Teaching Classical Chinese Without Prerequisites.

Victor Mair had a Log post with a suggestion that I found surprising and immediately convincing:

I am strongly opposed to requiring Mandarin as a precondition for the study of LS/CC. I know of many schools that require two, three, or even four years of Mandarin for students who wish to enroll in an introductory LS/CC course. I think that is absolutely ridiculous. I don’t even think that we should require one year of Mandarin for students to take LS/CC. […] I have studied Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, Hindi, Italian, French, etc., and I’m certain that Mandarin is further removed from LS/CC than Italian is from Latin, than Modern Greek is from Classical Greek, or Hindi is from Sanskrit, yet we do not demand that students of Latin first become proficient in Italian, that students of Classical Greek first become proficient in Modern Greek, or that students of Sanskrit first become proficient in Hindi or Bengali, etc. […]

As for the language of instruction, Mandarin would not be a good choice, not only for the reasons outlined above, but also because students who learn LS/CC tend to mix up the two languages and become very sloppy in the precise parsing and explication of the literary / classical language. Furthermore, it means that students whose primary, or only, East Asian language is Japanese, Korean, etc. cannot participate. I welcome students in my Introduction to LS/CC course to recite the texts in Korean, Japanese, Cantonese, and so forth. I have even had students with a background in Sanskrit, Greek, and Sogdian (yes!) and do very well without vocalizing the hanzi / kanji / hanja at all.

At first it seems obvious that one should know the modern form first, but Classical Chinese is so different (I once lived with someone who studied it intensively, so I got some idea) that, as Mair says, acquaintance with it would tend to just muddle your understanding of the ancient language. I encourage others to follow his lead!

Comments

  1. Easy solution: require them vocalise the n̥ˤarsmədzəʔses in reconstructed Old Chinese. They just need a little time to drill saying ʔʷˤ and they’ll be all set.

  2. I just tried saying it and now I have a sore throat. Thanks a lot.

  3. As I’ve said before, modern French is a positive hindrance to learning Old French.

  4. I learnt Latin in school before holidaying in Italy/Spain. I found the Latin vocab helped a lot in reading Italian/Spanish, and somewhat in speaking. With Portuguese less so.

    @JC: I found school French a positive hindrance to speaking the variety of French actuelle in France. But perhaps that says more about the appaling state of language teaching in Britain?

  5. Maybe we should require three-four years of Latin as a pre-condition for students to take first English class.

    After all, about 70% of English vocabulary is from Latin

  6. I learnt Latin in school before holidaying in Italy/Spain. I found the Latin vocab helped a lot in reading Italian/Spanish, and somewhat in speaking.

    But not necessarily the other way round. 🙂

    Unlike with Chinese, with Latin you are still dealing with an alphabet – the alphabet. You can vocalise the words however you like and look them up in the dictionary. You can even learn how to spell them.

    The problem that Eidolon tried to point out in the comments is that Chinese characters can’t be treated the same way. Sure you can read them as Japanese, Vietnamese, or Korean, if you already know them from those languages. But how do you handle Chinese characters if you have no knowledge of them whatsoever? How do you look them up? How do you refer to them? How do you vocalise them? How do you do anything with them? That is something that could have been elaborated on in the post.

    I happen to agree with Mair on this issue, though. Knowing Mandarin doesn’t mean you know Classical Chinese. In fact, the modern language gets in the way. Chinese speakers think they know, but they are, as it were, looking through the glass darkly. (Even a lot of less educated English speakers dealing with earlier stages of English get things totally screwed up — it’s amazing how many people think you can speak early modern English by adding a few -ths or -sts to your verbs without reference to agreement. Imagine how much worse it is with Classical Chinese.)

    As with many of Mair’s posts, this post attacks the ideology — an interlocking set of beliefs — surrounding Chinese language and culture. Chinese tend to reject the idea that Classical Chinese is a dead language like Latin. They see it as just an earlier stage of their own language, so of course they can read it with a little study. And being Chinese, they can comfortably master it from their own modern dialect. Actually, a lot of Chinese will disagree with this (especially those who found it hard in school), but the myth still tends to float around.

