zero-deviation or just simply a two-character word?

  4. Daan says:

    Unfortunately, in the field of Old Chinese linguistics, almost nothing is ever certain. The Shījīng contains quite a few polysyllabic words, though, most of which were created by duplication. This is still seen in Mandarin. It’s quite conceivable that this is how 明明 and 赫赫 came into being as well. But I wouldn’t want to say your interpretation (or Zhōu Zhènfǔ’s) is wrong. Far from it, in fact. It’s quite plausible.

    I wish I could grab my Sānmín annotated reader of the Shījīng and see what it says about those two words, but it’s in a box somewhere. I’ve just moved and I can’t find it for the life of me right now, but when I find it, I’ll let you know.

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