The history of the Chinese language

2nd Aug 2013

As a native Chinese speaker myself, I feel in this ever changing and diverse society we live in, the Chinese language is becoming ever more popular amongst both native speakers as well as prospective learners.

Chinese is a language with a rich history that dates back to 1122 BCE (before the Common Era or c.1046 BC). While today over one billion people worldwide speak some variation of Chinese, the history of this language stems from a more primitive, simpler language known as Proto-Sino-Tibetan. Modern linguists classify Chinese as part of the Sino-Tibetan group of languages.

Interestingly, the history of the Chinese language is a contentious topic among linguists, as many have conflicting notions of how the evolution of this language should be classified.

Yet, despite the on-going scholarly debate, many experts rely on the historical classification system developed by the Swedish linguist Bernhard Karlgren in the early 20th century. Karlgren broke down the history of the Chinese language into the following eras:

• Old Chinese

• Middle Chinese

• Modern Chinese

Old Chinese

Also referred to as "Archaic Chinese," Old Chinese was an early version of the language that was primarily spoken during the Zhou Dynasty (1122 BCE to 256 BCE).

While this early form of Chinese incorporated a variety of rich sounds (which were mainly derived from rough aspirations during pronunciation), it lacked any tonal elements – meaning that there were no specific notes or particular pitches around which the language was cantered.

Our current knowledge of the sounds and characters of Old Chinese comes from various artefacts of the Zhou Dynasty. In addition to the inscriptions on bronze plates and sculptures, linguists have effectively reconstructed Old Chinese through the translation of Sh?j?ng, a compilation of ancient documents recording the history of the early Chinese. Sh?j?ng literally translates to Classic of History.

Middle Chinese

In the 6th Century, the Suí, Táng, and Sòng dynasties inaugurated the era of Middle Chinese. Among the differences between Old and Middle Chinese was that the language had significantly evolved and began taking on various forms in the same way that the growth and movement of the population triggered the development of early Chinese dialects.

Because archaeologists have uncovered more artefacts from this time period, linguists are far more confident in their reconstruction of Middle Chinese than of Old Chinese. Some experts even sub-classify this epoch of Chinese language history according to two texts:

• The Qièyùn rhyme table (601 CE) was an ancient text that used rhymes to dictate the proper pronunciations of Middle Chinese, as it was initially spoken.

• The Guângyùn rhyme table (1007 CE) was a similar instructional guide that mapped out proper pronunciations for a more evolved form of Middle Chinese. This more in-depth text included outlines for how and when to use different tones, which – up until this point – weren't a part of the early versions of the Chinese language.

Modern Chinese

As more centuries passed and Chinese populations continued to grow and spread across the continent, more and more distinct Chinese dialects were formed. Dialects are variations of a language that include specific vocabulary and/or pronunciation nuances related to the particular region and culture.

This growing number of dialects led to the need for a "Standard Mandarin," which, by the mid-1900s, had become a compulsory part of the educational system.

Today, Mandarin is the most popularly spoken language in the world. As an active member of the China Britain Business Council, Pearl Linguistics regularly advises companies on all aspects of doing business with China from providing translation and interpreting services to advising on Chinese business culture.

Stephen Zhao, Sales and Marketing Executive


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