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Old Chinese, also called Archaic Chinese in older works, is the oldest attested stage of
Chinese Chinese can refer to: * Something related to China China, officially the People's Republic of China (PRC), is a country in East Asia. It is the List of countries and dependencies by population, world's most populous country, with a populat ...
, and the ancestor of all modern
varieties of Chinese Chinese Chinese can refer to: * Something related to China China, officially the People's Republic of China (PRC), is a country in East Asia. It is the List of countries and dependencies by population, world's most populous country, w ...
. The earliest examples of Chinese are divinatory inscriptions on
oracle bone Oracle bones () are pieces of ox scapula In anatomy, the scapula (plural scapulae or scapulas), also known as the shoulder bone, shoulder blade, wing bone, speal bone or blade bone, is the bone that connects the humerus (upper arm bone) with t ...

oracle bone
s from around 1250 BC, in the late
Shang dynasty The Shang dynasty (), also historically known as the Yin dynasty (), was a Chinese dynasty Dynasties in Chinese history, or Chinese dynasties, were hereditary monarchical regimes that ruled over China during much of its history. From ...

Shang dynasty
. Bronze inscriptions became plentiful during the following
Zhou dynasty The Zhou dynasty ( ; Old Chinese Old Chinese, also called Archaic Chinese in older works, is the oldest attested stage of Chinese Chinese can refer to: * Something related to China China, officially the People's Republic of China ( ...
. The latter part of the Zhou period saw a flowering of literature, including classical works such as the ''
Analects The ''Analects'' (; ; Old Chinese Old Chinese, also called Archaic Chinese in older works, is the oldest attested stage of Chinese, and the ancestor of all modern varieties of Chinese. The earliest examples of Chinese are divinatory inscript ...

Analects
'', the ''
Mencius Mencius ( ); born Mèng Kē (); or Mengzi (; 372–289 BC) was a Chinese Confucian , Shanxi Shanxi (; ; Chinese postal romanization, formerly romanised as Shansi) is a landlocked Provinces of China, province of the China, People's R ...
'', and the ''
Zuo zhuan The ''Zuo Zhuan'' (; ), generally translated ''The Zuo Tradition'' or ''The Commentary of Zuo'', is an ancient Chinese narrative history that is traditionally regarded as a commentary on the ancient Chinese chronicle ''Spring and Autumn Annals ...

Zuo zhuan
''. These works served as models for Literary Chinese (or
Classical Chinese Classical Chinese, also known as Literary Chinese (古文 ''gǔwén'' "ancient text", or 文言 ''wényán'' "text speak"; Written vernacular Chinese, modern vernacular: 文言文 ''wényánwén'' "text speak text"), is the language of the cla ...
), which remained the written standard until the early twentieth century, thus preserving the vocabulary and grammar of late Old Chinese. Old Chinese was written with several early forms of
Chinese characters Chinese characters, also called ''hanzi'' (), are logogram In a written language A written language is the representation of a spoken or gestural language by means of a writing system. Written language is an invention in that it ...
, including
Oracle Bone Oracle bones () are pieces of ox scapula In anatomy, the scapula (plural scapulae or scapulas), also known as the shoulder bone, shoulder blade, wing bone, speal bone or blade bone, is the bone that connects the humerus (upper arm bone) with t ...
,
Bronze Bronze is an alloy consisting primarily of copper, commonly with about 12–12.5% tin and often with the addition of other metals (such as aluminum, manganese, nickel or zinc) and sometimes non-metals or metalloids such as arsenic, phosphorus or ...
, and
Seal script 200px, left, Chinese characters for the words 'seal script' in regular script (left) and seal script (right). Seal script () is an ancient style Style is a manner of doing or presenting things and may refer to: * Architectural style, the feat ...
s. Throughout the Old Chinese period, there was a close correspondence between a character and a monosyllabic and monomorphemic word. Although the script is not alphabetic, the majority of characters were created based on phonetic considerations. At first, words that were difficult to represent visually were written using a "borrowed" character for a similar-sounding word (
rebus principle A rebus () is a puzzle A puzzle is a game with separate sliding drawer, from 1390–1353 BC, made of glazed faience, dimensions: 5.5 × 7.7 × 21 cm, in the Brooklyn Museum (New York City) '', 1560, Pieter Bruegel th ...

