Chinese Language (3)

Print PDF

4. History and evolution
Most linguists classify all varieties of modern spoken Chinese as part of the Sino-Tibetan language family and believe that there was an original language, termed Proto-Sino-Tibetan, from which the Sinitic and Tibeto-Burman languages descended. The relation between Chinese and other Sino-Tibetan languages is an area of active research, as is the attempt to reconstruct Proto-Sino-Tibetan. The main difficulty in this effort is that, while there is enough documentation to allow one to reconstruct the ancient Chinese sounds, there is no written documentation that records the division between proto-Sino-Tibetan and ancient Chinese. In addition, many of the older languages that would allow us to reconstruct Proto-Sino-Tibetan are very poorly understood.

Categorization of the development of Chinese is a subject of scholarly debate. One of the first systems was devised by the Swedish linguist Bernhard Karlgren in the early 1900s; most present systems rely heavily on Karlgren's insights and methods.

Old Chinese (T:上古漢語; S:上古汉语; P:Shànggǔ Hànyǔ), sometimes known as "Archaic Chinese", was the language common during the early and middle Zhōu Dynasty (1122 BC - 256 BC), texts of which include inscriptions on bronze artifacts, the poetry of the Shījīng, the history of the Shūjīng, and portions of the Yìjīng (I Ching). The phonetic elements found in the majority of Chinese characters provide hints to their Old Chinese pronunciations. The pronunciation of the borrowed Chinese characters in Japanese, Vietnamese and Korean also provide valuable insights. Old Chinese was not wholly uninflected. It possessed a rich sound system in which aspiration or rough breathing differentiated the consonants, but probably was still without tones. Work on reconstructing Old Chinese started with Qīng dynasty philologists.

Middle Chinese (T:中古漢語; S:中古汉语; P:Zhōnggǔ Hànyǔ) was the language used during the Suí, Táng, and Sòng dynasties (6th through 10th centuries AD). It can be divided into an early period, reflected by the 切韻 "Qièyùn" rhyme table (601 AD), and a late period in the 10th century, reflected by the 廣韻 "Guǎngyùn" rhyme table. Linguists are more confident of having reconstructed how Middle Chinese sounded. The evidence for the pronunciation of Middle Chinese comes from several sources: modern dialect variations, rhyming dictionaries, foreign transliterations, "rhyming tables" constructed by ancient Chinese philologists to summarize the phonetic system, and Chinese phonetic translations of foreign words. However, all reconstructions are tentative; some scholars have argued that trying to reconstruct, say, modern Cantonese from modern Cantopop rhymes would give a fairly inaccurate picture of the present-day spoken language.

The development of the spoken Chinese languages from early historical times to the present has been complex. Most Chinese people, in Sìchuān and in a broad arc from the northeast (Manchuria) to the southwest (Yunnan), use various Mandarin dialects as their home language. The prevalence of Mandarin throughout northern China is largely due to north China's plains. By contrast, the mountains and rivers of middle and southern China promoted linguistic diversity.

Until the mid-20th century, most southern Chinese only spoke their native local variety of Chinese. As Nanjing was the capital during the early Ming dynasty, Nanjing Mandarin became dominant at least until the later years of the officially Manchu-speaking Qing Empire. Since the 17th century, the Empire had set up orthoepy academies (T:正音書院; S:正音书院; P:Zhèngyīn Shūyuàn) to make pronunciation conform to the Qing capital Beijing's standard, but had little success. During the Qing's last 50 years in the late 19th century, the Beijing Mandarin finally replaced Nanjing Mandarin in the imperial court. For the general population, though, a single standard of Mandarin did not exist. The non-Mandarin speakers in southern China also continued to use their various regionalects for every aspect of life. The new Beijing Mandarin court standard was used solely by officials and civil servants and was thus fairly limited.

This situation did not change in the mid-20th century with the creation (in both mainland China and Taiwan, but not in Hong Kong) of a compulsory educational system committed to teaching Standard Mandarin. As a result, Mandarin is now spoken by virtually all young and middle-aged citizens of mainland China and on Taiwan. Standard Cantonese, not Mandarin, was used in Hong Kong during its the time of its British colonial period (owing to its large Cantonese native and migrant populace) and remains today its official language of education, formal speech, and daily life, but Mandarin is becoming increasingly influential after the 1997 handover. Chinese was once the Lingua franca for East Asia countries for centuries, before the rise of European influences in 19th century.

5. Influences on other languages
Throughout history Chinese culture and politics has had a great influence on unrelated languages such as Korean, Vietnamese, and Japanese. Korean and Japanese both have writing systems employing Chinese characters (Hanzi), which are called Hanja and Kanji, respectively.

The Vietnamese term for Chinese writing is Hán t?. It was the only available method for writing Vietnamese until the 14th century, used almost exclusively by Chinese-educated Vietnamese élites. From the 14th to the late 19th century, Vietnamese was written with Ch? n?m, a modified Chinese script incorporating sounds and syllables for native Vietnamese speakers. Ch? n?m was completely replaced by a modified Latin script created by the Jesuit missionary priest Alexander de Rhodes, which incorporates a system of diacritical marks to indicate tones, as well as modified consonants. The Vietnamese language exhibits multiple elements similar to Cantonese in regard to the specific intonations and sharp consonant endings. There is also a slight influence from Mandarin, including the sharper vowels and "kh" (IPA:x) sound missing from other Asiatic languages.

In South Korea, the Hangul alphabet is generally used, but Hanja is used as a sort of boldface. In North Korea, Hanja has been discontinued. Since the modernization of Japan in the late 19th century, there has been debate about abandoning the use of Chinese characters, but the practical benefits of a radically new script have so far not been considered sufficient.

In Guangxi the Zhuang also had used derived Chinese characters or Zhuang logograms to write songs, even though Zhuang is not a Chinese dialect. Since the 1950s, Zhuang is written in a modified Latin alphabet.

Languages within the influence of Chinese culture also have a very large number of loanwords from Chinese. Fifty percent or more of Korean vocabulary is of Chinese origin and the influence on Japanese and Vietnamese has been considerable. Ten percent of Philippine language vocabularies are of Chinese origin. Chinese also shares a great many grammatical features with these and neighboring languages, notably the lack of gender and the use of classifiers.

Article from internet.  editor: