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how did ancient chinese sound like


iMm0rTaLBoi

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iMm0rTaLBoi

Now we all know that the official language of PRC and ROC is Mandarin. But does anyone know how Chinese might have sounded like back then.....like say a few hundred years ago? The reason i ask this is because the Chinese writing system is not Phonetic and characters represent an idea rather than sounds. Therefore, Chinese must have sounded different back then (Confucious probably spoke very different Chinese). If anyone has any idea or opinions, i would greatly apprieciate that.

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As far as I know, ancient Chinese pronunciation does have big difference from what we speak now. If someone who can speak any dialect of Chinese can go back to the past, say several hundred years ago, maybe he cannot understand anybody. We can see this from some poems and dialects. Some poems have no rhyme if it is recited in Mandarin. But they did have rhyme in the past. Also, many dialects in the southern part of China, for example, Cantonese, maintain some characters of ancient Chinese.

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Yep. What asura said makes sense. I've heard of the same from a teacher of high school. But it's just a saying. Only the ancient people knew how they spoke, hehe.

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Many people say that Cantonese or Minnan are more like the chinese that was spoken in past times. Proof of this is that Chinese poetry sounds better when spoken in these languages.

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From what I recall, there is a work called 切韵 that has allowed scholars to reconstruct a fairly reliable but general view of Tang Dynasty Chinese. If you take the final consonants of Cantonese (including final "m," "p," "t," and "k") and the initials of Wu dialects (including the voiced or murmured consonants), one can get a quick idea of what it sounded like.

There are also reconstructions of the Chinese of a thousand years earlier (circa 600 BCE), based on the rhymes of the 诗经 and based on what is known of related languages, like Tibetan. This reconstruction is very speculative. Among the interesting features is the fact that there may have many words that began with consonant clusters, like "gl." These clusters may explain some of the choices in character phonetics that would otherwise seem strange. It is also thought that this language may not have had any tones at all.

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  • 2 weeks later...
From what I recall' date=' there is a work called 切韵 that has allowed scholars to reconstruct a fairly reliable but general view of Tang Dynasty Chinese. If you take the final consonants of Cantonese (including final "m," "p," "t," and "k") and the initials of Wu dialects (including the voiced or murmured consonants), one can get a quick idea of what it sounded like.

There are also reconstructions of the Chinese of a thousand years earlier (circa 600 BCE), based on the rhymes of the 诗经 and based on what is known of related languages, like Tibetan. This reconstruction is very speculative. Among the interesting features is the fact that there may have many words that began with consonant clusters, like "gl." These clusters may explain some of the choices in character phonetics that would otherwise seem strange. It is also thought that this language may not have had any tones at all.[/quote']

So how exactly do they get these pronounciations if there is absolutely no phonetic writing at that time? Just rhymes or poems like you said? Seems kind of sketchy

And a quick Wikipedia excerpt:

In 1215 Genghis besieged, captured, and sacked the Jin capital of Yanjing (later known as Beijing). The Jin emperor, Xuan Zong, however, did not surrender. Instead, he moved his capital to Kaifeng because of the growing threat of Mongols on the north. There his successors finally were defeated, but not until 1234.

"Jin" "Yan Jing" "Xuan Zong" "Kai Feng"... these are all modern Mandarin syllables, and from some 800 or more years ago. Was that their origional pronounciation?

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"Jin" "Yan Jing" "Xuan Zong" "Kai Feng"... these are all modern Mandarin syllables, and from some 800 or more years ago. Was that their origional pronounciation?

Did you really think the Chinese from some 800 or more years ago wrote "Jin, Yan Jing, Xuan Zong, Kai Feng" in their documents?

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The original question is indeed quite difficult to answer, given the way it is framed.

If we are really to be precise, we actually have to treat the following things differently: the history of characters and graphs, the history of oral Chinese words, the history of which characters were chosen to represent those words, and the history of what pronunciation was chosen to read a particular graph in a particular context. Each of these is a somewhat different animal with its own interesting quirks and curious stories. We also have to recognize that answers for these will vary according to Chinese dialect, time period, and social context.

So how exactly do they get these pronounciations if there is absolutely no phonetic writing at that time? Just rhymes or poems like you said? Seems kind of sketchy

In a nutshell, you are correct. The data are sketchy, and the analyses are not very reliable. Having said that, historical linguistics can give some surprisingly persuasive results where there has been enough data and analysis.

