What “Ancient” Chinese Sounded Like – and how we know

What “Ancient” Chinese Sounded Like – and how we know

China has a long linguistic tradition. Did
you know Chinese scholars were digging into old pronunciations centuries before Europeans
were reconstructing proto-languages? This is the tale of how they uncovered their ancient
imperial language. I struggle with Chinese pronunciation. I have
ever since the dictionary and cassettes my Grandad once gave me for my birthday. But
lately I’ve been burying myself in hundreds of pages of Chinese linguistic history, and
you know what? I’m in good company! Chinese pronunciation puzzled experts in China for
a long, long time. Like this fellow. A scholar reconstructing a language in the
1840s. You know the story by now, I’ve told it before: compare a group of related languages,
classify them into a family tree, then reconstruct their common ancestor. Oh, but that’s not the story this time! The
scholar is Chén Lǐ. He’s confronting a centuries-old problem. How do you recover the sounds immortalized
in classical texts? How do you make the old poems rhyme again? Here’s the catch: you have
no recordings. No phonetic transcriptions. Not even an alphabet. You’re working with
characters, the Han characters we’ve talked about before, each one standing for a one-syllable
word or word piece. He scrutinizes the book in front of him. It
looks old, stodgy even, but it has quite a backstory. 1261 years earlier, a Mr Lù invited
8 friends over for a slumber party. They started their evening with wine and conversation,
but, late in the night, the chit-chat turned into a heated debate over the exact pronunciation
of old texts. The way people recite them in North is wrong. No, they’re wrong in the South.
Enough talk! Mr Lù inked his brush and outlined what would become the Qièyùn. He eventually filled five scrolls with over
11000 characters divided among the four Chinese tones and subdivided into rhyming groups.
Then he broke down the sound of each character. How? With two more characters! An upper character
to match the initial consonant, and a lower character to rhyme with the final sounds,
including the tone. Take the character here, meaning “east”. It had the initial of /tək̚/
and the final of /ɦuŋ/, so using the reconstructed pronunciation we’ll talk about at the end,
it’s /tuŋ/. With this method, called fǎnqiè, you can
capture the sound of a syllable! Simple. And clever. But it stopped short of giving an
overview of Chinese phonology. For that, rhymers needed to take another step: organize this
info into tables. The 12th century Rhyme Mirror is full of rime
tables. Here’s one of them, the very first table in the book. The starting label gives the table number
– number one – and the kind of rhyme these syllables have, a sort of /uŋ/. Along the top row are six articulation categories
for consonants, and down the side, the four tones. The four rows per tone give more info
about the syllable, but their interpretation is debated. So try this: find me a tongue sound, a lingual,
that’s clear, meaning voiceless, and has the first tone. So for this syllable type we’ve
pieced together something like /tuŋ/. And then there’s a partly-clear one, meaning aspirated
/h/, so kind of /tʰuŋ/? And this one is dirty or muddy, which means a voiced sound,
so maybe /duŋ/? Ok! What about all these circles though? What
do they mean? Syllable not found. So when you look for a lip sound that’s clear for
the first tone in this chart, you find nothing like /puŋ/ recorded here. But there is a
/buŋ/, mugwort! Just like that, you’re excavating old pronunciations,
Chinese rhyme style. And so confident scholars spent centuries
sounding out ancient Chinese syllables and teaching that Chinese had exactly 36 initial
consonants. But Chen Li’s not convinced. He’s combing
through old fǎnqiè, meticulously chaining together initials of initials and finals of
finals. His linked sets revealed flaws. There weren’t 36 initials, there were 41. Five of
them needed to be split in two. But there’s more: the sounds in the rime tables are not
the sounds in the Qièyùn. These are two different stages. Later research will go on to show that even
the earlier stage itself is complicated. It’s a compromise between ancient literary dialects.
Thinking back to those late-night debates over the north vs the south, that sounds about right. But all this hard work merely left us with
categories. Boxes. Boxes for four tones. Boxes for initials. Boxes for finals. Enough with
the guesswork. What are the precise sounds that really fit into these boxes? In the early 1900s a Swede traveled to China
and dug into the old rimes and tables but then added an important piece: the many living
varieties of Chinese. Karlgren was fascinated. He created surveys and set out to document
them, and he used his results to fill out the rime categories with real sounds. How? Well, take that fourth tone (also called
the checked tone). Along the southern coast, these checked tone syllables have a final
stop sound . So this old character, meaning country, is /kuo˧˥/ in Mandarin, but in
Cantonese it’s /kwok̚˧/. Who’s older? Well, look at the last three languages in Karlgren’s
list of “dialects”: Korean, Japanese and Vietnamese. They use Sino-Xenic pronunciations, meaning
“China-foreign”, basically the way the characters sounded to them when they were imported. Their
words also have that k. It points back to an ancient pronunciation for that character
that ended in a consonant, like /kwək̚˧/. Linguists went on to refine these reconstructions
and to paint acoustic portraits of Ancient Chinese that would sound downright foreign
in Mandarin today. They even revealed small but important distinctions Karlgren missed,
like these pairs of chóngniǔ. And they taught me one last thing while I
was over here struggling to understand Chinese pronunciation. It’s not a single language
called Ancient Chinese. No, it’s a period in linguistic history called Middle Chinese. “Middle”… because there’s an even older language to uncover, a thousand years older
still. Maybe one day we’ll rhyme our way into Old
Chinese. Until then, stick around and subscribe for language.

