Languages in early China

note: This post was originally published by Daan on the Sinoglot daughter site “Nothing Undone”. Today that site is being absorbed by the main blog and all the posts and comments have thus been brought over. We are therefore re-posting this today to introduce you to Daan and his work. Enjoy. -KP

When we think of the languages used in traditional China, we almost always naturally think of Classical Chinese first. After all, it is the language which we need to learn in order to read most of the well-known philosophical treatises and histories from the Warring States period and the Qín and Hàn dynasties. But that does not mean it was the only language in use in traditional China.

First of all, as Norman (1988: 83) points out, Classical Chinese is a written language, used in China from roughly 400 BCE to 200 CE. It is not a spoken language (or vernacular), but it was based on the vernacular of the era in which it emerged. After the fall of the Eastern Hàn dynasty in 220 CE, Classical Chinese was codified and remained in use among literati as as a written language until the early 20th century. It was not the only written language to be used, though, as the language used in later written works reflected the enormous changes in the spoken language as time went by, not least because of the influence of the rise of Buddhism on the Sinitic languages. I should write a bit on that another day, as it’s an interesting story in its own right. For now, let us restrict ourselves to the languages in China before the collapse of the Eastern Hàn dynasty (which I’ll call early China).

So, a written language, customarily called Classical Chinese, was used in the late Warring States period, in the Qín dynasty and in the Hàn dynasties. But there were other languages as well. Old Chinese, which I’ve previously discussed on this blog, was in use a few centuries prior to the emergence of Classical Chinese, and is the language of such texts as the Book of Songs (詩經, Mandarin: Shījīng). Pulleyblank (1995: 3) also points out that even within Classical Chinese, there is considerable linguistic diversity. He distinguishes four different dialects within the language, noting that this has not been exhaustively researched yet.

But does that mean that all languages spoken in early China were Sinitic? Well, not quite. The Hàn are a well-established ethnic group in modern days, by far the largest in the People’s Republic of China. Its members generally speak Sinitic languages. But back in early China, many other ethnic groups lived in what is now China, some of which survive to this day, whereas others assimilated into Hàn culture, and many more still simply perished.

Well-known oracle bone scholar Zhū Qíxiáng counts references to 41 different ethnic groups in the corpus of oracle-bone texts (1998: 371). It is probably safe to assume these did not all speak Sinitic languages, even though there may be no traces left of their languages, as they were never written, at least as far as we can ascertain. Zhōu and Yóu​ (1990: 266) investigate the different fāngyán (often rendered as “dialects”, which is not an ideal translation: see here) used during the time the Book of Songs was compiled. They estimate that back then, around a dozen different Sinitic fāngyán were spoken in the cradle of Chinese civilisation, the Yangtze Delta, with another ten non-Sinitic languages spoken by the ethnic groups in neighbouring areas.

Sadly, not a whole lot of information survives on these ethnic groups, let alone their languages. And the different Sinitic fāngyán are not easily distinguished in our written sources either, as those were written in either Old or Classical Chinese, as we have discussed. But at least, it is interesting to think about how these fāngyán and the non-Sinitic languages spoken in the area must have influenced each other, and to theorise about how speakers from different areas communicated with each other. If anyone knows more about this, or if you have any thoughts you’d like to share, please leave a comment!

Norman 1988
Jerry Norman. Chinese. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pulleyblank 1995
Edwin G. Pulleyblank. Outline of Classical Chinese Grammar. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.

Zhōu and Yóu​ 1990
Zhōu​ Zhèn​hè​ 周振鶴 and Yóu​ Rǔ​jié​ 游汝杰. Fāngyán yǔ Zhōngguó wénhuà 方言與中國文化 [Fāngyán and Chinese culture]. Táiběi 台北: Nántiān Shūjú 南天書局 [SMC Publishing].