Historical linguistics is a fairly complex field that is hard to summarize in a few paragraphs. I will try to give a sense of some of the “tools” used.

Linguists can compare modern Chinese dialects and make some good guesses as to older forms of the language. Linguists can add to these data the pronunciation of Chinese words given in surrounding languages, such as Korean, Japanese, and Vietnamese. These pronunciations generally derive from borrowings that occurred long ago and so give helpful indications of Chinese pronunciations as far back as the Song Dynasty.

Another useful tactic was to examine how Chinese wrote foreign words and names whose pronunciation we know by other means, such as Buddhist terms borrowed from Pali. From the characters chosen, deductions can be made about pronunciation.

From as far back as the Song or Tang Dynasty (more or less 7th Century?), we have dictionaries with “phonetic” spellings of each of the characters, using one character to show the initial and another to show the “rhyme.” Sometimes, the phonetic elements in the characters themselves, or the fact that certain characters were used interchangeably also gives hints of pronunciation. There are also traditions in various dialects of special reading pronunciation for various individual characters in the classics that all educated people were expected to memorize before the early 20th Century. Some of the special readings also have long histories of documentation in commentaries.

Lastly, linguists make comparisons with what is known or believed about related languages (such as early Tibetan) to supplement their analysis of Chinese. Early Tibetan seems to have preserved many more of the initial consonant clusters than Modern Chinese. The existence of such clusters goes a long way toward explaining why certain phonetic elements were chosen to create some characters.

I do not have the means to reproduce all the special symbols needed to represent the reconstructions shown in some of my books, but here are some watered down examples:

吉 (ji2) *kiet

佶 (ji2) *giet

髻 (ji4) *kied

妥 (tuo3) *t'nwar

绥 (sui2) *sniwer

诿 (wei3) *niwer

桂 (gui4) *kiweg

江 (jiang1) *kung

实 (shi2) *dzit

The result of all this analysis is that quite a lot is probably known about the pronunciation of the Chinese Confucius used; however, it is still not enough to get anything near a complete picture. There is however, a great deal more confidence about Song and Tang Dynasty Chinese, perhaps with the exception of the precise manifestation of the tonal system. There are one or two descriptions of it by contemporaries, but the descriptions are hard to interpret.

I should point out that there are also many gaps in our understanding of the pronunciation of Classical Latin, Ancient Greek, and Old English, despite their use of “phonetic” alphabets. The disparate pronouncing traditions we have inherited from mouth to ear over the centuries do not agree with each other in every detail or with what linguists have been able to determine by analysis.

For more, you can check out this link: http://www.chinese-forums.com/index.php?/topic/1298-chinese-roots-in-other-languages&page=4&pp=10 , look for Shibo77's April 28, 2004 posting, where I gives different versions of the beginning of the Daodejing.

Here is another link I got from Google: http://www.answers.com/main/ntquery;jsessionid=r7on2hqjit2b?method=4&dsid=2222&dekey=Old+Chinese&gwp=8&curtab=2222_1&sbid=lc04b

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  • 1 month later...

Well it sounded pretty much like Chinese you hear in 泉州Quanzhou. Ancient Chinese also called Archaic Chinese is 上古汉语。It is used from the 商Shang dynasty to around the time of the migration during the 东汉eastern Han dynasty. Also at the time it had many names, during the 周Zhou dynasty it was called 雅语Ya2yu3 "Proper Speech", or 中原语Zhong1yuan2 yu3 "Central Plains Speech". It was SOV NA (subject-object-verb, modified-modifier), so if you wanted to say "我吃苹果。"(I eat the apple.) you would say "我苹果吃。"(I the apple eat.) Or "中国"(Central Kingdom) you would say "国中"(Kingdom Central).

There were no tones, except that there is a difference between the quality of a word with a short vowel and a word with a long vowel. The words with short vowels were single vowels(monothongs?) in closed syllables. For example the vowel "i" in the word "bit", is a short vowel because it is in a closed syllable(a syllable that is CVC consonant-vowel-consonant, "b"-"i"-"t"). In Ancient Chinese(Archaic Chinese), there were onnly a few that fitted this pattern because Chinese is very low on consonantal finals. There were only 6. (-p, -t, -k, -m, -n, -ng). These words would later turn into the 入声"Entering Tone" in 中古汉语Middle Chinese. Basically there were no tones.

During the Shang dynasty there wasn't a difference between voiced and voiceless initials.

But the distinction began around the eastern Zhou dyansty.

