What Ancient Chinese Sounded Like — and How We Know It: An Animated Introduction

No stu­dent of Chi­nese has an easy time with pro­nun­ci­a­tion. Even lin­guist Joshua Rud­der, who tells ani­mat­ed sto­ries on his Youtube chan­nel Native­Lang about lan­guages around the world and how they came to be, admits his own strug­gles to get it right. “But late­ly I’ve been bury­ing myself in hun­dreds of pages of Chi­nese lin­guis­tic his­to­ry, and you know what? I’m in good com­pa­ny,” says Rud­der in the intro­duc­tion to the video above, “What ‘Ancient’ Chi­nese Sound­ed Like — and How We Know.” “Chi­nese pro­nun­ci­a­tion puz­zled experts in Chi­na for a long, long time.”

This leads into the sto­ry of one par­tic­u­lar expert, a 19th schol­ar named Chen Li who sought to recov­er Chi­nese pro­nun­ci­a­tions that even then seemed to have been lost to his­to­ry. “How do you recov­er the sounds immor­tal­ized in clas­si­cal texts? How do you make the old poems rhyme again?” And how do you do it when “you have no record­ings, no pho­net­ic tran­scrip­tions, not even an alpha­bet — you’re work­ing with char­ac­ters.” Ah yes, char­ac­ters, those thou­sands of logograms, evolved over mil­len­nia, that still today bedev­il any­one try­ing to get a han­dle on the Chi­nese lan­guage, not exclud­ing the Chi­nese them­selves. That goes espe­cial­ly for some­one as lin­guis­ti­cal­ly ambi­tious as Chen Li.

Chen Li’s research on the cor­rect pro­nun­ci­a­tion of ancient Chi­nese brought him to the Qieyun, an even then-1200-year-old dic­tio­nary of fan­qie (反切), or the pro­nun­ci­a­tion of sin­gle char­ac­ters described by using com­bi­na­tions of oth­er char­ac­ters. (On Wikipedia, you can find assem­bled links to scanned frag­ments of the text cur­rent­ly held in places like the British Library and the Bib­lio­thèque nationale de France.) Draw­ing on not just the Qieyun but oth­er sources as well, Chen Li’s painstak­ing work of recon­struct­ing old pro­nun­ci­a­tions over­turned the long-stand­ing teach­ing that the Chi­nese lan­guage had 36 ini­tial con­so­nant sounds. He found that it had 41. But even after that dis­cov­ery, the nature of these “pre­cise sounds” remained unknown, an incom­plete­ness of knowl­edge chipped away at by the Swedish schol­ar Bernard Karl­gren in the 1900s, who took into account “the many liv­ing vari­eties” of the Chi­nese lan­guage.

Oth­er Asian lan­guages with vocab­u­lary descend­ed from Chi­nese also come in to play. Rud­der takes the exam­ple of the word for “coun­try,” pro­nounced guó (國) in mod­ern Man­darin but kuk in Kore­an (국), koku in Japan­ese (国), and kuək in Viet­namese (quốc), all sug­gest­ing a com­mon ancient Chi­nese ances­tor word end­ing in a K‑like con­so­nant sound. But how­ev­er much progress has been made, this research into “ancient” Chi­nese has turned out to be research into a lin­guis­tic peri­od of “mid­dle Chi­nese,” which reveals evi­dence of “an even old­er lan­guage to uncov­er, a thou­sand years old­er still.” The work of a lin­guis­tic his­to­ry, just like the hum­bler work of a Chi­nese lan­guage-learn­er, is nev­er done.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Free Chi­nese Lessons

What Ancient Latin Sound­ed Like, And How We Know It

What Did Etr­uscan Sound Like? An Ani­mat­ed Video Pro­nounces the Ancient Lan­guage That We Still Don’t Ful­ly Under­stand

What Did Old Eng­lish Sound Like? Hear Recon­struc­tions of Beowulf, The Bible, and Casu­al Con­ver­sa­tions

Hear What the Lan­guage Spo­ken by Our Ances­tors 6,000 Years Ago Might Have Sound­ed Like: A Recon­struc­tion of the Pro­to-Indo-Euro­pean Lan­guage

A Map of How the Word “Tea” Spread Across the World

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • Sean says:

    This is cool.

    Per­haps in the near future Chi­nese 11th graders will get the oppor­tu­ni­ty to mem­o­rize the open­ing stan­zas of 乔叟’s “坎特伯雷故事集” in its “orig­i­nal” Mid­dle Chi­nese.

    Are there clues about Mid­dle and Old Chi­nese left in all the dialects of Chi­nese and the sur­round­ing nations lan­guages?

    And what dates/time frames are we talk­ing about here?

  • Frank Chin says:

    I speak Man­darin, Can­tonese, and a coun­try dialect called Taisan. Dis­cov­ered Taisan is the clos­est to Mid­dle Chi­nese, where many expres­sions these days are pol­ly syl­la­ble is today mono syl­la­ble in Mid­dle Chi­nese. Also, pro­nun­ci­a­tion is clos­er to Japan­ese when Chi­nese was bor­rowed by the Japan­ese. In Taisan, “we” “they” are mono syl­la­ble was it’s not in mod­ern dialects.

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