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  • G. Sampson, “A Chinese Phonological Enigma”:Four Comments
  • Wolfgang Behr


One point made by Professor Sampson, which cannot be emphasized too much given the rampant back-projection of Standard Mandarin syllable structure onto Old Chinese realities in the literature, is that “homophony in the Old Chinese of three thousand years ago may not have been strikingly greater than in modern European languages.” (p.2.) This could be shown in a sober statistical manner, of course, by looking at textual occurrences of distinct syllables in a good OC reconstruction. Over the years, however, I have come to prefer to demonstrate that point in classes and lectures in a more intuitive way (Behr 2009), by using Y.R. Chao’s (1892–1982) famous “Story of Mr. Shī eating a lion” ( Shī shì shí shī shǐ).1 The story, first written in the 1930ies and later circulated in several versions, whose mildly funny contents need not to be detailed here2, is formulated in a pseudo-classical wényán . In its most commonly cited version it contains a total of 94 characters, 31 of them different, which map onto four tonally distinct, but segmentally fully identical syllables pronounced <shi> in Modern Mandarin. However, even with such an artificially constructed piece of prose, intended to display a maximum of homophony in Modern Mandarin pronunciation while using the grammar of Classical Chinese, the text would have been fully intelligible in Old Chinese. If we transpose the [End Page 719] small narrative into a current state-of-the-art reconstruction, e.g. Baxter and Sagart (2014), we obtain a text which is built from 22 different lexical roots with various affixes and, crucially, has no homophones at all outside identical lexemes (cf. Appendix I).

In nuce, this point was made by Karlgren more than half a century ago (Karlgren 1951, cf. for the background Malmqvist 2011: 220), but it continues to be ignored, even in the linguistic literature on Classical Chinese. Ultimately, the reasons for this ignorance stem from the central role of monosyllabicity – a term used since González de Mendoza’s (1545–1618) Historia de las cosas más notables, ritos y costumbres del gran reyno de la China of 1585 – in “alterity” constructions of Chinese as a defective, aberrant, alternatively “natural” or “highly artificial” isolating language vis-à-vis inflecting and agglutinating languages in Europe (cf. Ineichen 1987 for the history of the term).

Apart from distinctions preserved in Middle Chinese rhyme dictionaries and tables, the reconstructed phonology of OC is based to a considerable degree on distinctions retrievable from the rhyming behavior of characters in the Shījīng , the current text of which can be shown to contain Zhōu and Hàn phonological elements (Baxter 1991), as well as on consistency patterns of phonophric elements in the writing system which mostly somewhat preceede that stage. Its prosody is on the whole charactersistic of tetrasyllabic metrical types and reduplication practices first seen in bronze inscriptions datable to the Chūnqiū period (Behr 2004, forthc.). It is therefore safe to assume that down to the lifetime of Confucius, there was no pressure whatsoever on the writing system to differentiate between homophones, since they simply did not occur frequently in the spoken language. Indeed, it can be argued with Sagart (2006) and in view of many Warring States mss. which show great variability of semantic classifiers (bùshǒu , lit. ‘class heads’)3 in phonologically fairly stable orthographies, that the writing system of the Eastern Zhōu period functioned like a large, if somewhat defective syllabary, where a given syllable of the spoken language typically had one (and only one) phonophoric exponent. Even after the largescale loss of derivational morphology and of consonant clusters with the political transition to the Empire and the ensuing dialect mixture and creolization with Tibeto-Burman and other genealogically unrelated language families [End Page 720] in what is now Southern China through intensive and prolonged contact during the period of Hàn expansion and the Early Medieval population dispersals (DeLancey 2011, 2013), the gulf between the writing system and the phonologies represented by it will typically have been non-insurmountable. Taking tonality into account...


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