100 thoughts on “What “Ancient” Chinese Sounded Like – and how we know”

  • chinese is not sounding good… italian is melodic and nice.. spanish also nice.. but chinese… horrible language..sounds funny, zii zoong chauu zii chi hi

  • Fuzhou dialect is one of the oldest dialects in China. Probably the oldest. Older than Cantonese which is older than Mandarin. If you want to listen how ancient Chinese sounded like, listen to Fuzhou dialect.

  • yep, always been saying to the other east asians that their shit sounds a whole lot more like canto than mandarin. plus, isn't the current mandarin just the dialect ol' mao spoke?

  • For a start, Americans do not know how to pronounce Chinese Hanyu Pinyin words correctly.

    Chinese pronounce Yue as 'E-uu-ae'
    Americans pronounce Yue as 'You'

    Chinese pronounce Shanghai as 'Sh-aaang-haai'
    Americans pronounce Shanghai as 'Sh-aeng-haei'. (This one, id say, is especially cringey. The most cringey mis-pronounciation)

  • That is not quite right. Most non-Chinese speakers these days learn Mandarin, tje Chinese national dialect; Cantonese (south) is the current dialect that can rhyme old Chinese poems from 200 BC… I am a Chinese and Cantonese is my mother language.

  • The problem with language is it's not static and ever evolving… In writings and in sounds.
    Now through this video I appreciate and understand why my dad pronounces certain words with "k" at the end. Lol

  • Tong Dynasty is when many asians borrowed from the Chinese. They all sound similarly to Cantonese. Chinatown in america are all named after Tong Dynasty

  • Hope the study will continuous. But due to the political reason , chinese government want to destory the cantonese , so cantonese may disappear within 10 or 20 years. Mandarin is not chinese language basically , it just like foreigner learning chinese language and ignore and simplify the pronounciation .

  • What ancient Chinese sounded like?

    Answer: 2000 years ago, it sounds like

    TAIWANESE or 河洛語(閩南語)

    TAIWANESE = 台式河洛語 = 台語。


  • You are wrong, they originally spoke English, this is because the English are aliens and originally settled in China. After the English left the Chinese were left to their own devices….like the abacus! Then there they remained terrified and isolated from the world, they even built a wall to stop those English fucks from coming back, but eventually they returned and today once again they must learn English because of the internet.

  • Hokkien was the official language in Tang Dynasty. Research it. It's a dialect widely spoken among the Fujian province ppl, taiwanese ppl, Singaporean Chinese, Malaysian Chinese, Filipino Chinese and Indonesian Chinese.

  • The southern dialect (min, Cantonese) all have the ancient tone that you pointed out, if you use the example of the word for "country"

  • chinese now has 8 ancient chinese, my hometown speaks one of these. we do have something that nowaday chinese doesnt have, and also we are missing something nowaday chinese has. and even letters, some of our hometown writing letters we cannot find on the dictionary.

  • chinese now has 8 ancient chinese, my hometown speaks one of these. we do have something that nowaday chinese doesnt have, and also we are missing something nowaday chinese has. and even letters, some of our hometown writing letters we cannot find on the dictionary.

  • Source: Am Native speaker

    My chinese pronoucation sucks, so I just speak It in a neutral american accent and hope that context would get my point across

  • 2:31 – That red character is the 2nd syllable of my Chinese name. lol! Even how many characters around it, I'll still remember it. Just like how we get to see our names from a list. Infact, Chinese characters are easier to read than English Characters. Maybe because we read it as 1-syllable and the English word is read in many syllables causing delay and making you slow to read your name from a list.

  • Ancient chinese is very oldfashion sounding. Its nothing like what you see in the hongkong movies. Think of oldschool british vs todays brits.

  • 2:35
    Nice to see you using Cantonese, way too much Chinese "linguists" are learning mandarin, even tho Cantonese is the real Chinese

  • I’m a native Chinese speaker, but English is much easier with alphabets, especially when it comes to typing and smart checking on smartphones. There’s a good reason why English is so ubiquitously used around the world.