  7. People who learn Modern Greek before Ancient Greek tend to absorb the Greek conviction that Ancient Greek was pronounced just like Modern Greek, with unfortunate effects for learning.

  8. My impression was that 99 out of a 100 people who learned ancient Greek before modern Greek end up with a pronunciation that is nothing like the pronunciation of Greek in any period of time, ancient or modern. Am I mistaken about that?

  9. I bet native Mandarin speakers can’t even pronounce sounds of reconstructed Old Chinese

  10. Stephen Carlson says:

    The Erasmian pronunciation of Ancient Greek, subject to national accommodation (unfortunately in America that means the “bother-father” merger), uses the vowels and some of the consonants of the 5th cen. BC with φ, θ, χ of the 2nd or 3rd cen. AD. I’m familiar with some teachers who use a reconstructed Koine pronunciation (effectively Modern Greek, but with υ/οι and η kept distinct).

  11. Stephen Carlson says:

    I agree with Victor Mair. For the sounds of Old Chinese, I like Axel Schuessler the best. It’s very similar to Baxter 1.0 (1992). Baxter 2.0 has gone overboard with the pharyngeal articulations. In my opinion.

  12. (To pursue something I mentioned in an earlier comment)

    An example of -th seemingly being used without reference to grammar is this song:

    The Words That Maketh Murder

    The normal meaning, as I understand it, should be “the words that murder makes”. But this doesn’t seem to be the intended meaning. The lyrics are:

    I’ve seen and done things I want to forget;
    I’ve seen soldiers fall like lumps of meat,
    Blown and shot out beyond belief.
    Arms and legs were in the trees.
    I’ve seen and done things I want to forget;
    Coming from an unearthly place,
    Longing to see a woman’s face
    Instead of the words that gather pace
    The words that maketh murder.
    These, these, these are the words
    The words that maketh murder.
    These, these, these are the words
    The words that maketh murder.
    These, these, these are the words

    Later in the song she changes maketh to make:

    This was something else again.
    I fear it cannot explain.
    The words that make, the words that make
    Murder.

    I can only conclude that she initially used “maketh” because it sounded good.

  13. I use the reconstructed Koine pronunciation myself when I dabble in Greek. Even without distinguishing υ/οι, I find that keeping η distinct is enough to keep all the paradigms from sounding the same. So I don’t see much of an issue if students are coming to ancient Greek from modern Greek.

  14. I agree with Victor that using English as the language of instruction for Classical Chinese in an American university is fine. However, I also think that every PhD candidate in East Asian Studies should be required to learn Mandarin, Japanese, and Korean anyway. If Victor and his colleagues in academia actually maintained some standards instead of passing out degrees to everyone left and right, then the language of instruction in Classical Chinese classes would not be an issue.

  15. When I was studying Chinese history at Kyoto University twenty-five years ago (my, how time flies), the faculty believed that Classical Chinese had to be learned through kun’yomi, and that pronouncing the characters in Mandarin was simply a dodge to cover up a lack of understanding of the text.

  16. “Easy solution: require them vocalise the n̥ˤarsmədzəʔses in reconstructed Old Chinese.”

    Yep.

    Wow. Now that Vajda has made a credible case for linking Yeniseian and Na-Dene, can Sino-Tibetan be far behind?

    At Berkeley in the 70s both were taught concurrently. They’re sufficiently different that no one was very confused, especially since the majority of the Mandarin instruction was Lu Xun and Mao Zedong. The distinction was pretty obvious.

    The question of whether to pronounce the Classical texts in Mandarin didn’t really come up because there was little emphasis on how they were pronounced at all. After all back in that dark and primitive time the reconstructions were very preliminary anyway. When the issue came up, they used Mandarin pronunciation, always with the reminder that this was not how these texts were pronounced in their own day, and the students studying Japanese just stumbled along on their own.

  17. Is Axel Schuessler’s reconstruction very different from BS2.0 other than that he is agnostic about the phonetic difference between Type A and Type B syllables?

    I saw a dictum from Schuessler somewhere where he tentatively supports the idea that Type A had long vowels and Type B short. But is there any typological support for short vowels conditioning palatalisation?

    I tend to sympathize with Miyake’s suggestion of lost presyllables with a low-high vowel contrast, conditioning lowering-breaking and raising-breaking, respectively.

