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).


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?

The differences between 也者, 者 and 者也

While reading the Lùnyǔ, I came across a grammatical feature of classical Chinese that I hadn’t noticed before: 也者. Apparently, when offering interpretations, you can put 也者 after the noun, verb or adjective that you are discussing, as opposed to merely using 者, the normal particle of nominalisation. The Chinese Text Project (CTP) database returns 318 hits for the combination 也者, and it’s found in almost all major works from the late Spring and Autumn period and the early Warring States period. Here are some examples, with links to the relevant CTP pages that provide the entire text, an English translation and a link to its dictionary that can give you Pīnyīn readings and useful, albeit not perfect, glosses (to see these, click the blue button).


夫達也者,質直而好義,察言而觀色, 慮以下人。(Lùnyǔ)

也者,友其德也。 (Mèngzǐ)


This made me even more curious: why didn’t the author simply use 者 in these sentences? So I turned to Edwin Pulleyblank’s Outline of Classical Chinese Grammar. No luck there, however, as I was unable to find anything on 也者. I then grabbed my copy of 古代漢語語法學 by 李佐丰, a wonderful 550-page reference grammar. As with many Chinese academic works, there is frustratingly no index, but after a couple of minutes I found a bit on 也者 and two example sentences, on page 258. It devotes a majestic 19 characters to 也者, explaining that in sentences where speakers offer their own interpretations of a concept, 也者 rather than only 者 can also be used after the subject.

Of course, I’d already figured that out myself, so that wasn’t really helpful. Does anyone know if there’s been any further research into the differences between 也者 and 者 in this context? And is there a difference in meaning between 也者 and 者也, which also seems to be used in similar contexts? Is 也 a topicalisation particle in both cases? It would be good to find out more.

By the way, I’ve still got quite a few topics I plan to discuss in the coming weeks, but if there’s anything you’d like to see a post on sometime, be sure to let me know in the comments!

Some notes on ditransitive verbs, pt. 2

Whatever the reason for this unexpected behaviour of 屬 in the sentence discussed in my previous post, we can take comfort in knowing that the syntax of the language of the oracle bones (± 1500-1000 BCE, the Shāng 商 dynasty) was far more complex still. According to the account given by Yù (2002: 20-21), it features tritransitive sacrificial verbs, with OBJ1 indicating the person on whose behalf the sacrifice is being made, OBJ2 indicating the spirit to which it is made, and OBJ3 indicating the sacrificial items. And its ditransitive sacrificial verbs can take any of six assignments discussed below, although it is not clear from Yù’s examples whether any given verb always takes the same assignments. Shěn (2002: 79-122) seems to suggest that is not the case.

Sadly, Yù’s account does not include glosses, which made this post rather hard to research. I did not have an oracle-bone dictionary at hand, so I had go to the National Central Library here in Taipei. And even their dictionaries didn’t define all the characters used in Yù’s examples, which are in modern characters and thus structurally different. So I assume I probably just couldn’t find them. Anyway, this certainly makes it difficult to confirm his analysis, especially for a beginning student such as myself. If any readers are more familiar with the language of the oracle bones, please don’t hesitate to correct the mistakes I have certainly made. In the examples quoted below, I’ll only quote and gloss the relevant verbs and their objects, not the entire sentences.

A) OBJ1 = personal matter, OBJ2 = spirit
求生妣庚 ‘ask Bǐ Gēng for longevity’
V 求: not defined in any of the dictionaries, but the later meaning of ‘ask’ seems to fit.
OBJ1 生: ‘longevity, to live’. Direct object.
OBJ2 妣庚: ‘[an ancestor]’, probably the wife of king 大乙. Indirect object.

B) OBJ1 = spirit, OBJ2 = personal matter
祝夔事 ‘pray to Kuí for instructions’ (not employment, if this is the king praying?)
V 祝: ‘to kneel before a spirit and pray, name of a worshipping ritual’
OBJ1 夔: ‘[an ancestor]’. Indirect object.
OBJ2 事: ’employment, service, instructions’. Direct object.

