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how did ancient chinese sound like


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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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The Sanskrit is ancient India language. Spreaded abroad to China going with Buddhism.

Now in China only few people know it. 季羡林 is the authority in this area.

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I don't think it would sound as similar as you might think. For example, 若 definitely ended with -k or -ks or something.

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lilongyue
I don't think it would sound as similar as you might think. For example, 若 definitely ended with -k or -ks or something.

How do you know? Is there a website you're referencing?

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In Cantonese, 若 is joek6, which seems to be a descendent of 【唐韻】而灼切【集韻】【韻會】【正韻】日灼切。*ȵjak

Nevertheless, in the Song Dynasty, the -k stop seemed to be lost in 《廣韻》: 又【廣韻】人者切,音惹。乾草也。 又般若,梵語謂智慧也。*ȵja

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lilongyue
The Sanskrit is ancient India language. Spreaded abroad to China going with Buddhism.

Now in China only few people know it. 季羡林 is the authority in this area.

Some Buddhist monks still study Sanskrit. They study it in 佛学院. The average Chinese wouldn't know anything about it. The person giving the talk I attended was a very old and knowledgeable monk.

In Cantonese, 若 is joek6, which seems to be a descendent of 【唐韻】而灼切【集韻】【韻會】【正韻】日灼切。*ȵjak

Nevertheless, in the Song Dynasty, the -k stop seemed to be lost in 《廣韻》: 又【廣韻】人者切,音惹。乾草也。 又般若,梵語謂智慧也。*ȵja

Thanks, that's very interesting, and confirms what I was told.

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melop got it. Still, Tang and Song Chinese are considered Middle Chinese. And the -ks is just my wild guessing. It's not improbable though.

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Well, I'm talking about Old Chinese. At the beginning of Chinese civilization, it only covered the northern plains, so I don't think the dialects differed as much as the modern Chinese dialects and languages.

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  • 7 months later...

so according to what I've learnt, it seems to be like this:

- the pronunciation for Middle Chinese (from the 6th century CE) has been quite consistently reconstructed, not just through the comparative method, but also through the fanqie dictionaries some people have mentioned here. Very important feature was that Middle Chinese had voiced obstruents, which Mandarin (and most other Sinitic languages, but not Shanghainese) has lost.

- the pronunciation for Old Chinese is much less clear, and much more controversial, and that's one of the main reasons nobody has published the Analects in reconstructed pronunciation yet. Too many unknowns. However, many people agree that Old Chinese probably did not have tones. Right now the idea that tones arose from different suffixes seems quite strong in the field (similar things have been said for Vietnamese, which was once erroneously held to be related to Chinese). For instance, the fourth tone is said to be a reflection of a final -s, and a suffix -s has been reconstruced, which can also be found in Tibetan: so 王 wàng "to be king" is said to reflect a -s suffix added to 王 wáng "king", likewise the alternations 好 hăo "good" and 好 hào "like" and 惡 è "bad" 惡 wù "hate" (the vowel change is probably due to the fact that 惡 is 入聲)

So indeed Old Chinese is said to have been inflecting, and that's partially still reflected in 破音字 even today.

Most scholars also assume initial clusters such gl-, gr- and the like for Old Chinese, so it can be safely said that no modern Sinitic language comes near this.

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yes, that's one scholar's opinion. It will be different from what Karlgren reconstructed. As I said in my earlier post, for Middle Chinese we have reliable phonological data in form of the 切韻, but the further we go back in time the more speculative reconstruction becomes...

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Most scholars also assume initial clusters such gl-, gr- and the like for Old Chinese.

Some scholars have suggested that the Cantonese pronunciations of certain words (e.g. "corner, nook": 角落頭 g(ok)lok1 tau2; "all, in total": 冚唪唥 ham6 b(aang)laang6) reflect this too.

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Yes, it's definitely true that we know a lot less about Old Chinese phonology than about Middle Chinese phonology. Karlgren's reconstructions of Old Chinese (although certainly a milestone in the field, and a conditio sine qua non) have been much improved by later scholars; the system I personally have seen to have been used most in recent literature on the subject is William Baxter's Handbook of Old Chinese Phonology (1992).

As to its morphology, syntaxis and lexicon: it's only in recent years that there has been serious research into these areas. I would wholeheartedly recommend Laurent Sagart's The Roots of Old Chinese (1999). Makes for fascinating reading. It focuses on Old Chinese morphology (especially its affixation) and its lexicon. It also shows how our knowledge on OC morphology can improve phonological reconstructions. as they are certainly not yet flawless.

So indeed Old Chinese is said to have been inflecting, and that's partially still reflected in 破音字 even today.

It is indeed probably true that such pairs as hǎo and hào go back to the suffixes in OC, but the OC affixation system is quite likely to have been derivational rather than inflectional. That is to say, prefixes, infixes or suffixes would mark changes in word category. Some examples from the sources mentioned above:

- 度 would be pronounced as either *dak 'to measure' or as *dak-s 'measurement'. The suffix -s indicates that the verb *dak has been nominalized. (This is only one of its functions, though). This has probably led to the difference in Mandarin between the duó and dù readings of 度.

- 別 would be pronounced as either *prjet 'to separate' (transitive) or as *N-prjet 'to leave' (intransitive) The prefix *N- turned the transitive verb *prjet into the intransitive verb *N-prjet. This difference is no longer reflected in Mandarin: 別 is pronounced as bié in both cases.

If anyone has any questions or remarks, shoot. I am by no means an expert, but find this subject very interesting and have been reading some of the recent literature on Old Chinese :)

Edited by Daan
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