What “Ancient” Chinese Sounded Like – and how we know


China has a long linguistic tradition. Did
you know Chinese scholars were digging into old pronunciations centuries before Europeans
were reconstructing proto-languages? This is the tale of how they uncovered their ancient
imperial language. I struggle with Chinese pronunciation. I have
ever since the dictionary and cassettes my Grandad once gave me for my birthday. But
lately I’ve been burying myself in hundreds of pages of Chinese linguistic history, and
you know what? I’m in good company! Chinese pronunciation puzzled experts in China for
a long, long time. Like this fellow. A scholar reconstructing a language in the
1840s. You know the story by now, I’ve told it before: compare a group of related languages,
classify them into a family tree, then reconstruct their common ancestor. Oh, but that’s not the story this time! The
scholar is Chén Lǐ. He’s confronting a centuries-old problem. How do you recover the sounds immortalized
in classical texts? How do you make the old poems rhyme again? Here’s the catch: you have
no recordings. No phonetic transcriptions. Not even an alphabet. You’re working with
characters, the Han characters we’ve talked about before, each one standing for a one-syllable
word or word piece. He scrutinizes the book in front of him. It
looks old, stodgy even, but it has quite a backstory. 1261 years earlier, a Mr Lù invited
8 friends over for a slumber party. They started their evening with wine and conversation,
but, late in the night, the chit-chat turned into a heated debate over the exact pronunciation
of old texts. The way people recite them in North is wrong. No, they’re wrong in the South.
Enough talk! Mr Lù inked his brush and outlined what would become the Qièyùn. He eventually filled five scrolls with over
11000 characters divided among the four Chinese tones and subdivided into rhyming groups.
Then he broke down the sound of each character. How? With two more characters! An upper character
to match the initial consonant, and a lower character to rhyme with the final sounds,
including the tone. Take the character here, meaning “east”. It had the initial of /tək̚/
and the final of /ɦuŋ/, so using the reconstructed pronunciation we’ll talk about at the end,
it’s /tuŋ/. With this method, called fǎnqiè, you can
capture the sound of a syllable! Simple. And clever. But it stopped short of giving an
overview of Chinese phonology. For that, rhymers needed to take another step: organize this
info into tables. The 12th century Rhyme Mirror is full of rime
tables. Here’s one of them, the very first table in the book. The starting label gives the table number
– number one – and the kind of rhyme these syllables have, a sort of /uŋ/. Along the top row are six articulation categories
for consonants, and down the side, the four tones. The four rows per tone give more info
about the syllable, but their interpretation is debated. So try this: find me a tongue sound, a lingual,
that’s clear, meaning voiceless, and has the first tone. So for this syllable type we’ve
pieced together something like /tuŋ/. And then there’s a partly-clear one, meaning aspirated
/h/, so kind of /tʰuŋ/? And this one is dirty or muddy, which means a voiced sound,
so maybe /duŋ/? Ok! What about all these circles though? What
do they mean? Syllable not found. So when you look for a lip sound that’s clear for
the first tone in this chart, you find nothing like /puŋ/ recorded here. But there is a
/buŋ/, mugwort! Just like that, you’re excavating old pronunciations,
Chinese rhyme style. And so confident scholars spent centuries
sounding out ancient Chinese syllables and teaching that Chinese had exactly 36 initial
consonants. But Chen Li’s not convinced. He’s combing
through old fǎnqiè, meticulously chaining together initials of initials and finals of
finals. His linked sets revealed flaws. There weren’t 36 initials, there were 41. Five of
them needed to be split in two. But there’s more: the sounds in the rime tables are not
the sounds in the Qièyùn. These are two different stages. Later research will go on to show that even
the earlier stage itself is complicated. It’s a compromise between ancient literary dialects.
Thinking back to those late-night debates over the north vs the south, that sounds about right. But all this hard work merely left us with
categories. Boxes. Boxes for four tones. Boxes for initials. Boxes for finals. Enough with
the guesswork. What are the precise sounds that really fit into these boxes? In the early 1900s a Swede traveled to China
and dug into the old rimes and tables but then added an important piece: the many living
varieties of Chinese. Karlgren was fascinated. He created surveys and set out to document
them, and he used his results to fill out the rime categories with real sounds. How? Well, take that fourth tone (also called
the checked tone). Along the southern coast, these checked tone syllables have a final
stop sound . So this old character, meaning country, is /kuo˧˥/ in Mandarin, but in
Cantonese it’s /kwok̚˧/. Who’s older? Well, look at the last three languages in Karlgren’s
list of “dialects”: Korean, Japanese and Vietnamese. They use Sino-Xenic pronunciations, meaning
“China-foreign”, basically the way the characters sounded to them when they were imported. Their
words also have that k. It points back to an ancient pronunciation for that character
that ended in a consonant, like /kwək̚˧/. Linguists went on to refine these reconstructions
and to paint acoustic portraits of Ancient Chinese that would sound downright foreign
in Mandarin today. They even revealed small but important distinctions Karlgren missed,
like these pairs of chóngniǔ. And they taught me one last thing while I
was over here struggling to understand Chinese pronunciation. It’s not a single language
called Ancient Chinese. No, it’s a period in linguistic history called Middle Chinese. “Middle”… because there’s an even older language to uncover, a thousand years older
still. Maybe one day we’ll rhyme our way into Old
Chinese. Until then, stick around and subscribe for language.

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