  18. Anonymous Coward says:

    In his satirical essays (雜文 záwén), the part of his œuvre best loved by Chinese readers, Lu Xun wrote in a code-switch between Vernacular and comically correct Classical Chinese. I wonder if these were also read by 70s Berkeley students.

  19. From my perspective as a former student, it depends on the atmosphere you want to cultivate within your class. Without a shared foundation, it is that much more difficult for collaboration between students. If students with a variety of backgrounds are trying to discuss “曰”, they have to first establish a common ground for discussing the character. Is it yuē, jyut6, ɦʉɐt̚ or /*[ɢ]ʷat/? Or “box with line, but not a line that goes all the way across, you know, the one that isn’t ‘sun’ or whatever.” Without an assumed baseline, classroom discussions have the large potential to leave students out of the discussion as they struggle to map one student’s vocalization to their own realization of it.

    That said, the shared foundation can be anything, as long as it is consistent.

    (Hi Professor Rusk, if you still read LanguageHat! Thanks for letting me typeset your Classical Chinese textbook :D)

  20. Anonymous Coward says:


    That’s of course “iwaku”.

  21. There are three wholly separate issues here: 1-Should English be the language of instruction in order to teach Classical Chinese in an American University?, 2-Should a (Modern) Mandarin pronunciation of characters be used within such Classical Chinese courses, and 3-Should students already know Mandarin (and/or some other East Asian language(s)) before studying Classical Chinese?

    The answer to 1 is to my mind unequivocally “Yes”. I would (more tentatively) answer “Yes” to 2 also: my understanding is that in most Classical Chinese teaching today Modern Mandarin pronunciation of characters is used, and thus any Classical Chinese teaching program which forsakes this tradition will make it much more difficult for students to connect with other Classical Chinese learners in other institutions. Pc, above, made a good point: a shared foundation is required among students in a classroom. But this is true beyond a single classroom: after all, a student who does (say) a year of Classical Chinese at a given University and who later wishes to study the language further at some other institution needs both programs of instruction to have a common foundation. It would complicate things enormously for said student if one used a reconstructed pronunciation and the other Modern Mandarin: since use of the latter is the norm in Classical Chinese teaching, I believe that it would be irresponsible to create a Classical Chinese teaching program thus walled off from all others.

    I would answer “no” to question 3, with the caveat that students arriving in first-year Classical Chinese already knowing the Modern Mandarin pronunciation of characters would have a very substantial learning advantage over their classmates lacking such knowledge. I would therefore suggest that knowledge of Mandarin Chinese not be a requirement, but that knowledge of Mandarin Chinese be “strongly recommended” for the class: thus, those students who choose to take first-year Classical Chinese without any knowledge of Mandarin, and who thus will need to learn the pronunciation of characters, will have been warned that succeeding in the course will require more work from them than from students arriving with a good foundation in Mandarin.

    Finally, one thing I would require as a prerequisite for students undertaking to study *any* extinct language (especially a prestigious Classical language) is a basic linguistics course: more specifically, any such course which clearly explains the relationship between spoken and written language and presents the basic building blocks of language (phoneme, morpheme…). My experience is that culture and literature students (and the occasional faculty member, to be fair) have such deep misconceptions about such matters that mastering the (Classical) target language becomes much more difficult. For example, I once met a Medieval Studies PhD. student who literally did not believe it possible that Classical Latin could ever have been a real spoken language, which made it well-nigh impossible for me to explain the origins of some features of Latin spelling which he found puzzling.

    P.S. Comparing Classical Chinese to Modern Mandarin Chinese and establishing a parallel with pairs such as Sanskrit/Hindi (or any Modern Indo-Aryan language), Ancient/Modern Greek, or Latin/Italian (or any Romance language) is only possible if one forgets that, unlike Chinese, all these other languages make use of scripts which represent actual phonemes, and not morphemes.

  22. I would (more tentatively) answer “Yes” to 2 also: my understanding is that in most Classical Chinese teaching today Modern Mandarin pronunciation of characters is used, and thus any Classical Chinese teaching program which forsakes this tradition will make it much more difficult for students to connect with other Classical Chinese learners in other institutions.