rebus principle
). Later on, to reduce ambiguity, new characters were created for these phonetic borrowings by appending a
radical Radical may refer to: Arts and entertainment Music *Radical (mixtape), ''Radical'' (mixtape), by Odd Future, 2010 *Radical (Smack album), ''Radical'' (Smack album), 1988 *"Radicals", a song by Tyler, The Creator from the 2011 album ''Goblin (album ...
that conveys a broad semantic category, resulting in compound ''xingsheng'' ( phono-semantic) characters (). For the earliest attested stage of Old Chinese of the late Shang dynasty, the phonetic information implicit in these ''xingsheng'' characters which are grouped into phonetic series, known as the ''xiesheng'' series'','' represents the only direct source of phonological data for reconstructing the language. The corpus of ''xingsheng'' characters was greatly expanded in the following Zhou dynasty. In addition, the rhymes of the earliest recorded poems, primarily those of the ''
Shijing The ''Classic of Poetry'', also ''Shijing'' or ''Shih-ching'' (), translated variously as the ''Book of Songs'', ''Book of Odes'' or simply known as the ''Odes'' or ''Poetry'' (), is the oldest existing collection of , comprising 305 works dati ...
'', provide an extensive source of phonological information with respect to syllable finals for the Central Plains dialects during the
Western Zhou The Western Zhou ( zh, c=, p=Xīzhōu; c. 1045 BC – 771 BC) was the first half of the Zhou dynasty of ancient China. It began when King Wu of Zhou King Wu of Zhou () was the first king of the King of the Romans (variant used in the ...
and
Spring and Autumn period#REDIRECT Spring and Autumn period The Spring and Autumn period was a period in Chinese history The earliest known written records of the history of China date from as early as 1250 BC, from the Shang dynasty (c. 1600–1046 BC), during the ...
s. Similarly, the ''
Chuci The ''Chu Ci'', variously translated as ''Verses of Chu'' or ''Songs of Chu'', is an anthology of Chinese poetry Chinese poetry is poetry Poetry (derived from the Greek language, Greek ''poiesis'', "making") is a form of literature tha ...
'' provides rhyme data for the dialect spoken in the
Chu Chu or CHU may refer to: Chinese history * Chu (state) (c. 1030 BC–223 BC), a state during the Zhou dynasty * Western Chu (206 BC–202 BC), a state founded and ruled by Xiang Yu * Chu Kingdom (Han dynasty) (201 BC–70 AD), a kingdom of the Han ...
region during the
Warring States period The Warring States period () was an era in ancient Chinese history characterized by warfare, as well as bureaucratic and military reforms and consolidation. It followed the Spring and Autumn period The Spring and Autumn period was a period i ...
. These rhymes, together with clues from the phonetic components of ''xingsheng'' characters, allow most characters attested in Old Chinese to be assigned to one of 30 or 31 rhyme groups. For late Old Chinese of the Han period, the modern
Southern Min Southern Min (), Minnan (Mandarin Mandarin may refer to: * Mandarin (bureaucrat), a bureaucrat of Imperial China (the original meaning of the word) ** by extension, any senior government bureaucrat A bureaucrat is a member of a bureaucracy ...
dialects, the oldest layer of
Sino-Vietnamese vocabulary Sino-Vietnamese vocabulary ( vi, Từ Hán Việt, Chữ Nôm Chữ Nôm (, , literally 'Southern characters') is a logographic In a written language A written language is the representation of a spoken or gestural language by means of a ...
, and a few early transliterations of foreign proper names, as well as names for non-native flora and fauna, also provide insights into language reconstruction. Although many of the finer details remain unclear, most scholars agree that Old Chinese differed from
Middle Chinese Middle Chinese (formerly known as Ancient Chinese) or the Qieyun system (QYS) is the historical variety of Chinese Chinese can refer to: * Something related to China China, officially the People's Republic of China (PRC), is a country ...
in lacking retroflex and palatal obstruents but having initial consonant clusters of some sort, and in having voiceless nasals and
liquids A liquid is a nearly incompressible In fluid mechanics or more generally continuum mechanics, incompressible flow (isochoric process, isochoric flow) refers to a fluid flow, flow in which the material density is constant within a fluid par ...
. Most recent reconstructions also describe Old Chinese as a language without tones, but having consonant clusters at the end of the syllable, which
developed Development or developing may refer to: Arts *Development hell, when a project is stuck in development *Filmmaking#Development, Filmmaking, development phase, including finance and budgeting *Development (music), the process thematic material i ...
into
tone Tone may refer to: Color-related * Tone, mix of tint and shade, in painting and color theory * Tone, the lightness Lightness is a visual perception of the luminance (L) of an object. It is often judged relative to a similarly lit object. ...
distinctions in Middle Chinese. Most researchers trace the core vocabulary of Old Chinese to
Sino-Tibetan Sino-Tibetan, also known as Trans-Himalayan in a few sources, is a family of more than 400 languages, second only to Indo-European in number of native speakers. The vast majority of these are the 1.3 billion native speakers of Chinese languages ...

Sino-Tibetan
, with much early borrowing from neighbouring languages. During the Zhou period, the originally monosyllabic vocabulary was augmented with polysyllabic words formed by
compounding In the field of pharmacy, compounding (performed in compounding pharmacies) is preparation of a custom formulation of a medication to fit a unique need of a patient that cannot be met with commercially available products. This may be done for med ...
and
reduplication In linguistics Linguistics is the scientific study of language A language is a structured system of communication used by humans, including speech (spoken language), gestures (Signed language, sign language) and writing. Most languag ...

reduplication
, although monosyllabic vocabulary was still predominant. Unlike Middle Chinese and the modern Chinese dialects, Old Chinese had a significant amount of derivational morphology. Several
affix In linguistics Linguistics is the scientific study of language A language is a structured system of communication used by humans, including speech (spoken language), gestures (Signed language, sign language) and writing. Most language ...
es have been identified, including ones for the verbification of nouns, conversion between transitive and intransitive verbs, and formation of causative verbs. Like modern Chinese, it appears to be uninflected, though a pronoun case and number system seems to have existed during the Shang and early Zhou but was already in the process of disappearing by the Classical period. Likewise, by the Classical period, most morphological derivations had become unproductive or vestigial, and grammatical relationships were primarily indicated using word order and
grammatical particle In grammar In linguistics Linguistics is the scientific study of language, meaning that it is a comprehensive, systematic, objective, and precise study of language. Linguistics encompasses the analysis of every aspect of language, as w ...
s.


Classification

Middle Chinese and its southern neighbours Kra–Dai, Hmong–Mien and the
Vietic The Vietic languages are a branch of the Austroasiatic languages, Austroasiatic language family. The branch was once referred to by the terms ''Việt–Mường'', ''Annamese–Muong'', and ''Vietnamuong''; the term ''Vietic'' was proposed by L ...
branch of
Austroasiatic The Austroasiatic languages , also known as Mon–Khmer , are a large language family A language is a structured system of communication used by humans, including speech ( spoken language), gestures (Signed language, sign language) and wri ...
have similar tone systems, syllable structure, grammatical features and lack of inflection, but these are believed to be
areal feature In linguistics Linguistics is the science, scientific study of language. It encompasses the analysis of every aspect of language, as well as the methods for studying and modeling them. The traditional areas of linguistic analysis include ...
s spread by diffusion rather than indicating common descent. The most widely accepted hypothesis is that Chinese belongs to the
Sino-Tibetan language family Sino-Tibetan, also known as Trans-Himalayan in a few sources, is a family In human society, family (from la, familia) is a group of people related either by consanguinity (by recognized birth) or affinity (by marriage or other relationsh ...
, together with Burmese,
Tibetan Tibetan may mean: * of, from, or related to Tibet * Tibetan people, an ethnic group * Tibetan language: ** Classical Tibetan, the classical language used also as a contemporary written standard ** Standard Tibetan, the most widely used spoken dialec ...
and many other languages spoken in the
Himalayas The Himalayas, or Himalaya (; Sanskrit Sanskrit (, attributively , ''saṃskṛta-'', nominalization, nominally , ''saṃskṛtam'') is a classical language of South Asia belonging to the Indo-Aryan languages, Indo-Aryan branch of the Ind ...