  • Vietnamese is not Chinese but like English with French consist of half of vocabulary as Chinese which I discovered through speaking. obviously it does appear the pronunciation has been muddled and misused but u can actually pick the Chinese words out easily once u recognize the pattern.

  • Hello author, you really need to explore the pronunciation of Cantonese also, as Cantonese has 9 sounds, and giving you more expression and meaningful words and sentences that you could construct.

  • Thank you so much for the wonderful video. However, I found a mistake in this video, which are 東and 同. The sound of these two words must be swapped.

  • Lol u got it all wrong. But dont give up. Keep trying. No idea why chinese is so hard to Westerners. But cant deny that english is much easier than chinese. Or maybe I should say "simpler".

  • 这讲得还挺细致的。一想到自己能看懂他们的英文评论,他们看不懂我的,我就贼鸡儿有成就感

  • What a pity that linguists are taken for granted as the future progresses. Maybe like 2% of the world pop even care to pave the way to keep up the standard for the languages. Rest, not so much.

  • is fifth generation Chinese diluted into other nationalities

    Narrator: tung (more talking) tung (more talking) tung

    Me: wHAT

    sorry great grandfather but your chirren are chinese no more

  • You found a 5000 year old chineese man living in a cave and he spoke. And he said "i'am going to build a wall !!!!!(it's going to be great it will be fanastic it will make it inposible for mexicans to get in china……. so great…..)

  • My ancestors were from China, my grandfather and grandmother from my father side were born and raise in China. I was born in South East Asia and my children were born in the USA. I have learnt a few years of simple/beginner mandarin language when I was a teenager. Watching this video still make me dizzy and confuse…

  • i'm probably missing a LOT – but I'm so fkin glad that i only had to learn 26 letters; and with those 26 letters I can express nearly anything that comes to mind.

  • This is fascinating! I guess I always take the pronunciations for granted as a native Chinese speaker and this video helped me appreciate my language more

  • An excellent intro on how experts and activists have attempted to discover how ancient Chinese sounded. Of course, with thousands of years of history, and the multitude of dialects evolved, it is difficult, if not meaningless to fathom"one" ancient sound.

    For their efforts, experts have concluded that there was an archaic sound before the Han Dynasty, and a classic sound up to the Tang Dynasty. However, up to now the experts have neglected or omitted two major factors. One is the historical development of the Chinese culture. The second is external influence.

    In ancient times a main Chinese cultural layer was Turkic. The Chinese word for water 水, shui, is Turkic, and so is lake 湖, hu, as in Issyk Kul.

    Mandarin, with its dropping of the closing consonant p, t, k, etc, is a direct result of northern nomadic influence. They also brought to China the dichotomy of the centum vs satem sounds, as they did in Europe. The archaic hard centum sounds h, k, etc were replaced by the softer t, s, sh, ch etc. For example, the old Celtic kirk became the newer church. In China this conversion is stark and prominent. Canada in Cantonese, a centum language (not dialect) is ga-na-dai. In Mandarin it is jia-na-da. The old harder ga sound has become a softer jia. KFC is heng-dak-gei in Cantonese, while ken-de-ji in Mandarin. A hard gei becomes a softer ji.

    Any study of the evolution of the Chinese language must include these aspects.

  • The problem with this video is that it is labeled “Chinese”. There is no such thing as Chinese people. They got over 50 ethnic group and many lie they are “Han Chinese” because that makes them more legit but the truth is there is no such thing as Chinese. You should have just specified on how mandarin sounded like before vs cantOnese or shanghaiese etc… I’m done….

  • 我很认真的看完了,然后唯一的想法是:幸亏我不是个学汉语的外国人。我感谢我幼儿园老师和小学老师,让我没有变成文盲

  • I'm from Hong Kong, so it's easy for me to understand the rhymes as catonese remains a lit of ancient chinese sounds

  • Great video, I know Chinese was extremely complicated due to the long evolution, but I don’t know there were studies of that as far back as thousands of years ago by Chinese themselves still survived the many book burning and chaos. What I do know is that some suggest modern Cantonese shares similar structure to qin / han Chinese era pronunciation, which was the first two unified power centralised dynasties. Before that period, not only Chinese writing system was not unified, the way words were pronounced was even more diverse. It is safe to assume the pre xia dynasty (3000-4000 bce) Chinese language was totally different to that of today. And given possibly of younger dryas period civilisation exists, I can assume there would be an even more ancient civilisation exists in the greater Chinese seaboard plains that are now Yellow Sea, East China Sea and upper north part of South China Sea.

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