    But similar arguments can be made against innovating in any respect. “I know the Erasmian pronunciation is more accurate, but if we change, how will our students connect with everyone who pronounces Greek as if it were English?” Somebody’s got to make the first move. And you seem to be entirely discounting the problem that learning Modern Mandarin makes it more difficult to learn the grammar of Classical Chinese.

  23. Now, Hebrew—obviously you can learn Biblical Hebrew without knowing modern spoken Hebrew: many people do it, from missionaries to graduate students, and many people have done it before the revival of Hebrew. However, being a speaker of Israeli Hebrew, and even a reader at the 2nd grade level, when the Bible is first taught to Israeli schoolchildren, is of immense help. Cojmpared the modern language, BH syntax is odd, and many words have changed their meaning, but the morphology is mostly familiar, and that, I believe, is the toughest part of the language to learn.

  24. David Marjanović says:

    Baxter 2.0 has gone overboard with the pharyngeal articulations. In my opinion.

    No – the distinction between Type A and Type B syllables is consensus, so given that he thinks (for pretty good reasons) that there was something pharyngeal about the Type A syllables, it’s only right that he reconstructs it for all of them.

    However, the reason he reconstructs that as a feature of the morpheme-initial consonant instead of as a separate segment /ʕ/ seems to be that it doesn’t participate in the rhyme (i.e. Type A syllables can rhyme with Type B ones). The only basis for this logic seems to be Middle and later Chinese tradition, where “medials” form di- or triphthongs with the nucleus and do participate in the rhyme.

  25. Hat: I agree that when something is dysfunctional somebody has to make the first move. But in what way is the present-day use of Mandarin pronunciation of characters dysfunctional in the context of teaching Classical Chinese? As long as students are taught that this is a social convention and not some indication that Classical and Mandarin Chinese are somehow closer to/inextricably bound to one another, I do not see the problem. If the course were likewise taught in Mandarin I could see how it might prove difficult to teach Classical Chinese as a separate linguistic system, but if English is the medium of instruction and the instructor competent enough I do not think Mandarin pronunciation of characters would be enough to make students believe Classical Chinese to be a variant of Mandarin.

    Furthermore, let us imagine a reconstructed pronunciation of some kind becoming used as a basis in some innovative program of Classical Chinese instruction. Quite apart from the fact that no consensus exists on Old/Middle Chinese phonology (so that Classical Chinese might well end up with as many “reconstructed” pronunciations as there are scholars on the history of Chinese), students within such a program would not only end up cut off from their student counterparts at other institutions, but this innovation would also mean, in the case of those students learning both Mandarin and Classical Chinese (in whatever order: I assume, incidentally, that they make up a major percentage if not a majority of students), that they would need to learn two different pronunciations of the same character in each language: I cannot see that as a pedagogical improvement, frankly.

  26. David Marjanović says:

    Similar to the Hebrew case, I learned here long ago that the Old Irish distinction between the two verbs for “be” is extremely hard to learn unless you’ve learned Modern Irish first.

    But of course the closest analog isn’t always a close relative. I suspect the “Medieval Studies PhD. student who literally did not believe it possible that Classical Latin could ever have been a real spoken language” started from English and/or French, and found the declensions hard to believe. I have not encountered this attitude, quite possibly because declension works in Latin just like in German, there’s merely more of it. And if you start from a Slavic language, you probably won’t even consciously notice such things as the syntax of the Gaulish War.

  27. David Marjanović says:

    no consensus exists on Old/Middle Chinese phonology

    On Old Chinese you’re more or less right, though the reconstructions have been converging to a large extent. On both Early and Late Middle Chinese, however, the descriptions in the contemporary “rhyme books” and “rhyme tables” are detailed enough that the “reconstructions” are just transcriptions of that information and don’t even get an asterisk.

  28. Not relevant to this thread, but LanguageHat favorite “The Last Samurai” (by sometimes-commenter Helen DeWitt) was the #1 book of the 21st century, according to the votes of a bunch of notable critics: http://www.vulture.com/2018/09/a-premature-attempt-at-the-21st-century-literary-canon.html

    Her latest, “Some Trick”, was great too, in my opinion.