Himalayas
and the
Southeast Asian Massif The term Southeast Asian Massif was proposed in 1997 by anthropologist Jean Michaud to discuss the human societies inhabiting the lands above approximately in the southeastern portion of the Asian landmass, thus not merely in the uplands of convent ...
. The evidence consists of some hundreds of proposed cognate words, including such basic vocabulary as the following: Although the relationship was first proposed in the early 19th century and is now broadly accepted, reconstruction of Sino-Tibetan is much less developed than that of families such as
Indo-European The Indo-European languages are a language family native to western and southern Eurasia. It comprises most of the languages of Europe together with those of the northern Indian subcontinent and the Iranian Plateau. Some European languages of ...
or
Austronesian Austronesian may refer to: *The Austronesian languages *The historical Austronesian peoples who carried Austronesian languages on their migrations {{disambiguation ...
. Although Old Chinese is by far the earliest attested member of the family, its logographic script does not clearly indicate the pronunciation of words. Other difficulties have included the great diversity of the languages, the lack of inflection in many of them, and the effects of language contact. In addition, many of the smaller languages are poorly described because they are spoken in mountainous areas that are difficult to reach, including several sensitive border zones. Initial consonants generally correspond regarding
place Place may refer to: Geography * Place (United States Census Bureau), defined as any concentration of population ** Census-designated place, a populated area lacking its own municipal government * "Place", a type of street or road name ** Often ...
and
manner of articulation Human vocal tract In articulatory phonetics The field of articulatory phonetics is a subfield of phonetics Phonetics is a branch of linguistics that studies how humans produce and perceive sounds, or in the case of sign languages, the equiva ...

manner of articulation
, but
voicing Voicing may refer to: * Voicing (music), the distribution of a chord's notes, either in composition or orchestration *The regulation of tone and loudness of an instrument's notes: **Piano_maintenance#Voicing **Voicing (pipe organ) **Plectrum#Voicin ...
and aspiration are much less regular, and prefixal elements vary widely between languages. Some researchers believe that both these phenomena reflect lost
minor syllable Primarily in Austroasiatic languages The Austroasiatic languages , also known as Mon–Khmer , are a large language family A language is a structured system of communication used by humans, including speech ( spoken language), gestures (Si ...
s.
Proto-Tibeto-Burman Proto-Tibeto-Burman (commonly abbreviated PTB) is the proto-language, reconstructed ancestor of the Tibeto-Burman languages, that is, the Sino-Tibetan languages except for varieties of Chinese, Chinese. An initial reconstruction was produced by Pa ...
as reconstructed by Benedict and Matisoff lacks an aspiration distinction on initial stops and affricates. Aspiration in Old Chinese often corresponds to pre-initial consonants in Tibetan and
Lolo-Burmese The Lolo-Burmese languages (also Burmic languages) of Burma and Southern China form a coherent branch of the Sino-Tibetan languages, Sino-Tibetan family. Names Until ca. 1950, the endonym ''Lolo'' was written with Graphic pejoratives in written ...
, and is believed to be a Chinese innovation arising from earlier prefixes. Proto-Sino-Tibetan is reconstructed with a six-vowel system as in recent reconstructions of Old Chinese, with the
Tibeto-Burman languages The Tibeto-Burman languages are the non- Sinitic members of the Sino-Tibetan language family Sino-Tibetan, also known as Trans-Himalayan in a few sources, is a family In human society, family (from la, familia) is a group of people rela ...
distinguished by the
merger In corporate finance, mergers and acquisitions (M&A) are transactions in which the ownership of Company, companies, other business organizations, or their operating units are transferred or Consolidation (business), consolidated with other entit ...
of the mid-central vowel with . The other vowels are preserved by both, with some alternation between and , and between and .


History

The earliest known written records of the Chinese language were found at the
Yinxu Yinxu (modern ; ) is the site of one of the ancient and major historical capitals of China There are traditionally four major historical capitals of China, collectively referred to as the "Four Great Ancient Capitals of China" (). The four are B ...

Yinxu
site near modern
Anyang Anyang (; ) is a prefecture-level city A road sign shows distance to the "Huangshi urban area" () rather than simply " Yangxin County from the neighboring Xianning), but still from the Huangshi main urban area. A prefectural-level municipali ...

Anyang
identified as the last capital of the
Shang dynasty The Shang dynasty (), also historically known as the Yin dynasty (), was a Chinese dynasty Dynasties in Chinese history, or Chinese dynasties, were hereditary monarchical regimes that ruled over China during much of its history. From ...

Shang dynasty
, and date from about 1250 BC. These are the
oracle bone Oracle bones () are pieces of ox scapula In anatomy, the scapula (plural scapulae or scapulas), also known as the shoulder bone, shoulder blade, wing bone, speal bone or blade bone, is the bone that connects the humerus (upper arm bone) with t ...

oracle bone
s, short inscriptions carved on tortoise
plastron The turtle shell is a shield for the ventral and dorsal parts of turtles (the Order (biology), order Testudines), completely enclosing all the vital organs of the turtle and in some cases even the head. It is constructed of modified bony elements s ...

plastron
s and ox
scapula In anatomy, the scapula (plural scapulae or scapulas), also known as the shoulder bone, shoulder blade, wing bone, speal bone or blade bone, is the bone that connects the humerus (upper arm bone) with the clavicle (collar bone). Like their connec ...

