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Reviewed by:
  • Koguryo, the Language of Japan's Continental Relatives: An Introduction to the Historical-Comparative Study of the Japanese-Koguryoic Languages with a Preliminary Description of Archaic Northeastern Middle Chinese
  • Thomas Pellard (bio)
Koguryo, the Language of Japan's Continental Relatives: An Introduction to the Historical-Comparative Study of the Japanese-Koguryoic Languages with a Preliminary Description of Archaic Northeastern Middle Chinese. By Christopher I. Beckwith. Brill's Japanese Studies Library, vol. 21. Leiden: Brill, 2004. 274 pages. $124.00 cloth.

This volume is an attempt to recover the ethnolinguistic history of the ancient Korean kingdom of Goguryeo/Koguryŏ (henceforth Koguryŏ), recently brought to the attention of the public by a politico-historical controversy. It focuses on the reconstruction of the Koguryŏ language and its relations to other languages, which will also be the main object of this review, but also encompasses connected subjects such as Chinese historical phonology, the origins of the Japanese language and people, and the Altaic theory and even devotes a whole chapter to various broader linguistic issues.

Beckwith proceeds in this volume to a philological investigation of the "Old Koguryŏ" (OKog) toponyms recorded in the twelfth-century Korean history Samguk sagi and also takes a look at the fragments of the "Archaic Koguryŏ" language (AKog) found in older Chinese chronicles. Interpreting these transcriptions in Chinese phonograms through his personal version of Chinese historical phonology, Beckwith gives then a reconstruction of the phonological system of his OKog, as well as 139 Koguryŏ words, out of which he identifies about a hundred cognates with Japanese.

Beckwith concludes that the Koguryŏ and Japanese languages are genetically related, as already assumed by many scholars, but rejects the Korean and Altaic connections. Actually, Beckwith dismisses the Altaic theory as a whole, even the convergence theory, by denying the very existence of an Altaic typology. For Japanese, he rejects all forms of Altaic, Korean, Austronesian, and, of course, the mixed language theories. In his view, Japanese and Koguryŏ are in "an exclusive close genetic relationship" (p. 183).

Beckwith then tries to back up his theory with historical background and discuss at length the history and the archeology of Northeast Asia. Arguing for lexical and typological similarities with the Sino-Tibetan languages, he hypothesizes about ancient contacts and concludes that the Proto-Japanese-Koguryŏic homeland was located in Southern China or Southeastern Asia. The Japanese-Koguryŏic speakers would have migrated to the North, some of them remaining on the continent to form the Puyŏ-Koguryŏic people in Manchuria and Korea, others moving by sea to Southern Korea and to the North of Kyūshū, where they became the ancestors of the Japanese people.

Unfortunately, Beckwith's ambitious work is heavily flawed in many aspects, of which I will provide only a few examples. First, I deplore the general opacity of his methodology, since most of his reconstructions are his own, quite different from the ones adopted in mainstream Chinese (Baxter 1992; Sagart 1999; Starostin 1989, 1998–2003) and Japanese (Martin 1987) historical phonology, and it is unclear how they were arrived at. His comparisons thus use reconstructions that are too often problematic, sometimes simply incorrect, or, worse, just circular.

For instance, the mysterious Proto-Japanese (PJ) *mika < *miak 'eye' (p. 157) is simply teleological: the Hateruma form "miŋ" (said ad hoc to go back to *miŋa) quoted as evidence is simply the regular reflex of Proto-Ryukyuan *me, with a lexicalized nasal suffix (Martin 1987: 74–75; Oyler 1997). Similarly, the reconstructions of PJ *rmaj > ume 'plum' and *rmey > umi 'sea' (pp. 146–47) are completely ad hoc. They are supported by neither internal nor comparative method, and such consonant clusters have never been posited for PJ. The Yaeyama form "mmi" quoted as evidence (p. 147) cannot be found in Hirayama's reference dictionary (1988: 139-40; Yaeyama dialects forms are recent loans from mainland dialects since plums don't grow there). Anyway, both words cannot be reconstructed with the same onset since umi doesn't exhibit the m-/ø- alternation of mume/ume in Japanese, and both words have completely different Ryukyuan reflexes (Shuri ?Nmi 'plum' vs. ?umi 'sea'). Their putative Chinese sources don't...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1529-1529
Print ISSN
0145-840X
Pages
pp. 167-170
Launched on MUSE
2006-04-17
Open Access
No
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