  29. k-kun’yomi??

  30. LanguageHat favorite “The Last Samurai” (by sometimes-commenter Helen DeWitt) was the #1 book of the 21st century, according to the votes of a bunch of notable critics

    That’s fantastic — thanks for mentioning it! Here‘s a list of hundred of the most important Russian books in the last thirty years as judged by a similar bunch of critics; there seems to be a fair amount of junk mixed in, but there’s lots of great stuff. As I wrote at Lizok’s post, where I found out about it, I found some old friends, including books I’ve had for years that I didn’t know if anyone else cared about, like Eppel’s «Травяная улица» and Bakin’s «Страна происхождения», as well as a bunch of authors I’d never heard of.

  31. E Bruce Brooks commented as follows:

    For nearly everyone, there will have to be some contact with Mandarin, hence the utility of “slightly antiqued” Mandarin. It has, so to speak, utility both backwards and sideways. Some pronunciation medium is necessary (one cannot do it solely by eye, though the present world has almost lost its oral capacity), and I have not found a realistic substitute. The minimum is to make the “entering tone” physically real to the learners.

    This is echoed in Etienne’s comment that “in most Classical Chinese teaching today Modern Mandarin pronunciation of characters is used” and “any Classical Chinese teaching program which forsakes this tradition will make it much more difficult for students to connect with other Classical Chinese learners in other institutions”.

    Mair rightly regards this modern ideology (the historical aberration that putonghua is the only acceptable pronunciation for Chinese, including Classical Chinese) as flawed and restores the balance to allow access to anyone without going through modern Mandarin.

    Since most people will be interfacing with Classical Chinese as a written language, not a spoken one, it doesn’t really matter if they have different pronunciations. This is illustrated by the grand old tradition of 筆談 ‘brush talk’ among people in East Asia. They speak different languages but can communicate through writing. As long as they are using the same characters, people who say bǐtán, ひつだん, 필담, and bút đàm can communicate by writing 筆談. (Simplified Chinese has thrown a spanner in the works with 笔谈, but if you are studying Classical Chinese you should be using the traditional characters).

    In fact, a lot of the most important research into Chinese history has been done by people who are very poor at pronouncing modern Mandarin, and might not use modern Mandarin pronunciation at all. I’m talking about the Japanese, who have their own tradition of reading Classical Chinese.

    I have met a Japanese who was highly adept at reading Classical Chinese texts because of his background in kanbun. The Japanese in question was able to speak Mandarin, but his proficiency in Classical Chinese had nothing to do with his ability to speak Mandarin, which he mostly acquired after coming to China. On the other hand, I can speak modern Mandarin but usually struggle to extract anything more than rudimentary notions from Classical Chinese texts.

    Since it is a written language, the ability to read Classical Chinese is based on the student’s analytical abilities. The assumption that everyone must use Mandarin pronunciation only serves to make the study of Classical Chinese into something of a “closed shop”, a preserve of Chinese speakers. This view tends to be encouraged by the Chinese and makes the barrier to entry much higher for outsiders. And this is simply wrong. It is an orthodoxy, no less, and a modern one at that, based on the unquestioned assumption that Classical Chinese is a package with Modern Mandarin.

  32. 2-Should a (Modern) Mandarin pronunciation of characters be used within such Classical Chinese courses

    I assume that the only two choices here are (a) Mandarin or (b) everyone muddles through by using their own pronunciation privately and pointing at characters on the board with their finger otherwise. In other words, should the occasional Japanese or Korean speaker be required to learn the Mandarin pronunciations of the characters? I think that’s an important question, because the non-Mandarin speakers will be a small minority given who studies Classical Chinese, and it is a significant burden on the teacher and the large majority of students if they cannot refer to characters out loud by their Mandarin pronunciations because one or two students won’t understand. But it’s an even heavier burden on the small minority if they can’t understand the class discussion.

    Reconstructions are fun, but i”m not sure why I should be reading my 13th and 14th century texts the way that Cicero or Pericles or Confucius would have pronounced them. That’s just as anachronistic as pronouncing them in modern Italian or Greek or Mandarin, only with a great deal of additional effort.

  33. “I have met a Japanese who was highly adept at reading Classical Chinese texts because of his background in kanbun.”

