Indo-European vocabulary in Old Chinese : a new thesis on the emergence of Chinese language and civilization in the late Neolithic age

  • This study is a much expanded version of the paper I read at the XXXII International Congress for Asian and North African Studies on August 28, 1986 in Hamburg (Germany). Contents 1. Recent developments in the field of historical linguistics 2. Monosyllabic structure of Chinese words and Indo-European stems 3. Tonal accents of Middle Chinese 4. Preliminaries on the comparison of consonants and vowels 5. Some IE stems corresponding to Chinese words of entering tone 6. Middle Chinese tones and final consonants of IE stems 7. Some IE stems corresponding to Chinese words of rising tone 8. Some IE stems corresponding to Chinese words of vanishing tone 9. Some IE stems corresponding to Chinese words of level tone 10. Reconstruction of Middle Chinese vocalism according to Yün-ching 11. Old Chinese vocalism 12. Vocalic correspondences between Chinese and IE 13. Initials of Old Chinese 14. Initial consonant clusters in Old Chinese as seen from IE-stems 15. Proximity of Chinese to Germanic 16. Relation of Old Chinese to neighboring languages 17. Emergence of Chinese Empire and language in the middle of the third millennium B.C. Appendix * Abbrevations * Bibliography * Rhyme Tables of Early Middle Chinese (600) * Rhyme Tables of Early Mandarin (1300) * Word Index o English o Pinyin In 1786, just over two hundred years ago, comparative historical linguistics was born, when Sir William Jones (1746-1794) discovered the relationship between Old-Indian Sanskrit, Greek, and Latin. Since then, the emerging Indo-European philology has thrown much light on the early history of mankind in Eurasia. During the past two hundred years, many suggestions were also made in regard to relationships of Indo-European to other languages such as Semitic, Altaic, Austronesian, Korean etc., but Indo-Europeanists commonly rejected such attempts for want of convincing evidence. As to Chinese, Joseph Edkins was the first to advance the thesis of its proximity to Indo-European. In his work China's Place in Philology. An Attempt to show that the Language of Europe and Asia have a Common Origin (1871) he presented a number of Chinese words similar to those of Indo-European. In his time, Edkins' thesis seemed bold and extravagant. But today, more than a hundred years later, we are in a much better position to carry out a comprehensive and well-founded comparative study. Since the end of the nineteenth century, many Sinologists have been engaged in reconstruction of the mediaeval and archaic readings of Chinese characters. Among them, Karlgren (1889-1978) was the most successful, and in 1940 he published a comprehensive phonological and etymological dictionary entitled Grammata Serica. In the meantime, the Indo-Europeanists Alois Walde (1869-1924) and Julius Pokorny (1887-1970) were devoting themselves to the compilation of a useful etymological dictionary. The result was the Indogermanisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch by Pokorny (1959) which provides a solid basis for our lexical comparisons. Soon thereafter, some Sinologists made use of the two dictionaries by Karlgren and Pokorny to compare Chinese and Indo-European words. In 1967, an unaffiliated German scholar, Jan Ulenbrook, published an article "Einige Übereinstirnrnungen zwischen dem Chinesischen und dem Indogermanischen", in which he claimed that 57 words are related. Shortly afterwards, Tor Ulving of the University of Goteborg, Sweden, wrote a review of this article framing the title as a question: "Indo-European elements in Chinese?" While working on his thesis on word families in Chinese, Ulving compiled for his own use two dictionaries: "Archaic Chinese - English" and "English - Archaic Chinese", and discovered thereby 238 Chinese words similar to Indo-European roots. In spite of this considerable number of word equivalents, however, Mr. Ulving became discouraged and, as he told me in his letter of April, 1986, has given up his researches in this field. The skepticism, common among Indo-Europeanists in regard to comparative studies with other languages, is largely based on the dogmatic opinion that only morphology is relevant but not vocabulary. Since the typology of Chinese seems to preclude a cognate relation to Indo-European, they are inclined to discard any lexical correspondences as merely accidental or onomatopoetic. Besides, prehistorical contacts and mixtures between these languages seem not conceivable, as the Indo-Europeans are supposed to have originated in Northern Europe or at best in the Central Asian steppe, thousands of miles away from East Asia. Hence, any research into a relationship between Old Chinese and Indo-European languages would be but futile from the outset. Yet there are also opposing views among Indo-Europeanists. Investigations into Germanic languages and the oldest Indo-European language, Hittite, led some of them to a critical revision of the prevailing conception about a Proto-Indo-European. Hermann Hirt (1934) for instance states: "Inflexion of Indo-European languages is due to a relatively late development, and its correct comprehension can be achieved only by proceeding from the time of non-inflexion." And Carl Karstien (1936) holds the opinion that "Chinese corresponds most ideally to