scapula
e for divinatory purposes, as well as a few brief bronze inscriptions. The language written is undoubtedly an early form of Chinese, but is difficult to interpret due to the limited subject matter and high proportion of proper names. Only half of the 4,000 characters used have been identified with certainty. Little is known about the grammar of this language, but it seems much less reliant on
grammatical particle In grammar In linguistics Linguistics is the scientific study of language, meaning that it is a comprehensive, systematic, objective, and precise study of language. Linguistics encompasses the analysis of every aspect of language, as w ...
s than Classical Chinese. From early in the
Western Zhou The Western Zhou ( zh, c=, p=Xīzhōu; c. 1045 BC – 771 BC) was the first half of the Zhou dynasty of ancient China. It began when King Wu of Zhou King Wu of Zhou () was the first king of the King of the Romans (variant used in the ...
period, around 1000 BC, the most important recovered texts are bronze inscriptions, many of considerable length. Even longer pre-Classical texts on a wide range of subjects have also been transmitted through the literary tradition. The oldest sections of the ''
Book of Documents The ''Book of Documents'' (''Shūjīng'', earlier ''Shu King'') or ''Classic of History'', also known as the ''Shangshu'' ("Esteemed Documents"), is one of the Five Classics The Four Books and Five Classics () are the authoritative books of ...
'', the ''
Classic of Poetry The ''Classic of Poetry'', also ''Shijing'' or ''Shih-ching'' (), translated variously as the ''Book of Songs'', ''Book of Odes'' or simply known as the ''Odes'' or ''Poetry'' (), is the oldest existing collection of Chinese poetry Chinese po ...
'' and the ''
I Ching The ''I Ching'' or ''Yi Jing'' (, ), usually translated as ''Book of Changes'' or ''Classic of Changes'', is an ancient Chinese divination Divination (from Latin ''divinare'', 'to foresee, to foretell, to predict, to prophesy') is the at ...
'', also date from the early Zhou period, and closely resemble the bronze inscriptions in vocabulary, syntax, and style. A greater proportion of this more varied vocabulary has been identified than for the oracular period. The four centuries preceding the unification of China in 221 BC (the later
Spring and Autumn period#REDIRECT Spring and Autumn period The Spring and Autumn period was a period in Chinese history The earliest known written records of the history of China date from as early as 1250 BC, from the Shang dynasty (c. 1600–1046 BC), during the ...
and the
Warring States period The Warring States period () was an era in ancient Chinese history characterized by warfare, as well as bureaucratic and military reforms and consolidation. It followed the Spring and Autumn period The Spring and Autumn period was a period i ...
) constitute the Chinese classical period in the strict sense, although some authors also include the subsequent
QinQin may refer to: Dynasties and states * Qin (state) (秦), a major state during the Zhou Dynasty of ancient China * Qin dynasty (秦), founded by the Qin state in 221 BC and ended in 206 BC * Daqin (大秦), ancient Chinese name for the Roman Empi ...

Qin
and
Han dynasties
Han dynasties
, thus encompassing the next four centuries of the early imperial period. There are many bronze inscriptions from this period, but they are vastly outweighed by a rich literature written in ink on
bamboo and wooden slips Bamboo and wooden slips () were the main media for writing documents in China before the widespread introduction of paper during the first two centuries AD. (Silk was occasionally used, for example in the Chu Silk Manuscript, but was prohibiti ...
and (toward the end of the period) silk and paper. Although these are perishable materials, and many books were destroyed in the
burning of books and burying of scholars The burning of books and burying of scholars (), also known as burning the books and executing the ru scholars, refers to the supposed burning of texts in 213 BCE Common Era (CE) is one of the year notations used for the Gregorian calendar ...

burning of books and burying of scholars
in the
Qin dynasty The Qin dynasty, or Ch'in dynasty in Wade–Giles Wade–Giles () is a Romanization of Chinese, romanization system for Standard Chinese, Mandarin Chinese. It developed from a system produced by Thomas Francis Wade, during the mid-19th ...

Qin dynasty
, a significant number of texts were transmitted as copies, and a few of these survived to the present day as the received classics. Works from this period, including the ''
Analects The ''Analects'' (; ; Old Chinese Old Chinese, also called Archaic Chinese in older works, is the oldest attested stage of Chinese, and the ancestor of all modern varieties of Chinese. The earliest examples of Chinese are divinatory inscript ...

Analects
'', the ''
Mencius Mencius ( ); born Mèng Kē (); or Mengzi (; 372–289 BC) was a Chinese Confucian , Shanxi Shanxi (; ; Chinese postal romanization, formerly romanised as Shansi) is a landlocked Provinces of China, province of the China, People's R ...
'', the ''
Tao Te Ching The ''Tao Te Ching'' (, ; ) is a Chinese classic text traditionally credited to the 6th-century BC sage Laozi. The text's authorship, date of composition and date of compilation are debated. The oldest excavated portion dates back to the la ...
'', the ''
Commentary of Zuo
Commentary of Zuo
'', the '' Guoyu'', and the early Han ''
Records of the Grand Historian The ''Records of the Grand Historian'', also known by its Chinese name ''Shiji'', is a monumental history of ancient China and the world finished around 94 BC by the Western Han Dynasty official Sima Qian after having been started by his father ...

Records of the Grand Historian
'', have been admired as models of prose style by later generations. During the Han dynasty, disyllabic words proliferated in the spoken language and gradually replaced the mainly monosyllabic vocabulary of the pre-Qin period, while grammatically, noun classifiers became a prominent feature of the language. While some of these innovations were reflected in the writings of Han dynasty authors (e.g.,
Sima Qian Sima Qian (; ; ) was a Chinese historian of the early Han dynasty#REDIRECT Han dynasty The Han dynasty () was the second Dynasties in Chinese history, imperial dynasty of China (202 BC – 220 AD), established by the rebel leader Liu B ...

