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: Wénlǜ 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.