    Everyone I studied with in Japan was like this. None of them could speak Mandarin, and Japanese who could speak Mandarin were viewed with suspicion and excluded from academic programs because their kanbun was not up to snuff. The typical grad student in Chinese history was someone who did really well in Japanese classes in high school. (I hope that this at least has changed since the 90’s.)

    Reading Classical Chinese texts through the lens of kanbun is much more likely to distort the meaning than reading them through the lens of Mandarin. Kanbun is just a mechanical means of transposing Classical Chinese into Tokugawa era Japanese prose. It hinders the analysis because the reader starts from the assumption that the mechanical equivalent in Japanese is the correct meaning. Almost any other method of reading Classical Chinese is preferable because almost every other method retains the original word order and is just a question of how you realize the sounds.

    Sure, Japanese scholars end up being able to read Classical Chinese perfectly well, and using kanbun as a crutch is less of a handicap for them than having to learn all the characters from scratch is for Americans, but I think they would be better off using almost any other means to read the characters, including just on’yomi.

  34. “The assumption that everyone must use Mandarin pronunciation only serves to make the study of Classical Chinese into something of a “closed shop”, a preserve of Chinese speakers.”

    Even Japanese scholars of China today need to be able to read modern Mandarin, since Chinese language scholarship has made enormous strides in the last couple decades. If they can’t speak Mandarin at all, how well are they grasping the nuances of what they are reading? And if they can, how is the practice of pronouncing Classical Chinese in Mandarin excluding anyone?

    There are very, very few people need to know Classical Chinese and don’t need to know Mandarin. Students in pre-19th century Korean studies are the only demographic I can think of. (Students of pre-modern Japanese philosophy or Buddhism probably should be learning to read their texts as kanbun rather than as Classical Chinese per se.) Personally, I don’t think that the practices of teaching classical Chinese in America need to change to accommodate the occasion student of pre-19th century Korea or the occasional student taking the class as a lark, given the practical difficulties of not having a common method of pronunciation for referring to the words in the texts in the classroom setting. We should be upholding standards and requiring Mandarin of people who need to learn it.

  35. “If Victor and his colleagues in academia actually maintained some standards instead of passing out degrees to everyone left and right” is a pretty serious charge. Anything to back it up?

  36. Matt Anderson says:

    I’ve taken Advanced Classical Chinese (at Penn, but not with Professor Mair, who teaches first-year Classical) in a class with other students who read out the text in Cantonese and Japanese, and there was never any issue of not having being able to tell what character someone was referring to if they pronounced it in those languages—that was always completely clear (& I’ve separately had the same experience with Korean speakers). I didn’t take it with any students of Sogdian or Sanskrit who didn’t know any East Asian languages, but I think that’s a problem that could be gotten around.

    I do think it was easier to learn Classical after already studying Mandarin, despite the occasional problems that ensued (false friends, occasional strangely confusing grammatical structures), but it is definitely much easier to learn Classical from scratch than to first learn Mandarin and only then start on Classical. And there are many scholars who don’t need Mandarin but do need Classical (including some students of Buddhism or old Central Asian languages or Japanese painting or Korean architecture or whatever, not to mention native speakers of Cantonese who can read Mandarin just fine but don’t happen to speak it), and there is no way in which Mandarin is required for learning Classical anymore than it should be required for learning Cantonese or Taiwanese or anything else other than Mandarin in particular. And sure, it’s useful for anyone in a field that makes use of Classical Chinese to know Mandarin, but many things are useful, & we only have time for some of them.

  37. “If Victor and his colleagues in academia actually maintained some standards instead of passing out degrees to everyone left and right” is a pretty serious charge. Anything to back it up?

    Thanks Bathrobe. I was being flippant, but I wouldn’t want anyone to misunderstand. Certainly nothing was intended about Victor, and I should not have used his name.

    As Matt says, many things are useful, & we only have time for some of them, but with hundreds of applicants for every open position, I think we could afford to ask more of people even if it reduces the number of successful degree candidates by (arbitrarily large number) three-quarters. But collective action problems etc.

