Sunday, May 1, 2011

The evolution of Chinese verbal universe

Without an audio recording device in the ancient time, did the ancient Chinese keep any audio record of their tongue for us? The answer is Yes, via the   (the rhyme book).

I have shown in my last post that the entire Chinese verbal universe is demarcated by the three coordinates, the 聲 (consonant),  the (vowel) and the 4-tones. By knowing two of the three coordinates, the third will be known.  A   (the rhyme book) lists all the and their 4-tones, and it encompasses the entire information of the Chinese verbal universe. Thus, the   is the best audio record for recording the phonetic data of Chinese verbal universe.

The oldest 韻  currently known is the book 切   (check rhyme) which was published during the 隋 朝 [Sui Dynasty (around 580 a.d.)]. While the original book of 切    is no longer exist, its contents are available as quotes from many other books.

The next 韻  (the rhyme book)  is the book of 唐  which was published during the 唐 朝  [Tang Dynasty, from 618 to 907 a.d.].

The 韻  of today is 廣   which was published during the 宋  [Song Dynasty, around 960 a.d.].

During the past 1,400 years, the evolution of Chinese verbal universe is clearly documented with these three 韻  (the rhyme book). As this period is wholly documented, it is called 今  (the modern phonetics), and the period before 580 a.d., it is called 古   (the ancient phonetics).

While there is no official 韻  (the rhyme book) for the 古   (the ancient phonetics) period, the ancient verbal universe can still be analyzed, by looking into the rhymes used in the ancient writings.  Much such analysis was available, such as, the book 音   .

Now, we know that the Chinese verbal universe is marked solely with Chinese characters. So, the written and the verbal systems were merged with the following procedures.

1. There is a set of roots.

2. About five hundred sound modules are constructed from those roots to encompass the entire Chinese verbal universe, the 1,000 distinguishable phonetic points. Please visit 

3. A word (character) is composed of roots and one sound module to provide a unique meaning and a unique phonetic value. An unlimited number of words can be constructed with this procedure. That is, every character carries one sound module (sound tag) either explicitly or implicitly.

4. The phonetic value of a word is used as a coordinate to define the phonetic value of other words in the procedure of 反 切 (reverse checking or engineering). 

5. As the phonetic value of every character is firmly anchored in the verbal universe via a sound module and its 聲 , it has the power and the freedom to acquire more phonetic values without losing itself in the sea of the verbal universe. This is called 破  (breaking the phonetic value), and I will discuss this more in future posts.

Dr. John DeFrancis wrote, “Apart from the error of thinking that Chinese characters are unique in evoking mental images, where Creel and others from Friar Gaspar da Cruz right on down go astray in their characterization of Chinese writing is to succumb to the hypnotic appeal of the relatively few characters that are demonstrable of pictographic origin and to extrapolate from these to the majority if not the entirety of the Chinese written lexicon. The error of exaggerating the pictographic and hence semantic aspect of Chinese characters and minimizing if not totally neglecting the phonetic aspect tends to fix itself very early in the minds of many people, both students of Chinese and the public at large, because their first impression of the characters is likely to be gained by being introduced to the Chinese writing system via some of the simplest and most interesting pictographs, such as those presented at the beginning of Chapter 5. Unless a determined effort is made to correct this initial impression, it is likely to remain as an article of faith not easily shaken by subsequent exposure to different kinds of graphs. This may also explain the oversight even of specialists who are aware of the phonetic aspect in Chinese characters, including such able scholars as Li and Thompson (1982:77), who refer to Chinese writing as ‘semantically, rather than phonologically grounded’ and consider that a character ‘does not convey phonological information except in certain composite logographs where the pronunciation of the composite is similar to one of its component logographs.’ It takes a profoundly mesmerized observer to overlook as exceptions the two-thirds of all characters that convey useful phonological information through their component phonetic.”

Dr. DeFrancis pointed out the ignorance of the mainstream sinologists,
1. The Chinese character set is not a pictograph or ideograph system.
2. Two-thirds of all characters that convey useful phonological information through their component phonetic.

Yet, Dr. DeFrancis was obviously not knowing that Chinese character set is a root-based axiomatic system. It is also a surprise to me that he did not mention about the    (the rhyme book) to support his argument that Chinese  character system is a phonological system. Furthermore, the Chinese characters are 100% phonological, not just two-thirds.

Tienzen (Jeh-Tween) Gong

1 comment:

  1. This is fascinating, 太有意思 :)

    Thanks for sharing.

    Cheers, Brad