C) OBJ1 = spirit, OBJ2 = sacrificial items
御母庚牢 ‘sacrifice cow(s)/sheep to Mǔ Gēng’
V: 御 ‘to sacrifice’
OBJ1 母庚: ‘[an ancestor]’, probably the mother of king 大乙. Indirect object.
OBJ2 牢:  ‘cow(s)/sheep used in sacrifices’. Direct object.

D) OBJ1 = sacrificial items, OBJ2 = spirit
燎白 羊豕父丁妣癸 ‘[burn] one hundred sheep and pigs for Fù Dīng and Bǐ Guǐ’
V 燎: not defined in the oracle-bone dictionaries, but the later meaning of ‘to burn’ does not seem an unlikely reading.
OBJ1 白羊豕: ‘one hundred sheep and pigs’. 白 was used to write both the word for ‘white’ and the numeral, but white pigs do not exist, or so I think. Direct object.
OBJ2 父丁妣癸: ‘[two ancestors]’. Indirect object.

E) OBJ1 = personal matter, OBJ2 = sacrificial items
寧風三羊三犬三豕 ‘[???] three sheep, three dogs and three pigs for the wind’
V 寧: only defined as ‘peaceful, composed’ in the dictionaries I consulted, which does not make sense here. Yù says it is a sacrificial verb, which would probably rule out reading this as ‘to calm down’.
OBJ1 風: ‘the wind, [name of a spirit]’. Unsure whether this means the wind was worshipped, but that’s not really relevant here either. Indirect object.
OBJ2 三羊三犬三豕: ‘three sheep, three dogs and three pigs’. Direct object.

F) OBJ1 = sacrificial items, OBJ2 = person
卯十牛年 ‘to sacrifice ten cows for [a good] harvest’
V 卯: ‘to kill an animal as a sacrifice’
OBJ1: 十牛 ‘ten cows’. Direct object.
OBJ2: 年 ‘harvest’. Indirect object.

A quick summary of the structures seen in the above examples, then:

Among these, structures A, C and D are all quite common, according to Yù. There’s only one known sentence for assignments B and F, however. Yù also notes that normal verbs of giving, which might be expected to work differently from sacrificial verbs, can also be observed to take V-IO-DO and V-DO-IO assignments in the oracle inscriptions.

From the examples given in Yù, then, it looks as if the V-IO-DO word order, which is quite firmly established in the texts commonly accepted to have been written from the late Zhōu 周 dynasty onward, was not yet universal in the language of the oracle bones. Shěn treats the subject in quite a bit more detail than Yù, but I do not have the time nor the space to summarise his work here. What’s important here is that from a quick glance through his work, it seems to me his analysis is consistent with Yù’s.

Shěn (1992). Shěn Péi 沈培.  Yīnxū jiǎgǔ bǔcí yǔxù yánjiū 殷墟甲骨卜辭語序研究 [Research into the word order of the oracle inscriptions from the ruins of Anyang]. Táiběi 臺北:  Wén​lǜ​ chūbǎnshè 文律出版社, 1992.
Yù (2002). Yù Suìshēng 喻遂生. Jiǎjīn yǔyán wénzì yánjiū lùnjí 甲金語言文字研究論集 [Collected essays on the language and script of the oracle bones and the bronze inscriptions]. Chéngdū 成都: Bāshǔ shūshè 巴蜀書社, 2002.

Some notes on ditransitive verbs (part 1)

In his Outline of Classical Chinese Grammar, Pulleyblank (1995: 31) says that verbs of “giving, telling, teaching and the like” are ditransitive in classical Chinese, which he defines as the written language used roughly between 500 and 220 BCE. He states that in classical Chinese, the first object (OBJ1) of a ditransitive verb corresponds to the indirect object in English, with the second object (OBJ2) expressing the direct object.