Sima Qian
), later writers increasingly imitated earlier, pre-Qin literary models. As a result, the syntax and vocabulary of pre-Qin
Classical Chinese Classical Chinese, also known as Literary Chinese (古文 ''gǔwén'' "ancient text", or 文言 ''wényán'' "text speak"; Written vernacular Chinese, modern vernacular: 文言文 ''wényánwén'' "text speak text"), is the language of the cla ...
was preserved in the form of Literary Chinese (''wenyan''), a written standard which served as a ''lingua franca'' for formal writing in China and neighboring
Sinosphere The East Asian cultural sphere, also known as the Sinosphere, the Sinic world, the Sinitic world, the Chinese cultural sphere or the Chinese character sphere, encompasses countries in East Asia East Asia is the eastern region of As ...
countries until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.


Script

Each character of the script represented a single Old Chinese word. Most scholars believe that these words were monosyllabic, though some have recently suggested that a minority of them had minor presyllables. The development of these characters follows the same three stages that characterized
Egyptian hieroglyphs Egyptian hieroglyphs () were the formal writing system A writing system is a method of visually representing verbal communication Communication (from Latin ''communicare'', meaning "to share" or "to be in relation with") is "an apparent ...
,
Mesopotamia Mesopotamia ( grc, Μεσοποταμία ''Mesopotamíā''; ar, بِلَاد ٱلرَّافِدَيْن ; syc, ܐܪܡ ܢܗܪ̈ܝܢ, or , ) is a historical region of Western Asia situated within the Tigris–Euphrates river system, in the ...

Mesopotamia
n
cuneiform script Cuneiform is a - that was used to write several languages of the . The script was in active use from the early until the beginning of the . It is named for the characteristic wedge-shaped impressions (: ) which form its . Cuneiform was origi ...

cuneiform script
and the
Maya script Maya script, also known as Maya glyphs, was the writing system A writing system is a method of visually representing verbal communication Communication (from Latin ''communicare'', meaning "to share") is the act of developing Semantics, ...
. Some words could be represented by pictures (later stylized) such as 'sun', 'person' and 'tree, wood', by abstract symbols such as 'three' and 'up', or by composite symbols such as 'forest' (two trees). About 1,000 of the oracle bone characters, nearly a quarter of the total, are of this type, though 300 of them have not yet been deciphered. Though the pictographic origins of these characters are apparent, they have already undergone extensive simplification and conventionalization. Evolved forms of most of these characters are still in common use today. Next, words that could not be represented pictorially, such as abstract terms and grammatical particles, were signified by borrowing characters of pictorial origin representing similar-sounding words (the "
rebus A rebus () is a puzzle A puzzle is a game, Problem solving, problem, or toy that tests a person's ingenuity or knowledge. In a puzzle, the solver is expected to put pieces together in a logical way, in order to arrive at the correct or fun ...

rebus
strategy"): * The word 'tremble' was originally written with the character for 'chestnut'. 403; . * The pronoun and modal particle was written with the character originally representing 'winnowing basket'. 952; . Sometimes the borrowed character would be modified slightly to distinguish it from the original, as with 'don't', a borrowing of 'mother'. Later, phonetic loans were systematically disambiguated by the addition of semantic indicators, usually to the less common word: * The word 'tremble' was later written with the character , formed by adding the symbol , a variant of 'heart'. * The less common original word 'winnowing basket' came to be written with the compound , obtained by adding the symbol 'bamboo' to the character. Such phono-semantic compound characters were already used extensively on the oracle bones, and the vast majority of characters created since then have been of this type. In the ''
Shuowen Jiezi ''Shuowen Jiezi'' () is an ancient Chinese dictionary Chinese dictionaries date back over two millennia to the Han Dynasty The Han dynasty () was the second Dynasties in Chinese history, imperial dynasty of China (202 BC – 220 AD), esta ...
'', a dictionary compiled in the 2nd century, 82% of the 9,353 characters are classified as phono-semantic compounds. In the light of the modern understanding of Old Chinese phonology, researchers now believe that most of the characters originally classified as semantic compounds also have a phonetic nature. These developments were already present in the oracle bone script, possibly implying a significant period of development prior to the extant inscriptions. This may have involved writing on perishable materials, as suggested by the appearance on oracle bones of the character 'records'. The character is thought to depict bamboo or wooden strips tied together with leather thongs, a writing material known from later archaeological finds. Development and simplification of the script continued during the pre-Classical and Classical periods, with characters becoming less pictorial and more linear and regular, with rounded strokes being replaced by sharp angles. The language developed compound words, so that characters came to represent
morpheme A morpheme is the smallest meaningful lexical item in a language. A morpheme is not a word. The difference between a morpheme and a word is that a morpheme bound and free morphemes, sometimes does not stand alone, but a word on this definition alw ...
s, though almost all morphemes could be used as independent words. Hundreds of morphemes of two or more syllables also entered the language, and were written with one phono-semantic compound character per syllable. During the
Warring States period The Warring States period () was an era in ancient Chinese history characterized by warfare, as well as bureaucratic and military reforms and consolidation. It followed the Spring and Autumn period The Spring and Autumn period was a period i ...
, writing became more widespread, with further simplification and variation, particularly in the eastern states. The most conservative script prevailed in the western state of
QinQin may refer to: Dynasties and states * Qin (state) (秦), a major state during the Zhou Dynasty of ancient China * Qin dynasty (秦), founded by the Qin state in 221 BC and ended in 206 BC * Daqin (大秦), ancient Chinese name for the Roman Empi ...
, which would later impose its standard on the whole of China.


