Navigation auf

Asien-Orient-Institut UFSP Asien und Europa (2006–2017)

Broad-based Reconstructions

Led by Professor William H. Baxter (University of Michigan, Ann Arbor), the workshop “Linguistic Approaches to Premodern Chinese Literature” took place on October 17 and 18, 2015 at the University of Zurich, having been organized by Wolfgang Behr (URPP Asia and Europe). William Baxter introduced 20 MA and PhD students and university teachers to his methods and findings in the reconstruction of Old Chinese.

Mariana Münning

In 2014, William H. Baxter published Old Chinese: A New Reconstruction together with Laurent Sagart (Oxford University Press). As the state of the art in Chinese historical phonology, the book laid the basis for this workshop.

Baxter first presented the types of evidence that are used in the reconstruction of Old Chinese—that is, the language before the establishment of the Qin Dynasty in 221 BCE. In the traditional approach established by the Swedish Sinologist Bernhard Karlgren (1889–1978), the three most important clues about old Chinese are rhymes in ancient poetry, such as the “Book of Odes” Shijing, phonetic elements in the Chinese characters, and the reconstructed pronunciation of Middle Chinese. It is generally accepted that there is a systematic relationship between Middle and Old Chinese. Middle Chinese refers to the language preserved in rhyme dictionaries such as the Qieyun from 601 CE.

All aspects of language considered

In their new book, Old Chinese: A New Reconstruction, Baxter and Sagart present additional types of evidence. Among these are the modern Min dialects, assumed to have developed distinctly from other varieties of Chinese since the Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE), as well as non-Chinese languages that have preserved loanwords from Old Chinese. Other important sources of information are excavated texts that have preserved the script from before the standardization efforts of the Qin Dynasty. These pre-standardized characters provide more clues about pronunciation, since the script was employed in a much more dynamic way at that time.

Another important endeavor of Baxter and Sagart is to reconstruct Old Chinese morphology. While Karlgren also laid the basis for investigating Old Chinese morphology with his theory of word families, Baxter and Sagart have been able to identify word roots as well as affixes in Old Chinese. These findings show clearly that the reconstruction of Old Chinese is not merely a phonological undertaking, but touches upon all aspects of language, including grammar. The following example will show how semantics, phonetics, morphology and paleography (the study of ancient writing) are intertwined.

Overcoming translation difficulties

The reconstruction of the Old Chinese pronunciation of shè 設 (set up) demonstrates the diversity of evidence that needs to be considered. Its Middle Chinese reconstruction is syet. How do we now get to the Old Chinese pronunciation? Sometimes, two or more characters can have a so-called xiesheng connection, which occurs when one is written with the other as a phonetic element. For shè 設 we do not have such a character, but luckily, the paleographer Qiu Xigui has noticed that shè was formerly often written with graphs (i.e. characters) that later developed into 埶 (to plant, Middle Chinese: ngjiejH). 埶 then again has a xiesheng connection with shì 勢 (circumstances, setting, Middle Chinese: syejH), since shì 勢 is 埶 with the element 力 added at the bottom. The three can therefore be reconstructed as:

  • yì: *ŋet-s ‘to plant’
  • shè: *ŋ̊et ‘set up’
  • shì: *ŋ̊et-s ‘circumstances, setting’ (Baxter/Sagart 2014, 29–30)

The conclusion here is that shì 勢 (*ŋ̊et-s) is the noun derived from shè 設 (*ŋ̊et) through the addition of the suffix -s. Findings like this one shed new light on the Confucian classics that were difficult to translate. Baxter and Sagart use their findings about shè 設 to improve the hitherto frequently quoted translation of a phrase from the Han Fei zi: Nan shi by A. C. Graham from 1989:

  • 吾 所 為 言 勢 者, 言 人 之 所 設 也
  • Wú suǒ wéi yán shì (*ŋ̊et-s) zhě, yán rén zhī suǒ shè (*ŋ̊et) yě.
  • Graham: “When I speak of the power-base it is of something instituted by man.”
  • Baxter/Sagart: ‘The setup (*ŋ̊et-s) of which I am speaking refers to what is set up (*ŋ̊et) by men.’ (Baxter/Sagart 2014, 30)

This example hopefully shows why investigations into the phonology and morphology of Old Chinese is not only fascinating, but also rewarding—and why sinologists might want to consider this line of inquiry. This workshop was a rare and important occasion to obtain first-hand information on reconstructive methods for Old Chinese, a field in which few scholars in the world have expertise. Baxter himself couldn’t help but remark “what a treat it is to see so many people interested in Old Chinese phonology.”

(Asia & Europe Bulletin, 5/2016, p. 25)