History of the Chinese Language


The Historical Phonology of Chinese

In his monumental work, Etudes sur la phonologie chinoise (1925-26), the great Swedish sinologue Bernhard Karlgren divided the long history of Chinese phonology into the following periods:

Proto-Chinese:  the period preceding the earliest literary documents

Archaic Chinese: the language of the Shijing (The Book of Poetry), c 1000 BC

Ancient Chinese: the language of the seventh century AD rhyme dictionary, the Qieyun

Middle Chinese:   the language of the Song dynasty rhyme tables

Old Mandarin:      the language of the Miny dynasty dictionary, the Hongwu Zheyun

Few present-day Chinese linguists would agree with this periodicization in all its details.  Karlgren’s Proto-Chinese is beyond the reach of the historical linguist who limits himself to Chinese materials exclusively, and hence is not a part of Chinese linguistic history proper. His terms “Archaic” and “Ancient Chinese” have now generally been replaced by more conventional and convenient terms “Old Chinese” (for Archaic Chinese) and “Middle Chinese” (for Ancient Chinese).

The Modern Standard Chinese

At the present time China (both the mainland and Taiwan) has an officially recognized standard language which is taught in the schools and employed in all governmental and official transactions. This situation is relatively recent development (Norman, 133).

Perhaps the most unusual feature of Modern Standard Chinese ( MSC), is that it does not exist at present as a common tangible fact in the way that, say, Modern Standard English does in the English-speaking world. By this we do not mean to say that there is no such thing as Modern Standard Chinese. The overwhelming majority of educated speakers of all Chinese dialects share a feeling that some forms, namely those used by educated speakers of Peking dialect, are “better” or more “correct” than others in oral and written communication and most of them agree on what forms these are, although they are usually much more liberal about it than speakers of European languages.

The term Modern Standard Chinese, or rather Modern Chinese which is the current term used with a chronological significance, may be and frequently is understood in at least two ways. Many sinologues use the term Modern Chinese in opposition to Classical Chinese: when used in this sense, the term denotes mainly the written style of modern, that is twentieth-century Chinese literature and also the similar style of earlier prose, namely the great Ming and Ch’ing novels, belonging to the sphere of the so-called popular literature which was not considered a par of the officially recognized literary production.  The term Modern Standard Chinese will also be understood in the linguistic sense: it will denote, roughly speaking, the language used today by educated speakers of Peking dialect which most speakers of other Chinese dialects consider as the “correct” form of oral communication and in whose favor they adjust their own speech behavior (Kratochvil, 21).

The Chinese Calligraphy