东周Eastern Zhou dynasty's 19 initials: p-, p'-(ph-), t-, t'-(th-), k-, k'-(kh-), ts-, ts'-(tsh-), b-, d-, g-, l-, m-, n-, dz-, s-, x-(sr-), ng-, ?-. ("?" question mark without the dot, the glottal stop.)

Also some initials of two or more consonants: bl-, dl-, gl-, kl-, sh-, sn-, x-(sr-), ng?-, ngr-, ngk-, gn-, gn?-, gnr-...

It had the vowels, a, e, o, y, also the semi-vowels(semi-consonants), i(looks like a flipped "r"), i(looks like a flipped "sh"), u, y(looks like a flipped and inverted "h"), and diphthongs and triphthongs, all the diphthongs and triphthongs were long vowels.

=================================================================

For Ancient Chinese(Archaic Chinese), there wasn't any rime dictionaries, so there are some methods used, like comparing old dialects with Middle Chinese reconstructions, also many make use of more reliable 通假字(Replacement words?) which are words of the same pronunciation but with different meanings replacing each other. For example: in 孔子Confucius' «论语Analects» "学而时习之, 不易说乎?" "说"to speak is a 通假字 that replaces the actual "悦"pleased. In modern Mandarin they are pronounced 说[shwo55], 悦[jwe51], but in Confucius' time they are of the same pronunciation 说[*ljot], 悦[*ljot] both "o"s are short vowels which became 入声Entering tone characters in 中古汉语Middle Chinese, they also had the same sound component in their characters the "兑" on the right side.

Was this helpful?

-Shìbó :mrgreen:

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Altair

Shibo,

You seem to be much more certain of the data and to go back to a much further date than what accords with my limited reading. I have only read a few chapters on these issues from various books and nothing from materials published in Chinese. As a result, I do not know if my different impressions are based on my limited knowledge, my lack of access to data in Chinese, or something else, like special study you may have done.

What I am wondering the most is if my different impression is based on new scholarship, since a lot of what I have read is probably 10 to 20 years old. Is there really much confidence about Shang dynasty pronunciation? I had thought that much of late Zhou dynasty pronunciation was still quite doubtful. A thousand-year gap is quite a long time.

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Well this is from my textbook «实用古代汉语教程», and my dictionary «古代汉语实用字典» which comes with a grammar booklet. The textbook is last edited in 2005, and the dictionary last edited in 2002. I think it would be pretty new. Also there is a «古代汉语读本», which is basically selected passages from old texts, with some interpretations for us to use as a reference. Lastly «大中华词源辞典» a 2003 edition, which is an etymological dictionary.

Outside China, there are some good linguists who have studied the Chinese language, W Baxter, E Pulleyblank, S Starostin, but I think that is very rare since it is pretty rare to find one who can speak fluent Chinese, there are many more in China.

They aren't confident about pronunciation but are more confident about grammar and little points like initials and finals and tones.

-Shìbó :mrgreen:

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  • 3 years later...
calibre2001

Not to stir up a fire here but I've always found statements that ancient chinese sounded closer to minnanese and cantonese often echoed out in mandarin vs dialect debates. And very often the 'dialect' camp consists mostly of people of minnanese and cantonese descent! Guess self-interests will always be a feature of any claims made.

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They say that Cantonese and Minnanese sound closer to what Ancient Chinese may have sounded like because Cantonese and Minnanese do indeed preserve a lot more of the finals [words may end in a consonant stop - p t k or a glottal stop] and some of the vowel sounds.

This does not mean Mandarin has kept things which Cantonese has lost, although reading ancient poems and the likes, they usually rhyme better in Cantonese - so it is fair to say it probably sounded CLOSER to Ancient Chinese than Mandarin.

Hope this helps.

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The Cantonese themselves believe that their "version" of Chinese is quite similar to ancient Chinese pronunciation

But as far as ancient Chinese is concerned there are also many references to the language of Hakka, an ancient tribe, being very close to Cantonese; If you're looking for interesting linguistic assumptions or other Hakka related stuff see:

http://www.asiawind.com/hakka/language.htm (with references to Hakka rhymes in "Shi Jing" as mentioned by some here)

http://www.asiafinest.com/forum/lofiversion/index.php/t17266.html

http://www.geocities.com/james_lee.geo/Chinesewords.htm

http://news.hongen.com/news/show_107_3700.html

It is also quite possible that ancient Chinese has left traces not only in shaping the respective cultures of Asian nations but also in words of Chinese origin in Japanese, Korean and other southeast Asian languages Take Japanese word for now: いま 'ima' for example, it does sound quite like Cantonese 'yiga' 而家' doesn't it, and has nothing to do with how the word "now" is expressed in contemporary Mandarin (in 粤语 而 is pronounced as 以) :mrgreen: (not to mention the Cantonese affirmative 係 being spoken all over Japan as 'hai' , and many more...)

