A History of the Chinese Language

A History of the Chinese Language by Hongyuan Dong was exactly two hundred pages long and despite its brevity covered the evolution of Chinese from its prehistory to the present day under the People’s Republic. Dong wrote this history for those with no prior knowledge of Chinese, however I felt a simple background might have helped me at the very beginning where I felt lost at times, asea among undecipherable Chinese characters. I felt that I was out of my depth on numerous occasions soon after I embarked upon reading but I do admit that by the end of the book I felt that the author’s intentions were sincere. Call it baptism by total immersion; I was lost at first but could see the workings of Chinese character construction and phonology by the end. Does that mean I can read Chinese? Definitely not, but with the author’s comparative texts it made the process seem understandable.

Dong made it clear from the beginning how problematic it is to refer to the different languages all subsumed under the label Chinese as dialects. Mandarin and Cantonese, while both Chinese, are not mutually intelligible. He used the example of comparing them to English and Swedish. While both of those are Germanic languages, neither speaker can understand the other’s language. As I am a language nerd I learned more about Chinese than I had known before. Structures of its grammar may change from Chinese dialect to dialect (such as adjective placement before or after the noun, or the ordering of characters in words requiring two of them). The development of tones was merely touched on–in a book of only two hundred pages, tonogenesis, like all language aspects had to be restrained for page length. The loss of terminating sounds in syllables might have led to the development of tones. I had already known that tones are indicative of minimal pairs in Chinese. Aspiration is also a distinguishing feature. While I can suppress the plosive [ph] when I speak into a microphone to avoid that annoying “popping” sound, and I have trained my manner of articulation to avoid aspiration following words beginning with initial /p/, /k/ and /t/ in other languages, I wonder how long it would take for my ear to distinguish the difference between [phat] and [pat] if I were to learn Chinese.

One chapter heading intrigued me: Lexical Changes Due to Euphemism and Taboo. This subtopic of the general chapter on vocabulary change dealt with bìhuì. This referred to a linguistic taboo where certain characters were avoided out of respect to certain classes of people, such as emperors, superiors, seniors and the deceased. Dong states:

“For example, if the emperor’s name contained a certain character, to use the character would be considered disrespectful, comparable to calling the emperor by his name. Thus the same character used in certain words in the language needed to be replaced by another that had a similar pronunciation or a similar meaning. Since the emperor was the highest ruler, to whom everyone had to pay the highest respect, changes made to words out of respect for the emperor would definitely affect the use of the word in the language for all speakers.”

The emperor’s name also affected the text found in classic works:

“In other cases, characters used in standard versions of books such as the Confucian Classics would have to be replaced to avoid using the character in the emperor’s name at that time. Such changes would lead to different versions of the same sentence in the book in later stages. For scholars in later times it would be necessary to know why the original character was changed, in order to understand the real meaning of the relevant sentence.”

Bìhuì reminded me of the language of avoidance in South Africa called hlonipha, which I read about in Language and Social History: Studies in South African Sociolinguistics.

Dong described the six types of Chinese character development and by far the most curious, and stunning, are those characters formed by rebus, or the borrowing of homophones. This process refers to the use of a character for its phonetic value and not its meaning. I could use Prince as a contemporary user of rebus in English. All of his song lyrics substitute the number 4 for the word for and 2 for to and too. He has even used drawings of eyes to stand for the pronoun I. The author also wrote about simplified Chinese and the attempt to create a national standard language, including a romanized script doing away with Chinese characters completely. These are topics I would love to read more than a few pages about. Dong always used plenty of examples with phonetic guides to illustrate his points, which made it easier for readers like me with no heretofore background in the Chinese language.

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