This is indeed true for most sentences that contain a ditransitive verb, but not for all of them, or so it seems. I will first quote some of Pulleyblank’s examples, give some further examples, and then show there is at least one sentence which seems to do things the other way around. While writing this post it turned out ditransitive and indeed tritransitive verbs in the language of the oracle bones are complex enough to deserve a post in their own right, so that’ll be for next time. If only as a reminder that we should perhaps not complain too much about the vagaries of classical Chinese syntax…

Pulleyblank’s rule seems to hold…
First of all, some examples quoted and translated by Pulleyblank. Pulleyblank’s work does not include glosses, so I’ve included links to the relevant paragraphs in the Chinese Text Project (CTP) database. Its dictionary is still a work in progress, so for the odd place where its definitions do not seem to make sense, don’t hesitate to resort to a paper dictionary. Sadly, there are no good online classical Chinese dictionaries yet.

[…] 授孟子室。 (孟子,公孫丑下)
[…] to give Mencius a house.

[…] 能與人規矩 […] (孟子, 盡心下)
[…] can give a man a compass or a square […]

For these examples certainly, Pulleyblank’s rule that OBJ1 expresses the indirect object and OBJ2 the direct object holds true. And indeed, it is not difficult to find more examples in the CTP database. A search for 與 yields, among others, the following:

子華使於齊,冉子為其母請粟。子曰:“與之釜。”請益。曰: “與之庾。”冉子與之粟五秉。(論語, 雍也)
Zi Hua being employed on a mission to Qi, the disciple Ran requested grain for his mother. The Master said, “Give her a fu.” Ran requested more. “Give her an yu,” said the Master. Ran gave her five bing. (tr. James Legge)

由今之道,無變今之俗,雖與之天下,不能一朝居也。 (孟子, 告子下)
Although a prince, pursuing the path of the present day, and not changing its practices, were to have the throne given to him, he could not retain it for a single morning. (tr. James Legge)

…but there are exceptions
On the other hand, some passages seem to require a reading of OBJ1 as the direct object, with OBJ2 expressing the indirect object. Take a look at this sentence from the Zhànguócè 戰國策:

今王之地方五千里,帶甲百萬,而專屬之昭奚恤。 (戰國策, 楚策, 楚一, 荊宣王問群臣)
And now the King has a territory of over twenty-five million square miles, and a million soldiers, and he entrusted them all to Zhāo Xīxù. (Note that 地方 is not to be read as a compound. Wáng 2008: 111 explains the first phrase should be parsed as [[今][[王]之[地]][[方五千][里]]].)

Here, 之 is in OBJ1 position, but clearly expresses the direct object, and the OBJ2 昭奚恤 is undoubtedly the indirect object. So it appears that the rule Pulleyblank describes does not hold for all cases of ditransitive verbs expressing transfer of ownership.

It is possible that we are looking at a scribal error here. But perhaps there is more to it. 屬 does not seem to have been used as a ditransitive verb all that often. Perhaps this could be the reason for its unexpected behaviour, taking a direct object as its OBJ1 and an indirect object as its OBJ2.

Or perhaps it is used causatively: “He made it (OBJ1) belong to 昭奚恤 (OBJ2).” Does anyone else know of sentences where verbs that are usually not ditransitive are used causatively and take two objects? I imagine they would be few and far between, but would be interested to see any examples.

More on ditransitive and indeed tritransitive verbs in early Chinese languages next time. And a hat tip to Chris for pointing out the inconsistency in the Zhànguócè to me.

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

Wáng (2008). Wáng Lì 王力. Gǔdài Hànyǔ 古代漢語 [Ancient Chinese]. vol 1. Běijīng 北京: Zhōnghuá shūjú 中華書局, 2002.

Punctuation (continued)

In the previous post I talked about punctuation in the 道德经. This is the response post.

Randy said:

Your “Buddhist” reading is very interesting. It seems to ring true with the paradoxes in the rest of the text. I wonder if there is any strong reason not to consider such a translation.

As Daan said,

My two cents: perhaps 道可道非常道 cannot be parsed as [[道可][道非]][常道] because for the sentence to mean “The Dao that is and the Dao that is not, that is the Eternal Dao”, as you suggested, you would expect [[可道][非道]][常道]. After all, if we parse it as you suggested, in 常道 the adjective precedes the noun, but in 道可 and 道非 it does not.

Which is right on the money, it turns out. The reason the “Buddhist” reading doesn’t work is basically because the grammar of Guwen doesn’t really work that way.

