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Start of modern meanings in literary Chinese


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Hello, I have a question, if I may.

At what point, and at what rate (if at all) did 'modern' meanings of words start to creep into literary Chinese.

To be more specific, when I am looking up the characters and words in a 17th century text, how many of them are likely to have modern rather than older 'classical' meanings?

Any thoughts/input regarding this point would be greatly appreciated. :clap

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It depends on the text. Is it a vernacular or classical text?

There have been texts written in vernacular since the Song (?) dynasty. Anything written in vernacular will reflect the meanings in use at that time. My understanding of classical Chinese is that while in theory it copied the style and language of the classics, in practice it changed over time as well.

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You'll find that certain words meant certain things at certain times in certain contexts. The meaning may not be "classical" but not necessarily "modern" either. It may have been current at the time of writing but that isn't the same thing. Specialist dictionaries do exist for such things, but that's at a much higher level than I can deal with yet.

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In late imperial China, there were two written languages: wényán 文言, which was used in formal documents, and báihuà 白話, used in more vernacular documents. In writing wényán 文言, emulation of the ancients was paramount, and so you'd be quite likely to see words used in an archaic sense that was no longer current in the spoken language of the time. But of course, there's almost always some interference from other languages and topolects, so even wényán 文言 in late imperial China was not exactly as it was in the days of Confucius.

Then, there was also báihuà 白話, which still diverged quite widely from the spoken topolects of the time. But it was much closer and allowed writers to use vernacularisms more easily than wényán 文言. This old báihuà 白話 isn't exactly the same as the báihuà 白話 which was proclaimed the national written language in the May 4th movement, but it's much closer than wényán 文言. If you'd like to read more about this, I can recommend Ping LI's Modern Chinese: History and Sociolinguistics. It's a fascinating story.

More to the point, if you could tell us which text you're reading, I could perhaps suggest some dictionaries you could consult :)

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Also, it's not like there's any kind of clear distinction between "classical" and "modern" meanings. Particularly for individual characters, they never lose previously held meanings. The biggest process is more binomes forming, so sometimes it's tricky to decide whether or not two characters are a binome or independent words.

As far as dictionaries go, I've always found www.zdic.net to be very comprehensive.

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