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  • A phonological history of Chinese by Zhongwei Shen
  • Hongyuan Dong
A phonological history of Chinese. By Zhongwei Shen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020. Pp. xxxvi, 404. ISBN 9781107135840. $110 (Hb).

In this book, Zhongwei Shen provides a complete account of the phonological history of Chinese, from Old Chinese in the first millennium bc to Modern Mandarin. Drawing on his own research, [End Page 648] and also findings by other scholars, S introduces the reader to the state of the art in the research of the historical phonology of Chinese, presenting a critical assessment of the field as well as laying the foundation for future research directions.

The ten chapters in this book are organized into six parts. Ch. 1, which explains traditional Chinese phonological terminology, can be used as a reference manual on its own. The remaining chapters are arranged chronologically, presenting research in Old Chinese, Middle Chinese, the origins of Mandarin, and developments from Old Mandarin to Modern Mandarin. For each period of the language, S discusses source materials, methods, various proposals, debates, and phonological systems, with the help of images of original texts, tables, and annotated examples. As the title of the book suggests, its main content is a detailed description of the phonological properties of each period in the development of Chinese. In this review, I choose to focus on some of the discussions that are theoretically or methodologically significant. Since the book contains a synthesis of research results from different scholars, including the author's own, it should be noted that the author does not necessarily agree with viewpoints presented in this book, as stated in the preface (xxxiv).

On the methodological front, S calls for more research emphasis on language contact (6). The comparative method has been applied to Chinese, with alterations, to yield abundant research findings. There have also been attempts to provide a family tree for the Sinitic branch of the Sino-Tibetan family. S, however, argues that language contact is actually the driving force in the formation of Chinese dialects (384). With cultural expansions throughout history in what is geographically China today, various ethnic groups gradually adopted the Chinese language via language shift. For example, certain features of the Yue dialects, such as the existence of more than two entering tones and a contrast in vowel length, can be explained as influences from Tai languages on Chinese (384). Such methodological discussions are very much needed, although they are still quite brief here, with no further technical detail.

One important aspect of the book is its explicit discussions of the foundational issues concerning the nature and quality of written records of Chinese. S points out that the availability and reliability of source materials vary across the whole history of Chinese. This in turn affects the methods and conclusions. S proposes five criteria as measures of quality of written records, regarding the time and location, as well as the type and systematicity of information about phonological categories and phonetic values that can be retrieved (52). For example, Old Chinese can be studied via poetry rhyming and phonological information in Chinese characters. But poetry rhyming provides only phonological categories, not phonetic values. Such information is not systematic, and the base dialect is not clear either. In comparison, as sources for Old Chinese, Chinese characters are considered to be either poor or incomplete in terms of the five criteria (53). To further complicate the situation, information retrieved from different sources may be inconsistent. Old Chinese as a reconstructed system is therefore not a language in its strict sense because the source materials contain information on different times or spaces (59). Similar problems exist in Middle Chinese and Old Mandarin, albeit to lesser extents. A related issue is the hybrid nature of written standards of all major stages of Chinese. S argues that all of these standards may contain archaic and/or various dialectal features, thus being removed from any actual spoken dialect at different times, although I would like to suggest that some of these standards, such as Old Mandarin, may be closer to spoken dialects than the others. Due to such issues as mentioned above, S uses the notation A > B...