Samuel Purchas died in 1626. He claimed never to have travelled more than 200 miles from his birthplace, in the East of England. In 1613 he published the first edition of Purchas his Pilgrimage. The title page of the fourth edition, published in the year of his death, explains the focus of Purchas’ work:
Relations of the world and the religions observed in all ages and places discovered, from the creation unto this present
Chap. 18, Section VI of that fourth edition offers us a single paragraph on Chinese language. His sources seem to be Matteo Ricci and Nicolas Trigault, to whom he admits, somewhat grudgingly, that he is indebted.
I would like to wish all of our readers a very happy and healthy 2013, and offer you Purchas’ account of language in China.
Note: What follows formed a single paragraph. I have modified spellings, except in the case of proper nouns, but retained the original punctuation marks.
The beginning of this discourse must be with their words, letters and writing; wherein this first to be admitted, that they have not one book written in the vulgar idiom or common language.
But they have one language called Quonhoa1, for their Courts, and writings, which is common through all China, which alone the Jesuits learned, and which the learned and strangers commonly use; women also and children attaining by this common use to the understanding thereof.
As for the differing languages of each Province, it is not necessary or commendable, being but of vulgar both use and reckoning.
But in every Tongue and Dialect the words are everyone Mono-syllables, however sometimes two or three vowels fall into one diphthong.
As for them, they mention not vowels or consonants, or letters, but in writing, the letter, syllable, and word is all one, being nothing else but hieroglyphical characters, of which there are no fewer than words, or things; which they yet so compound and connect, that they have not above 70, or 80 000.
If we pronounce any of their words in two syllables, it is when two of their characters are applied to signify one thing.
Some 10 000 of these characters are necessary for usual writing: for to know them all, is that which few either can, or need.
Their sound is also in great part the same, and yet both figure and signification different; so that there is no so equivocal language; neither can a Hearer write out an Oration or Speech from the Speaker’s mouth, not a book be understood of them which hear it read, but they must look, and discern with their eyes that equivocation which their ears cannot.
And in speaking they are often hereby forced sometimes to repeat that which hath before been elegantly delivered, sometimes to write it, or (if such means be wanting) with water on the Table, or Characters formed with the finger in the air, to express their minds to the conceit of others: and this is most common amongst the most learned which speak in print, and affect ink-horn rhetoric.
They have fine accents, by which they also distinguish this equivocation, that one and the same word thus by accents diversified, shall signify five several things nothing alike.
This makes the language hard to be learned of strangers; which yet the Jesuits learned to write and read: and I would all the Equivocators amongst them (that teach to illude oaths, and delude the World by their two-fold, two-forked, serpentine Equivocation in Mental reservations, and Verbal double-significations) were all there, learning the China language to convert Heathens, rather than practising the Romish equivocating Dialect to pervert Christians to worse than Heathenism.
Perverse Masters, lovers of strange language, in Prayers to God, in Oaths and Assertions to Man; in the one, Parrots without reason; in the other Devils, without Religion: this being the strongest bond which religion hath, binding at once to God and Man, and yet these Religious Mountebanks, by juggling quirks dissolving these bonds, and at once deluding both God and Man.
Foolish Romans! that sent back the Legates to Hannibal, that by equivocation had before fulfilled their Oath of returning! foolish Regulus! that returnedst to thy Tormentors, choosing they self rather than thy Oath to be tortured! and most most foolish Martyrs, that so sleightly for want of this sleight, ran upon Fire, Swords, Lions!
And might not we begin a contention with that assertion, That an Oath for confirmation is to men an end of contention, which in this equivocating Hydra is rather multiplied?
That neither Rome Ethnic, nor primitive Christian Rome, could (at least by imitation of diabolical ambiguous Oracles) devise in those days so transcendent a subtlety, but Modern Rome by Jesuitical midwifery, must be the Mother of so super-fine a babe!
But what doth this Brat in our way?
I will rather follow the Jesuits in China than in Rome (except when Rome follows them thither too) and herein with thankfulness accept their report.
The reason of this equivocal sound of words is ascribed to the Chinois account of eloquence, in writing rather than speaking, and therefore to furnish that, neglecting this; insomuch as familiar messages are sent by writing, and not by word of mouth.
Musical skill was a good help to the Jesuits in learning the language, by reason of their variety of accents. And although this multitude of Characters be to the memory burdensome, yet it helps it as much as another way in saving the labour of learning diverse languages, while every Province of China speaking diversely, agree in writing; the Japonians, also Corayans, Cauchin-Chinois, Levhiees, all conceiving the same Characters, although the Japanese have an Alphabet of letters to write after our manner, which the Chinois have not.
They write their lines from the top of the Page to the bottom downwards, which they multiply from the right hand to the left: whereas our custom is quite contrary, from the left hand, sideways.
We have three consonants B.D.R. which the Chinois neither use, nor can by any Character express: and in our words which have them they borrow some sound nearest the same.
Likewise, they never have two consonants without a vowel between: and all their words end in vowels, except M. or N. of consonants only.
This and the diverse pronunciation of their Characters in diverse places, made the Latin form of Baptism hard to be expressed by the Jesuits.
1 Margin Note: Quonhoa signifies of the court, by this means the Magistrates need not in every new Province learn a new language.