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No contemporary Chinese language is going to sound exactly like Ancient Chinese - because all Chinese dialects/languages are descendants of Ancient Chinese. Meaning, some dialects have kept certain sounds/words and others have kept different sounds that other dialects may have lost, etc.

Mandain is after all simply a descendant of Old Chinese - it is considered to not be very 'conservative', in that it merged and lost a lot of sounds which were probably found in Old Chinese.

Cantonese, Hakka, etc are said to have sounded more similar to what Old Chinese may have sounded like simply because they did keep a lot more final-stops and vowel disctinctions which Mandarin has lost.

It doesn't mean that those dialects are inherently any 'better' than others just because they are more conservative, it's just simply the way they evolved from Old Chinese - nobody knows exactly how a language will change over a period of time!

Also, not meaning to sound pedantic or anything, but those Japanese words such as 'ima' and 'hai' are probably what're called 'chance resemblances' - nearly every language will have words that sound similar and are similar in meaning to words of another language, but they are not actually related or come from the same source.

For example take the Japanese word 'gaijin' and the Hebrew word 'goyim' both meaning 'foreigner'. You can see the similarity, but they are not related. We can tell this through sound-change patterns.

The sound 'ga' [in 依家] would never have changed into 'ma' in Japanese or vice versa - the way Chinese words (which there are thousands of) are adapted into Japanese has proven this.

Hopes this clears things up!

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HashiriKata
Take Japanese word for now: いま 'ima' for example' date=' it does sound quite like Cantonese 'yiga' 而家' doesn't it

...

Cantonese affirmative 係 being spoken all over Japan as 'hai' [/quote']These are all very interesting but please take them back or I'll take you to court! :mrgreen:

(But I'd forgive you if you haven't heard that Michael Phelps is actually Korean :wink:)

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Those of you who mentioned 闽南语 as sounding closest to what ancient Chinese may have sounded like may actually be quite right, the Chinese say闽南语最难懂, which is absolutely true (sometimes it doesn't really sound like Chinese to me, but neither does Shaghainese:wink:) 据online linguistic debates among the Chinese闽南语是保存古代汉语发音最多的方言,简直可以称得上是语言的活化石。Which go as far as to imply that: 据说屈原复生,唯一可能听懂的也就是闽南语" hmmm, very interesting indeed... 另外呢,有关古汉语“注音字母“ 来源,查看 http://www.zdic.net/appendix/f9.htm

A thousand-year gap is quite a long time

No doubt about that...

Edited by leeyah
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Old Chinese probably had some form of inflection. For example in Fuller's An Introduction to Literary Chinese,

見, pronounced *kens is "to see." Pronounced *ɦkens is "to appear."

*prats "to defeat." *ɦprats "to be defeated."

*dron "to transmit." *drons "a record"

*maj "to grind." *majs "grindstone."

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  • 2 weeks later...
Entropy_Rising

Are there any contexts in which the pronunciation of Ancient Chinese would be preserved? I'm thinking of Eastern Orthodox churches in Slavic countries, and even more so, Oriental Orthodox churches in Armenia. In the services for these churches they use old Slavic and super-ancient Armenian respectively. So while people I've spoken to say they can't understand whatsoever what's being used in their services despite speaking modern Russian/Serbian/Armenian/whatever, these services are obviously real treasure troves when it comes to linguistics trying to reconstruct the ancient spoken language.

Anything similar in Chinese culture? A wedding invocation or something you do at your ancestor's grave or something you do in a Buddhist/Taoist temple?

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lilongyue

At a recent teaching on the "Heart Sutra" (心经) I attended, I was told that the pronunciation of the Chinese transliteration of the Sanskrit word "prajna," which means wisdom, originally sounded much more like the original Sanskrit. The Chinese characters used for "prajna" are 般若, which is pronounced "bo re" in Mandarin Chinese. Although I'm not sure, it may be that the pronunciation of Buddhist mantras, which were transliterations of Sanskrit syllables, may reveal how certain characters were pronounced hundreds of years ago, when the mantras were first transliterated. Would be an interesting study.

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