Phonology

Old Chinese phonology has been reconstructed using a variety of evidence, including the phonetic components of Chinese characters, rhyming practice in the ''
Classic of Poetry The ''Classic of Poetry'', also ''Shijing'' or ''Shih-ching'' (), translated variously as the ''Book of Songs'', ''Book of Odes'' or simply known as the ''Odes'' or ''Poetry'' (), is the oldest existing collection of Chinese poetry Chinese po ...
'' and
Middle Chinese Middle Chinese (formerly known as Ancient Chinese) or the Qieyun system (QYS) is the historical variety of Chinese Chinese can refer to: * Something related to China China, officially the People's Republic of China (PRC), is a country ...
reading pronunciations described in such works as the ''
Qieyun The ''Qieyun'' () is a Chinese Chinese can refer to: * Something related to China China, officially the People's Republic of China (PRC), is a country in East Asia. It is the List of countries and dependencies by population, world's most ...
'', a
rhyme dictionary A rime dictionary, rhyme dictionary, or rime book () is an ancient type of Chinese dictionary Chinese dictionaries date back over two millennia to the Han Dynasty#REDIRECT Han dynasty The Han dynasty () was the second Dynasties in Chinese ...
published in 601 AD. Although many details are still disputed, recent formulations are in substantial agreement on the core issues. For example, the Old Chinese initial consonants recognized by
Li Fang-Kuei Li Fang-Kuei (20 August 190221 August 1987) was a Chinese linguist known for his studies of the varieties of Chinese, and for his reconstructions of Old Chinese and Proto-Tai. Biography Li Fang-Kuei was born on 20 August 1902 in Guangzhou ...
and William Baxter are given below, with Baxter's (mostly tentative) additions given in parentheses: Various initial clusters have been proposed, especially clusters of with other consonants, but this area remains unsettled.
Bernhard Karlgren Klas Bernhard Johannes Karlgren (; 15 October 1889 – 20 October 1978) was a Swedish sinologist and linguist who pioneered the study of Chinese historical phonology using modern comparative methods. In the early 20th century, Karlgren conduct ...

Bernhard Karlgren
and many later scholars posited the medials , and the combination to explain the retroflex and palatal
obstruentAn obstruent () is a speech sound such as , , or that is formed by ''obstructing'' airflow. Obstruents contrast with sonorant In phonetics and phonology, a sonorant or resonant is a speech sound that is manner of articulation, produced with continuo ...
s of Middle Chinese, as well as many of its vowel contrasts. is generally accepted. However, although the distinction denoted by is universally accepted, its realization as a palatal glide has been challenged on a number of grounds, and a variety of different realizations have been used in recent constructions. Reconstructions since the 1980s usually propose six 
vowel A vowel is a syllabicSyllabic may refer to: *Syllable, a unit of speech sound, considered the building block of words **Syllabic consonant, a consonant that forms the nucleus of a syllable *Syllabary, writing system using symbols for syllables ...

vowel
s: Vowels could optionally be followed by the same codas as in Middle Chinese: a glide or , a nasal , or , or a stop , or . Some scholars also allow for a labiovelar coda . Most scholars now believe that Old Chinese lacked the
tone Tone may refer to: Color-related * Tone, mix of tint and shade, in painting and color theory * Tone, the lightness Lightness is a visual perception of the luminance (L) of an object. It is often judged relative to a similarly lit object. ...
s found in later stages of the language, but had optional post-codas and , which developed into the Middle Chinese rising and departing tones respectively.


Grammar

Little is known of the grammar of the language of the Oracular and pre-Classical periods, as the texts are often of a ritual or formulaic nature, and much of their vocabulary has not been deciphered. In contrast, the rich literature of the
Warring States period The Warring States period () was an era in ancient Chinese history characterized by warfare, as well as bureaucratic and military reforms and consolidation. It followed the Spring and Autumn period The Spring and Autumn period was a period i ...
has been extensively analysed. Having no
inflection In linguistic morphology Morphology, from the Greek and meaning "study of shape", may refer to: Disciplines * Morphology (archaeology), study of the shapes or forms of artifacts * Morphology (astronomy), study of the shape of astronomical ob ...
, Old Chinese was heavily reliant on word order,
grammatical particle In grammar In linguistics Linguistics is the scientific study of language, meaning that it is a comprehensive, systematic, objective, and precise study of language. Linguistics encompasses the analysis of every aspect of language, as w ...
s, and inherent
word class In traditional grammar, a part of speech or part-of-speech ( abbreviated as POS or PoS) is a category of words (or, more generally, of lexical items) that have similar grammatical properties. Words that are assigned to the same part of speech g ...
es.


Word classes

Classifying Old Chinese words is not always straightforward, as words were not marked for function, word classes overlapped, and words of one class could sometimes be used in roles normally reserved for a different class. The task is more difficult with written texts than it would have been for speakers of Old Chinese, because the derivational morphology is often hidden by the writing system. For example, the verb 'to block' and the derived noun 'frontier' were both written with the same character .
Personal pronoun Personal pronouns are pronoun In linguistics Linguistics is the science, scientific study of language. It encompasses the analysis of every aspect of language, as well as the methods for studying and modeling them. The traditional areas ...
s exhibit a wide variety of forms in Old Chinese texts, possibly due to dialectal variation. There were two groups of first-person pronouns: # , , and # and In the oracle bone inscriptions, the pronouns were used by the king to refer to himself, and the forms for the Shang people as a whole. This distinction is largely absent in later texts, and the forms disappeared during the classical period. In the post-Han period, came to be used as the general first-person pronoun. Second-person pronouns included , , , . The forms and continued to be used interchangeably until their replacement by the northwestern variant (modern Mandarin ''nǐ'') in the Tang period. However, in some Min dialects the second-person pronoun is derived from . Case distinctions were particularly marked among third-person pronouns. There was no third-person subject pronoun, but , originally a distal
demonstrative Demonstratives (list of glossing abbreviations, abbreviated ) are words, such as ''this'' and ''that'', used to indicate which entities are being referred to and to distinguish those entities from others. They are typically deictic; their meaning ...
, came to be used as a third-person object pronoun in the classical period. The possessive pronoun was originally , replaced in the classical period by . In the post-Han period, came to be used as the general third-person pronoun. It survives in some Wu dialects, but has been replaced by a variety of forms elsewhere. There were demonstrative and
interrogative pronoun An interrogative word or question word is a function word In linguistics Linguistics is the science, scientific study of language. It encompasses the analysis of every aspect of language, as well as the methods for studying and modeling them ...
s, but no
indefinite pronoun An indefinite pronoun is a pronoun In linguistics Linguistics is the scientific study of language A language is a structured system of communication used by humans, including speech (spoken language), gestures (Signed language, si ...
s with the meanings 'something' or 'nothing'. The
distributive pronounA distributive pronoun considers members of a group separately, rather than collectively. They include '' either, neither'' and others. * "to each his own" 'each2,(pronoun)Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary'' (2007) * "Men take each other's m ...
s were formed with a suffix: * 'which one' from 'who' * 'each one' from 'all' * 'someone' from 'there is' * 'no-one' from 'there is no' As in the modern language, localizers (compass directions, 'above', 'inside' and the like) could be placed after nouns to indicate relative positions. They could also precede verbs to indicate the direction of the action. Nouns denoting times were another special class (time words); they usually preceded the subject to specify the time of an action. However the classifiers so characteristic of Modern Chinese only became common in the
Han period The Han dynasty () was the second imperial dynasty of China (202 BC – 220 AD), established by the rebel leader Liu Bang Emperor Gaozu of Han (256 – 1 June 195 BC), born Liu Bang () with courtesy name Ji (季), was the founder and f ...