Zhū 1998
Zhū Qíxiáng 朱歧祥. “Yīnchū zhànzhēng shǐgǎo: Yīn Wǔdīng shíqī fāngguó yánjiū. 殷初戰爭史稿 — 殷武丁時期方國研究 [Draft history of wars in the early Shāng dynasty]”. In: Jiǎgǔwén yánjiū 甲骨文研究 [Research into the oracle-bone language]. Táiběi 台北: Lǐrén 里仁.

6 responses to “Languages in early China”

  1. Kellen says:

    I was having this discussion with a classmate last week. Specifically, we were talking about how if you were fluent in Mandarin and then happened to find a time machine which you used to travel back and talk with Laozi, or whomever, you’d surely be unable to communicate. No spoken words would make any sense, and no written characters would be recognisable, with some very simple exceptions.

    I’ve often, perhaps more often than I should, wondered about these sorts of things. What I wouldn’t give for some deeply rooted sense of what the language sounded like then. Every recreation of the phonetics is an educated guess at best, and each tends to disagree with every other recreation to a degree that’s not insignificant.

    I’ve also read somewhere, though now the source escapes me, that there’s good reason to believe the oracle bones themselves weren’t done in a single language or dialect, but that instead a large degree of regional variance is evident. Though that’s as much as I know.

  2. Daan says:

    Oh, you’d certainly be unable to communicate. What fascinates me is that historical records indicate there was quite some interaction between the Sinitic communities in the Yangtze Delta and the other ethnic groups in East and Central Asia. But how did they communicate?

    Take for example the Yuezhi, who probably lived in the Tarim Basin. They are likely to have spoken a Tocharian language, which in turn is an extinct branch of the Indo-European language family. Indeed, many mummies have been unearthed in the Tarim Basin, and they appear to have been of Eurasian descent. Now, the Yuezhi traded jade with the Shang dynasty. But how did the presumably Sinitic-speaking envoys of the Shang dynasty communicate with a Tocharian-speaking ethnic group?

    By the way, you’ll be interested to listen to this recording on YouTube. That’s Middle Chinese. Granted, I do not speak any of the more conservative southern Sinitic languages, but it’s still interesting just how incomprehensible that is.

  3. Kellen says:

    It’s funny. I read about the mummies when I was much much younger in a book Mummies of Ürümchi. I was fascinated by the idea of one day going to Ürümchi for years. I was shocked one day years later as I was on my way to “Wulumuqi” and my brain suddenly made the connection. I had been making my way to this childhood fantasy for 2 days on the slow train without even realising it.

    My childhood aside, trading A trading with C doesn’t require A to have actually met C. Often times throughout the Silk Road A would trade with B who would then trade with C then D and so on until Z received some nice pottery, only vaguely knowing where it came from. The Romans knew silk came from somewhere in the East few would ever go there.

    I have to think Chinese was easier to learn back then as well, but who knows.

  4. Daan says:

    Good point, Kellen, thanks!

    By the way, I’ve been reading a text from the Eastern Jin era, the 佛國記, which is basically an account of a Buddhist monk’s trip to India. He also comments on the languages spoken in the areas he passes through. Fascinating stuff. I wonder if a survey was ever made of those languages. Maybe I should spend a day in the library later this month and see what I can dig up on them.

  5. Greg says:

    A few thoughts on Old Chinese taken from my course notes:

    — OC had no tones. Middle Chinese tones came from OC consonant codas.
    — OC had more free morphemes and less homophones than MC.
    — OC had consonant clusters. The merging of the OC consonant clusters created many homophones.

    Classical Chines word——–Old Chinese pronunciation————–Modern Mandarin word
    知 ————————– trje———————————–知道
    枝 ————————– kje————————————樹枝
    脂 ————————– kjij———————————–脂肪
    織 ————————– tjək———————————–紡織

  6. Kellen says:

    A lack of tones in OC is certainly not insignificant. There’s the discussion, though probably by now largely settled, about tonality in proto- languages. If tonality exists in Sinitic and African languages, people say, language must have been originally tonal. I don’t buy it, but it’s interesting for the musilanguage hypothesis.

    I rather like that tones showed up in Sinitic and are now disappearing in branches of Sinitic, such as Wu. Good times.

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