the hypothetic prototype of Indo-European." Regarding vocabulary, there are striking similarities in the monosyllabic structure of the basic words. In modern German and English, all the words of everyday speech are monosyllabic and their stereotypical structure is: initial consonant(s) + vowel(s) + final consonant(s). The same word structure is valid for Chinese as well. It is fundamentally different from the disyllabic structure of Altaic words and from the triconsonantal-disyllabic structure of Semitic words. Characteristic of the monosyllabic word structure is, besides, the complexity of the syllable nucleus, which consists of different vowels and vowel clusters in contrast to the monophthongal vocalism of polysyllabic words. Another objection raised to comparisons between Chinese and Indo-European is the existence of tonal accents in Chinese. Since most modern Indo-European languages have only expiratory accents, Chinese is considered to be a highly exotic language. Yet, even in Chinese, the use of tonal accents as a means of lexical differentiation is a result of comparatively recent development in the long history of Chinese language, the earliest monuments of which date back to 1300 B.C. (cf. Chang 1970, p.21). Unknown to Old Chinese, the existence of tonal accents was for the first time mentioned in the 5th century by Shen Yüeh (441-513). In Middle Chinese (Mch.) there were four tone categories: A P'ing-sheng 平 a level tone (which developed into Mandarin tone 1 or 2). B Shang-sheng 上 a rising tone (Mandarin tone 3). C Ch'u-sheng 去 a vanishing, i.e. falling tone (Mandarin tone 4). D Ju-sheng 入 an entering tone with a staccato effect, the word being abruptly stopped by a final consonant -p, -t, -k. (In Early Mandarin the words of this tone lost their final consonant and were distributed among the tones 2, 3 and 4, respectively according to the phonation of initials). In Middle Chinese, words of the entering tone were the only group which still preserved the final stops and therefore a close syllabic structure. So they are most appropriate for convincing comparisons with monosyllabic Indo-European word stems. The final stops -p, -t, -k of the entering tone are nowadays still extant in daily speech of several dialects in South China as well as in Chinese borrowings in Japanese, Vietnamese and Korean. As a speaker of a Taiwan dialect of Minnan origin, I could immediately identify some Indo-European stems with corresponding Chinese words. Besides, the command of Japanese and German was also a great help for this study. In the following lists I have chosen a number of Indo-European stems which are phonetically and semantically equivalent to Chinese words. Correspondences in initial and final consonants refer to the points of articulation, thus we have equations: IE labials = Old Chinese labials, IE dentals = dentals, IE l, r = dentals (cf. p. 31); Ø, i (final and medial) IE velars = velars and laryngeals, and occasionally (the so-called "satem"-forms) IE velars = dental sibilants and affricates. Regarding the manner of articulation, there are no regular correspondences between Indo-European and Chinese consonants like Grimm's law which is valid among Indo-European dialects to a certain extent. But this is not astonishing, since in Old Chinese the alternation of initials in voicing was a conventional means of creating new words from one basic form. The rules of vocalic correpondences among Indo-European dialects are quite complex. Vowels permanently change their qualities from one language to another, and from time to time within one language also, as is well known from the history of English pronunciations. Generally, the vocalism of Old Greek is taken as the standard for Proto-Indo-European. Old Chinese vowels corresponds nearly (cf. p. 30), but the details about the reconstruction of Middle and Old Chinese vocalism will be treated later (pp. 26-30). For the moment, it is necessary to notice in advance that the stem of ablauting Germanic verbs is the form of preterite or noun, rather than that of infinitive as assumed hitherto. Therefore, in some cases I must slightly modify the basic vowel of verbal stems given in Pokorny, in order to get better basis for comparison. As Old Chinese verbs were non-flexional, they might probably have preserved the original vowel the best.

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Author:Tsung-tung Chang
Parent Title (German):Sino-platonic papers, 7
Publisher:niv., Department of Asian Languages and Civilizations
Place of publication:Philadelphia, Pa.
Document Type:Book
Date of Publication (online):2009/10/07
Year of first Publication:1988
Publishing Institution:Universitätsbibliothek Johann Christian Senckenberg
Release Date:2009/10/07
Page Number:78
Sino-Platonic Papers is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License. To view a copy of this license, visit or send a letter to Creative Commons, 543 Howard Street, 5th Floor, San Francisco, California, 94105, USA.
Source:Sino-platonic papers, 7 ; Philadelphia, Pa. : Univ., Department of Asian Languages and Civilizations, 1988
Institutes:Sprach- und Kulturwissenschaften / Sprachwissenschaften
Dewey Decimal Classification:4 Sprache / 49 Andere Sprachen / 490 Andere Sprachen
Licence (German):License LogoCreative Commons - Namensnennung-Keine kommerzielle Nutzung-Weitergabe unter gleichen Bedingungen