Han period
and the subsequent
Northern and Southern dynasties The Northern and Southern dynasties () was a period in the history of China The earliest known written records of the history of China date from as early as 1250 BC, from the Shang dynasty (c. 1600–1046 BC), during the king Wu Ding ...
. Old Chinese verbs, like their modern counterparts, did not show tense or aspect; these could be indicated with adverbs or particles if required. Verbs could be transitive verb, transitive or intransitive. As in the modern language, adjectives were a special kind of intransitive verb, and a few transitive verbs could also function as modal auxiliary, modal auxiliaries or as prepositions. Adverbs described the scope of a statement or various temporal relationships. They included two families of negatives starting with and , such as and . Modern northern varieties derive the usual negative from the first family, while southern varieties preserve the second. The language had no adverbs of degree until late in the Classical period. Chinese particle, Particles were function words serving a range of purposes. As in the modern language, there were sentence-final particles marking imperative mood, imperatives and yes/no questions. Other sentence-final particles expressed a range of connotations, the most important being , expressing static factuality, and , implying a change. Other particles included the subordination marker and the nominalizing particles (agent) and (object). Conjunction (grammar), Conjunctions could join nouns or clauses.


Sentence structure

As with English and modern Chinese, Old Chinese sentences can be analysed as a subject (grammar), subject (a noun phrase, sometimes understood) followed by a predicate (grammar), predicate, which could be of either nominal or verbal type. Before the Classical period, nominal predicates consisted of a copula (linguistics), copular particle followed by a noun phrase: The negated copula is attested in oracle bone inscriptions, and later fused as . In the Classical period, nominal predicates were constructed with the sentence-final particle instead of the copula , but was retained as the negative form, with which was optional: The copular verb () of Literary and Modern Chinese dates from the Han period. In Old Chinese the word was a near
demonstrative Demonstratives (list of glossing abbreviations, abbreviated ) are words, such as ''this'' and ''that'', used to indicate which entities are being referred to and to distinguish those entities from others. They are typically deictic; their meaning ...
('this'). As in Modern Chinese, but unlike most Tibeto-Burman languages, the basic word order in a verbal sentence was subject–verb–object: Besides inversions for emphasis, there were two exceptions to this rule: a pronoun object of a negated sentence or an interrogative pronoun object would be placed before the verb: An additional noun phrase could be placed before the subject to serve as the topic (linguistics), topic. As in the modern language, yes/no questions were formed by adding a sentence-final particle, and requests for information by substituting an
interrogative pronoun An interrogative word or question word is a function word In linguistics Linguistics is the science, scientific study of language. It encompasses the analysis of every aspect of language, as well as the methods for studying and modeling them ...
for the requested element.


Modification

In general, Old Chinese modifiers preceded the words they modified. Thus relative clauses were placed before the noun, usually marked by the particle (in a role similar to Modern Chinese ''de'' ): A common instance of this construction was adjectival modification, since the Old Chinese adjective was a type of verb (as in the modern language), but was usually omitted after monosyllabic adjectives. Similarly, adverbial modifiers, including various forms of negation, usually occurred before the verb. As in the modern language, time adjunct (grammar), adjuncts occurred either at the start of the sentence or before the verb, depending on their scope, while duration adjuncts were placed after the verb. Instrumental and place adjuncts were usually placed after the verb phrase. These later moved to a position before the verb, as in the modern language.


Vocabulary

The improved understanding of Old Chinese phonology has enabled the study of the origins of Chinese words (rather than the characters with which they are written). Most researchers trace the core vocabulary to a
Sino-Tibetan Sino-Tibetan, also known as Trans-Himalayan in a few sources, is a family of more than 400 languages, second only to Indo-European in number of native speakers. The vast majority of these are the 1.3 billion native speakers of Chinese languages ...

Sino-Tibetan
ancestor language, with much early borrowing from other neighbouring languages. The traditional view was that Old Chinese was an isolating language, lacking both
inflection In linguistic morphology Morphology, from the Greek and meaning "study of shape", may refer to: Disciplines * Morphology (archaeology), study of the shapes or forms of artifacts * Morphology (astronomy), study of the shape of astronomical ob ...
and derivation (linguistics), derivation, but it has become clear that words could be formed by derivational affixation, reduplication and compounding. Most authors consider only monosyllabic root (linguistics), roots, but Baxter and Laurent Sagart also propose disyllabic roots in which the first syllable is reduced, as in modern Khmer language, Khmer.