  38. A very brief comment: I detect a distinct difference in approaches here. It would be far too simple to characterise it as “Ivory Tower vs non-Ivory Tower” (or academia vs interested outsider, or narrow portal vs mass participation), but something along those lines seems to be present. That would definitely affect the approach taken.

  39. David Marjanović says:

    Thanks Bathrobe. I was being flippant, but I wouldn’t want anyone to misunderstand. Certainly nothing was intended about Victor, and I should not have used his name.

    So, are you referring to grade inflation? Because people outside the US aren’t familiar with that – for financial reasons, as it turns out.

  40. Lars (not the original one) says:

    @David: Well, the redesign of the grading system in Denmark 10 years ago has certainly led to more top grades. The reason given may tie in with what you say: They said that American universities did not understand the way we used our top grade. Some American universities required “straight A’s” for admission, a concept that would be unthinkable under the former Danish system, and so a bunch of PhD candidates were unfairly rejected by default.

  41. In my view, the ideal way of learning pre-Han classics, and also the poetry up to the Tang period, would be by using a form of Middle Chinese in API or in any case in Latin-alphabet transcription (like Baxter’s 1992 system). While there are discussions on the actual phonetic value of the MC rhymes, the system itself is universally accepted. The advantages of such an approach would be:
    (i) For pre-Han texts that have sound glosses in the Jingdianshiwen, this would allow differentiating between readings that have become homophonous in Mandarin and even nearly all modern varieties of Chinese (for instance the two readigns of 敗 bæjH and pæjH, which have different meanings).
    (ii) For Tang poetry, the rhymes do not work in Mandarin, and the 平仄 distinction is lost, so that the metric rules are completely impenetrable if you read using Mandarin (it still work with Cantonese or Sino-Vietnamese, though).
    (iii) Knowledge of Middle Chinese offers a good basis for the reconstruction of Old Chinese, an as a diasystem for most Sinitic languages and Sino-Japanese, -Korean and -Vietnamese.

    Of course, the problem then become the _speed_ of reading: a modern pronunciation, be it Mandarin, Cantonese or Vietnamese etc is much faster if you already know one of those languages. I would advocate to read using the modern language you are most familiar with for quick overview of the text, and use MC for detailed reading of a particular passage.
    If you don’t know any modern language, why not start with MC? However, I have to admit that Mandarin pronunciation, despite its many disadvantages, is convenient to look up in dictionaries and for input methods.

  42. In my view, the ideal way of learning pre-Han classics, and also the poetry up to the Tang period, would be by using a form of Middle Chinese in API or in any case in Latin-alphabet transcription

    This is what I think. It’s irrelevant whether it’s how people “really” spoke; it’s much closer than any of the modern languages, especially Mandarin, and it allows you to hear rhymes.

  43. There was this Soviet Egyptologist Perepelkin, wrote some very nice books on Ancient Egypt.

    What made him unique in Egyptologist world is that he could actually read Ancient Egyptian fluently.

    Not decipher symbol after symbol, but actually read it, as he would read a new issue of “Soviet Sport” newspaper.

    The trick was quite simple. He taught himself Coptic which is based on alphabet (and very similar to Cyrillic) until he became as fluent in it as in any of his other European languages.

    And then he began reading hieroglyphs using Coptic pronunciation instead of standard (and impossible to pronounce) Egyptologist pronunciation which everyone else used.

    I am going to try to repeat this trick some day.

  44. Stephen Carlson says:

    No – the distinction between Type A and Type B syllables is consensus, so given that he thinks (for pretty good reasons) that there was something pharyngeal about the Type A syllables, it’s only right that he reconstructs it for all of them.
    Oh, there’s no doubt that something is causing the Type A and Type B distinction, and it is probably not an Old Chinese yod (*-j- in Baxter 1.0). I’m just not sold on the pervasive pharyngealization of all Type A syllables out of a concern for Sprachgefühl. It’s become a kind of algebra rather than the reconstruction of a plausible language. Until we have good evidence for the cause or causes of the distinction, I’m happy with the way Schuessler prescinds from it with his diacritical marking.

