Qieyun and Yunjing: The Essential Foundation for Chinese Historical Linguistics

By Pulleyblank, Edwin G. | The Journal of the American Oriental Society, April-June 1998 | Go to article overview

Qieyun and Yunjing: The Essential Foundation for Chinese Historical Linguistics


Pulleyblank, Edwin G., The Journal of the American Oriental Society


In a recent article (Norman and Coblin 1995) I am chastised as a "neo-Karlgrenian" whose "mechanistic statements of correspondences between alleged stages of Chinese as codified in traditional dictionaries and rime tables" are "too far removed from the real linguistic and philological data" and lead to "a great deal of the vast richness and complexity of Chinese linguistic history being ignored or swept under the carpet." It is claimed that this "trivialize[s]" Chinese dialect studies and leads to a lack of attention to such things as "the actual popular lexicon" and "grammatical structure" of dialects, impeding "a more serious consideration of philological sources, especially various kinds of transcriptional data."(1)

Though my two critics are regrettably non-specific in their overly rhetorical sallies, I take it that the complaint about the alleged "trivialization" of dialect studies comes mostly from Jerry Norman, who has specialized in gathering and analyzing data from the Min dialect area. This is valuable and important work and though I don't engage in anything of the kind myself, I don't believe there is anything in my published work that can be said to "trivialize" it. I remain doubtful, however, of the possibility of successfully reconstructing Chinese linguistic history strictly from the evidence of modern dialects by the traditional comparative method as applied to languages without a written tradition. A major difficulty is that the Stammbaum or branching-tree model that is implied by the traditional comparative method is totally unrealistic in the case of Chinese. Even in remote parts of the country dialects have never developed in isolation. They have been influenced not only by their immediate neighbors but even more importantly by provincial and national standards spreading from successive political centers. The educated elite who have governed the country as the imperial bureaucracy have been the prime source of this influence, but itinerant traders have no doubt also played a role at a lower social level. The result is that all dialects are more or less multilayered. This is obvious even in Mandarin, which has alternative pronunciations for many common words. It is even more so in areas like Min that have been relatively isolated and have preserved traces of very archaic features. In some cases literary or reading pronunciations that give evidence of earlier outside influence are clearly labeled as such but in other cases pronunciations that follow the same pattern have been thoroughly naturalized into the vernacular. Sorting this out at the strictly contemporary level is difficult or even impossible. The historical depth provided by philological evidence for national standards of pronunciation at various periods in the past is indispensable. It is not a question of one or the other. The more we know about modern vernaculars the better we shall be able to understand the historical evidence, and vice versa.

South Coblin, who is not a field linguist but a philologist, is the one who is complaining about the neglect of transcriptional data. I find this complaint particularly ironic as it applies to my own work, since, as Coblin must know very well, I was subjected to harsh words from Karlgren after my first venture into Chinese historical linguistics, precisely because I made use of Chinese transcriptions of foreign words to criticize and propose modifications to his Old Chinese reconstruction (Pulleyblank 1962, Karlgren 1963). The same criticism was echoed in more polite terms by Coblin's teacher, Li Fang-kuei, in 1971 (see, also, idem 1974-75). In spite of this criticism, I have continued to use transcriptional evidence along with any other evidence I can find as a way of testing hypotheses about the pronunciation of Chinese at different periods, always being aware of the problems involved in matching the phonological system of Chinese with that of the particular foreign language in question. …

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