Bernhard Karlgren
An elderly man with parted white hair, small round glasses, dressed in a tweed suit and tie
Born(1889-10-15)15 October 1889
Jönköping, Sweden
Died20 October 1978(1978-10-20) (aged 89)
Stockholm, Sweden
Alma materUppsala University
Known forPioneering reconstructions of Middle Chinese and Old Chinese
Scientific career
FieldsAncient Chinese linguistics, literature
InstitutionsMuseum of Far Eastern Antiquities
University of Gothenburg
Academic advisorsJohan August Lundell
Notable studentsHans Bielenstein
Göran Malmqvist
Chinese name
Traditional Chinese
Simplified Chinese
Hanyu PinyinGāo Běnhàn

Klas Bernhard Johannes Karlgren (Swedish pronunciation: [ˈbæ̌ːɳaɖ ˈkɑ̂ːɭɡreːn]; 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 conducted large surveys of the varieties of Chinese and studied historical information on rhyming in ancient Chinese poetry, then used them to create the first ever complete reconstructions of what is now called Middle Chinese and Old Chinese.

Early life and education

Bernhard Karlgren was born on 15 October 1889 in Jönköping, Sweden. His father, Johannes Karlgren, taught Latin, Greek, and Swedish at the local high school.[1] Karlgren showed ability in linguistics from a young age, and was interested in Sweden's dialects and traditional folk stories.[2] He mastered classical languages and was an accomplished translator of Greek poetry into his native language. He displayed an early interest in China, and wrote a drama, The White Hind, set in that country in his early teens.[3] His first scholarly article, a phonetic transcription, based on a system devised by Johan August Lundell, of traditional folk stories from his native province of Småland, was completed when he was 14.[4] and published in 1908 when he was only 18 years old.[5] He studied Russian at Uppsala University under Johan August Lundell, a Slavicist interested in comparative linguistics. He graduated in 1909 with a bachelor's degree in Nordic, Greek, and Slavonic languages.[6] Although he initially intended to specialize in the Scandinavian languages, on the advice of his elder brother Anton Karlgren (1882–1973) he decided to focus on Chinese instead,[7] attracted to it also by the fact that, as Lundell had told him, Chinese contained a great number of dialects.[8] He departed for St. Petersburg, which, under the guidance of Vasily Vasilyev, had created one of the major European centres for the study of Chinese. While there, Karlgren, studying under A. I. Ivanov, won a grant to study Chinese dialects, even though he had no background in Chinese at that point.[2]

Karlgren lived in China from 1910 to 1912. He achieved basic fluency and literacy after only a few months of study, and prepared a questionnaire of 3,100 Chinese characters to gather information on Chinese dialects.[2] After his grant money ran out, Karlgren supported himself by teaching French and, famously, English, which, according to one anecdote, he had never been taught but had picked up from English-speaking passengers on the ship from Europe to China.[9] In fact he had received a high credit in English in his final High School exams.[10] He eventually gathered data on 19 different Mandarin dialects, as well as Shanghainese, the Fuzhou dialect of Eastern Min, and Cantonese, plus the Vietnamese and Japanese pronunciations of the characters in his questionnaire.[9]



  1. ^ Malmqvist (2011), p. 1.
  2. ^ a b c Ramsey (1987), p. 126.
  3. ^ Malmqvist (2011), p. 28.
  4. ^ Malmqvist (2011), p. 35.
  5. ^ Malmqvist (1979), p. 142.
  6. ^ Malmqvist (2011), p. 37.
  7. ^ Bielenstein (1979), p. 553.
  8. ^ Malmqvist (2011), pp. 35–36.
  9. ^ a b Ramsey (1987), p. 127.
  10. ^ Malmqvist (2011), p. 36.
  11. ^ "K.B.J. Karlgren (1889–1978)". Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 22 July 2015.
  12. ^ Baxter (1992), p. 3-4.
  13. ^ von Falkenhausen, Lothar (2001). "Review of Göran Malmqvist, Bernhard Karlgren: Ett forskarporträtt". China Review International. 8 (1): 15–33. doi:10.1353/cri.2001.0020.
Works cited
  • Baxter, William H. (1992). A Handbook of Old Chinese Phonology. Berlin, New York: Mouton de Gruyer.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Bielenstein, Hans (1979). "Bernharn Karlgren (1889–1978)". Journal of the American Oriental Society. 99 (3): 553. JSTOR 602522.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Malmqvist, Göran (1979). "Bernhard Karlgren in Memoriam". Journal of Chinese Linguistics. 7 (1): 142–3. JSTOR 23753040.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • ——— (2011). Bernhard Karlgren: Portrait of a Scholar. Bethlehem, PA; Lanham, MD: Lehigh University Press; Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 978-1-61146-001-8.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link) Translation of Göran Malmqvist, Bernhard Karlgren: ett forskarporträtt [Bernhard Karlgren: Portrait of a Scholar], Stockholm: Norstedts. 1995.
  • Ramsey, S. Robert (1987). The Languages of China. Princeton: Princeton University Press.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)