I’m told that to someone who’s really familiar with classical Chinese, there’s actually little difficulty in knowing when one thought ends an another begins, thanks to the use of 也, 者 et cetera.

Much of the rest of the discussion was on specific words and how they’re used in the verse, but more for the philosophy than the language, so we’ll skip it here.

Punctuation in the Tao Te Ching

In one of my classes this term, an independent study really, we’re going over the 道德经 chapter by chapter, going over all the little details of each word and possible translations. I’ll be posting on that as the weeks go on.

Thinking about this got me thinking about the issue of punctuation. One of the big issues that comes up in things like Qur’anic interpretation (from my former life before coming to China) is that at the time of writing, there was no such thing as punctuation in the language. Fortunately, Arabic is a highly inflected language and so for the most part it’s really not that much of an issue. But it seems we’re not so lucky with Wenyan, which if I had to describe in a single word, I’d say “vague”.

Specifically I was thinking about the first line of the first chapter of the 道德经. Sans punctuation, it’s as follows:


Typically this is then broken up as follows:


With some translation like “the Dao that can be named is not the eternal Dao”. I recently picked up Victor Mair’s translation which I rather like for the more road-based translation, “The ways that can be walked are not the eternal Way”.

However an alternative (Buddhist?) reading could be


That is, something like “The Dao that is and the Dao that is not, that is the Eternal Dao”. To me at least, that’s not a minor difference. This sort of thing extends throughout classical Chinese philosophy. Maybe not great for the amateur philosopher, but damn interesting to me for linguistic reasons.

I’m not going anywhere with this. I just find it fascinating. The good news is if gives plenty of practice thinking about how sentences and ideas are constructed.

Other examples are welcome.

Books on Wenyan

I’ve been approached by a few people in the last week asking about the books I’m using. I said I’d do a quick post to list the ones I’ve got once I was back from the spring festival break. Well I’m back, so here are the books. Note a number of them may be philosophical in focus.

 ISBN: 978-7-540-31066-0

古文语法 - 史存直
 ISBN: 978-7-101-04585-7

古代汉语 - 王力
 ISBN: 978-7-101-00082-5

文言文启蒙读书 - 杨振中
 ISBN: 978-7-532-62950-3

Classical Chinese Reader, Book I
 No ISBN. Too old.

A New Practical Primer of Literary Chinese
 ISBN: 978-0-673-02270-6

Those are the main ones, though I end up buying another about once a week. I also have a couple copies of the 古文观止, plenty of copies of 老子,孔子,孟子 et cetera.

There are also a few dictionaries around that aren’t mine but that I use. So no information on them in this post.

Suggestions? I’m open to other texts.

Negatives in Wenyan

The following was originally posted on Nothing Undone, a sister blog for Classical Chinese. It was originally meant as a reference for beginning students.

A number of characters are used in 文言 for the sake of negation. The following are the major ones and when they are likely to occur.

Remember that grammar and usage wasn’t ever really standardised, and that you’re likely to see variations on some of these depending on the country in which the text was written as well as the time period and of course author.

bù ㄅㄨ
This is a basic negator used for verbs. When used in a question, 亦 is added immediately after the verb.
知命者不怨天 “One who understands the nature of fate does not resent Heaven”

wú ㄨ
the negative form of 有, not having or not existing.
This has survived in modern times in names (e.g. 江苏无锡) and in written form meaning “non-“, for example 无咽车 “non-smoking car”.

fú ㄈㄨ
a contraction of 不之
始吾弗信 “I didn’t believe it at first.”

wú ㄨ
contraction of 毋之, used as an imperative. Replaces 不 before 能.
勿失 “do not lose it”

fēi ㄈㄟ
Primarily negates sentences otherwise ending with 也. Alternatively it can sometimes be simply a replacement for 不.
道可道 非常道 the Tao that can be named is not the eternal Tao

wèi ㄨㄟ
Used as “not ever”, “have not ever” or “not yet”

wú ㄨ
Rarely seen in later texts. Ultimately replaced by 勿 and 没.

For a more detailed explanation on some of these, see this article by Edwin G. Pulleyblank, “Emphatic negatives in classical Chinese”.