Loanwords

During the Old Chinese period, Chinese civilization expanded from a compact area around the lower Wei River and middle Yellow River eastwards across the North China Plain to Shandong and then south into the valley of the Yangtze. There are no records of the non-Chinese languages formerly spoken in those areas and subsequently displaced by the Chinese expansion. However they are believed to have contributed to the vocabulary of Old Chinese, and may be the source of some of the many Chinese words whose origins are still unknown. Jerry Norman (sinologist), Jerry Norman and Mei Tsu-lin have identified early
Austroasiatic The Austroasiatic languages , also known as Mon–Khmer , are a large language family A language is a structured system of communication used by humans, including speech ( spoken language), gestures (Signed language, sign language) and wri ...
loanwords in Old Chinese, possibly from the peoples of the lower Yangtze basin known to ancient Chinese as the Baiyue, Yue. For example, the early Chinese name ( ) for the Yangtze was later extended to a general word for 'river' in south China. Norman and Mei suggest that the word is cognate with Vietnamese language, Vietnamese (from *''krong'') and Mon language, Mon ''kruŋ'' 'river'. Haudricourt and Strecker have proposed a number of borrowings from the Hmong–Mien languages. These include terms related to rice cultivation, which began in the middle Yangtze valley: * ( ) 'rice seedling' from proto-Hmong–Mien * ( ) 'unhulled rice' from proto-Hmong–Mien A Other words are believed to have been borrowed from languages to the south of the Chinese area, but it is not clear which was the original source, e.g. * ( ) 'elephant' can be compared with Mon ''coiŋ'', proto-Tai and Burmese ''chaŋ''. * ( ) 'chicken' versus proto-Tai , proto-Hmong–Mien and proto-Viet–Muong *''r-ka''. In ancient times, the Tarim Basin was occupied by speakers of
Indo-European The Indo-European languages are a language family native to western and southern Eurasia. It comprises most of the languages of Europe together with those of the northern Indian subcontinent and the Iranian Plateau. Some European languages of ...
Tocharian languages, the source of ( ) 'honey', from proto-Tocharian *''ḿət(ə)'' (where *''ḿ'' is Palatalization (phonetics), palatalized; cf. Tocharian B ''mit''), cognate with English '. The northern neighbours of Chinese contributed such words as ( ) 'calf' – compare Mongolian language, Mongolian ''tuɣul'' and Manchu language, Manchu ''tuqšan''.


Affixation

Chinese philologists have long noted words with related meanings and similar pronunciations, sometimes written using the same character. Henri Maspero attributed some of these alternations to consonant clusters resulting from derivational affixes. Subsequent work has identified several such affixes, some of which appear to have cognates in other Sino-Tibetan languages. A common case is "derivation by tone change", in which words in the departing tone appear to be derived from words in other tones. If Haudricourt's theory of the origin of the departing tone is accepted, these tonal derivations can be interpreted as the result of a derivational suffix . As Tibetan has a similar suffix, it may be inherited from Sino-Tibetan. Examples include: * ( ) 'to exhaust' and ( ) 'exhausted, consumed, ash' * ( ) 'to tie' and ( ) 'hair-knot' * ( ) 'to bring in' and < ( ) 'inside' * ( ) 'to weave' and ( ) 'silk cloth' (compare Written Tibetan ''ʼthag'' 'to weave' and ''thags'' 'woven, cloth') Another alternation involves transitive verbs with an unvoiced initial and passive or stative verbs with a voiced initial: * ( ) 'to see' and ( ) 'to appear' * ( ) 'to mix' and ( ) 'mixed, confused' * ( ) 'to stretch' and ( ) 'long' Some scholars hold that the transitive verbs with voiceless initials are basic and the voiced initials reflect a de-transitivizing nasal prefix. Others suggest that the transitive verbs were derived by the addition of a causative prefix to a stative verb, causing devoicing of the following voiced initial. Both postulated prefixes have parallels in other Sino-Tibetan languages, in some of which they are still productive. Several other affixes have been proposed.


Reduplication and compounding

Old Chinese morphemes were originally monosyllabic, but during the Western Zhou period many new disyllabic words entered the language. For example, over 30% of the vocabulary of the ''
Mencius Mencius ( ); born Mèng Kē (); or Mengzi (; 372–289 BC) was a Chinese Confucian , Shanxi Shanxi (; ; Chinese postal romanization, formerly romanised as Shansi) is a landlocked Provinces of China, province of the China, People's R ...
'' is polysyllabic, including 9% proper names, though monosyllabic words occur more frequently, accounting for 80–90% of the text. Many disyllabic, monomorphemic words, particularly names of insects, birds and plants, and expressive adjectives and adverbs, were formed by varieties of
reduplication In linguistics Linguistics is the scientific study of language A language is a structured system of communication used by humans, including speech (spoken language), gestures (Signed language, sign language) and writing. Most languag ...

reduplication
( /): * full reduplication ( 'repeated words'), in which the syllable is repeated, as in ( ) 'tall and grand' and ( ) 'happy and at ease'. * rhyming semi-reduplication ( 'repeated rhymes'), in which only the final is repeated, as in ( ) 'elegant, beautiful' and ( ) 'oriole'. The initial of the second syllable is often or . * alliterative semi-reduplication ( 'paired initials'), in which the initial is repeated, as in ( ) 'irregular, uneven' and ( ) 'mandarin duck'. * vowel alternation, especially of and , as in ( ) 'busy' and ( ) 'carefree and happy'. Alternation between and also occurred, as in ( ) 'rushing (of wind or water)' and ( ) 'cricket'. Other disyllabic morphemes include the famous ( ) 'butterfly' from the ''Zhuangzi (book), Zhuangzi''. 633h; . More words, especially nouns, were formed by compound (linguistics), compounding, including: * qualification of one noun by another (placed in front), as in ( ) 'quince' (literally 'tree-melon'), and ( ) 'noon' (literally 'middle-day'). * verb–object compounds, as in ( ) 'master of the household' (literally 'manage-horse'), and ( ) 'scribe' (literally 'make-writing'). However the components of compounds were not bound morphemes: they could still be used separately. A number of bimorphemic syllables appeared in the Classical period, resulting from the fusion of words with following unstressed particles or pronouns. Thus the negatives and are viewed as fusions of the negators and respectively with a third-person pronoun .


Notes


References


Citations


Works cited

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * (English translation of ''Wénzìxué Gàiyào'' , Shangwu, 1988.) * * * * * * *


Further reading

* * *


External links

* (review of ) * * * * * * * (review of ) * (review of )
Recent Advances in Old Chinese Historical Phonology
{{Authority control Old Chinese, Subject–verb–object languages Languages attested from the 13th century BC