  45. ə de vivre says:

    Re. Perepelkin: I’m not sure how learning Coptic would help fluently read Ancient Egyptian. There isn’t a 1-to-1 mapping of Coptic-to-AE phonemes. And a knowledge of Coptic wouldn’t be all that useful for helping fill in all the unwritten vowels, especially since Early and Middle Egyptian’s nominal and verbal morphology is almost completely replaced by the time you get to Coptic. Learning Coptic to read AE seems a lot like learning Mandarin to read Old Chinese.

  46. David Prager Banner’s Neutral Transcription for Medieval Chinese (SciHub link) has the advantage that it doesn’t embed anybody’s reconstruction in it, but provides a nice typeable way to represent Middle Chinese qua Chinese phonological description rather than qua proto-language of the modern Sinitic languages. As such, it provides not a reconstruction but a (mostly) alphabetic encoding of the Qieyun distinctions.

    Each syllable has the following items in sequence:

    initial represented by one or more consonants (r for retroflexion),
    he2 represented with w vs. kai1 represented with zero,
    she4 (one of 16 rime groups) represented with a single vowel and an optional coda consonant,
    deng4 (level) represented with a digit 1-4,
    rime disambiguator (if he2/kai1, she4, and tone are not enough) a, b, c, …,
    tone 1 represented with zero, tone 2 with Q, tone 3 with H.

    Banner recommends that the first three features should be pronounced as written, deng4 and rime disambiguator left silent, and tones 1, 2, 3 as Mandarin tones 1, 3, 4.

  47. BS2.0 OC’s n̥ˤarsmədzəʔs becomes something like /xând͡zî/ in Middle Chinese. As a native speaker of a language other than Old Chinese, I can say that I find the latter easier to say. It has the additional advantage of being easier to connect mnemonically with whatever modern Chinese or Sinoxenic readings one is already familiar with.

  48. Why the manic obsession with pronunciation of a written form, anyway? Why can it not be purely visual? The phonetics are lost, so do as those of the Sinoxenic embassaries of old did and point to what you’re talking about.

    That, or have a bunch of whiteboard handy. Whiteboards will do you wonders, I assure you. A student can write a big character and hold it up for all to see. It’s fantastic.

  49. David Marjanović says:

    Why the manic obsession with pronunciation of a written form, anyway?

    1) Because you have to talk about the characters somehow, unless you’re willing to interrupt the conversation and point at the white- or blackboard five times every minute.

    2) Because most people remember words much more easily than really complex shapes.

  50. @Stephen Carlson: There are modern Qiangic languages which have a pervasive “guttural secondary vocalic articulation” contrast very much like the pharyngeals in Baxter-Sagart 2.0, such as Northern Qiang with uvularisation, and Minyag with a distinction variously called tenseness or retracted tongue root. It makes plenty of sense that this feature might be a common retention here and in Old Chinese.

    See also Xun Gong’s recent reconstruction of similar for Tangut. Gong proposes direct cognation of Old Chinese type A and Tangut uvularisation.

  51. David Marjanović says:

    Oh, it’s out now! Cool.

  52. Miyake’s also points out Cairene Arabic as a language that has an emphatic form of every consonant phoneme. Most of these emphatics are allophones which result from emphasis spreading from the smaller number of underlying emphatic consonants. Of course, many a phoneme was born an allophone and only later had phonemicity thrust upon it.

  53. David Marjanović says:

    mani padme

    {mja¹ nji² pja¹ mjij¹}

    Near the end of section 2 of the manuscript.

  54. Stephen Carlson says:

    @Alex Fink: There are modern Qiangic languages which have a pervasive “guttural secondary vocalic articulation” contrast very much like the pharyngeals in Baxter-Sagart 2.0, such as Northern Qiang with uvularisation, and Minyag with a distinction variously called tenseness or retracted tongue root. It makes plenty of sense that this feature might be a common retention here and in Old Chinese.
    Thanks for that. If I understand these comparanda correctly, they involve vocalic articulation, right?

  55. David Marjanović says:

    Phonologically, it’s a feature of the vowel, though the exact forms that some languages have spread to the preceding consonant where possible.

  56. I wonder if Qiang poets think that +GSVA vowels can rhyme with -GSVA vowels.

    Apparently in Chinese, type A and type B syllables can rhyme with each other. This is one of the pieces of evidence that the difference, whatever it is, is not vowel quality.

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