Literary and colloquial readings of Chinese characters

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Differing literary and colloquial readings (simplified Chinese: 文白异读; traditional Chinese: 文白異讀; pinyin: wénbáiyìdú) of certain Chinese characters are common doublets in many Chinese languages and the reading distinctions for certain phonetic features often typify a dialect group. Literary readings (simplified Chinese: 文读; traditional Chinese: 文讀; pinyin: wéndú) are usually used in formal loan words or names, when reading aloud and in formal settings, while colloquial readings (simplified Chinese: 白读; traditional Chinese: 白讀; pinyin: báidú) are usually used in vernacular speech.

Characteristics[edit]

For a given Chinese language, colloquial readings typically reflect native phonology,[1] while literary readings typically originate from other Chinese languages,[2] typically more prestigious varieties. Colloquial readings are usually older, resembling the sound systems described by old rime dictionaries such as Guangyun. Literary readings are closer to the phonology of newer sound systems. Many literary readings are the result of Mandarin influence in Ming and Qing.

Literary readings are usually used in formal settings because past prestigious varieties were usually used in formal education and discourse. Although the phonology of the Chinese variety in which this occurred did not entirely match that of the prestige variety when in formal settings, they tended to evolve toward the prestige variety. Also, neologisms usually use the pronunciation of prestigious varieties.[3] Colloquial readings are usually used in informal settings because their usage in formal settings has been supplanted by the readings of the prestige varieties.[3]

Because of this, the frequency of literary readings in a Chinese language reflects its history and status. For example, before the promotion of Modern Standard Chinese (Mandarin), the dialects of the central plains had few literary readings, but they now have literary readings that resemble the phonology of Modern Standard Chinese. Outside the central plains, the relatively influential Beijing and Canton dialects have fewer literary readings than other varieties.

In some Chinese languages, there may be many instances of foreign readings replacing native readings, forming many sets of literary and colloquial readings. A newer literary reading may replace an older literary reading, and the older literary reading may become disused or become a new colloquial reading.[3] Sometimes literary and colloquial readings of the same character have different meanings.

The analogous phenomenon exists to a much more significant degree in Japanese, where individual characters (kanji) generally have two common readings – the newer borrowed, more formal on'yomi, and the older native, more colloquial kun'yomi. Unlike in Chinese languages, which are genetically related, in Japanese the borrowed readings are unrelated to the native readings. Further, many kanji in fact have several borrowed readings, reflecting borrowings at different periods – these multiple borrowings are generally doublets or triplets, sometimes quite distant. These readings are generally used in particular contexts, such as older readings for Buddhist terms, which were early borrowings.

Behavior in Chinese languages[edit]

Cantonese[edit]

In Cantonese, colloquial readings tend to resemble Middle Chinese, while literary readings tend to resemble Mandarin. The meaning of a character is often differentiated depending on whether it is read with a colloquial or literary reading. There are regular relationships between the nuclei of literary and colloquial readings in Cantonese. Colloquial readings with [ɛ] nuclei correspond with literary [ɪ] and [i] nuclei. It is also the case with colloquial [a] and literary [ɐ], and colloquial [ɐi] and literary [i]. Of course, not all colloquial readings with a certain nucleus correspond to literary readings with another nucleus.

Examples:

Chinese character Middle Chinese1 Colloquial reading Meaning Literary reading Meaning
tsǐɛŋ tsɛŋ˥ clever tsɪŋ˥ spirit
tɕǐɛŋ tɕɛŋ˧ correct, good tɕɪŋ˧ correct
dzǐɛŋ tsɛŋ˨ clean tsɪŋ˨ clean
kǐɐŋ kɛŋ˥ be afraid kɪŋ˥ frighten
bʱǐɐŋ pʰɛŋ˨˩ inexpensive pʰɪŋ˨˩ flat
tsʰieŋ tsʰɛŋ˥ blue/green, pale tsʰɪŋ˥ blue/green
ɣiep kɛp˨ clamp kip˨ clamp
sǐɛk sɛk˧ cherish, (v.) kiss sɪk˥ lament
ʃɐŋ ɕaŋ˥ raw, (honorific name suffix) ɕɐŋ˥ (v.) live, person
ʃɐŋ ɕaŋ˥ livestock ɕɐŋ˥ livestock
dʱieu tɛu˨ discard tiu˨ turn, discard
lɒi lɐi˨˩ come lɔi˨˩ come
使 ʃǐə ɕɐi˧˥ use ɕi˧˥ (v.) cause, envoy
Notes:

1. Middle Chinese reconstruction according to Wang Li. Middle Chinese tones in terms of level (), rising (), departing (), and entering () are given.

Hakka[edit]

Hakka contains instances of differing literary and colloquial readings.

Examples:

Chinese character Literary reading Colloquial reading
saŋ˦ sɛn˦
tʰi˥˧ tʰɛ˦
ka˦ kʰa˦
fui˧˥ pʰui˧˥
sit˩ siak˩
tʂin˥˧ (正宗), tʂaŋ˦ (正月) tʂaŋ˥˧

Mandarin[edit]

Unlike most varieties of Chinese, literary readings in the national language are usually more conservative than colloquial readings. This is because they reflect readings from before Beijing was the capital,[2] e.g. from the Ming Dynasty. Most instances where there are different literary and colloquial readings occur with characters that have entering tones. Among those are primarily literary readings that have not been adopted into the Beijing dialect before the Yuan Dynasty.[2] Colloquial readings of other regions have also been adopted into the Beijing dialect, a major difference being that literary readings are usually adopted with the colloquial readings. Some differences between the Taiwanese Guoyu and mainland Chinese Putonghua are due to one standard adopting a colloquial reading for a character while another standard adopts a literary reading.

Examples of literary readings adopted into the Beijing dialect:

Chinese character Middle Chinese1 Literary reading Colloquial reading
xək xɤ˥˩ xei˥
bʱɐk pwɔ˧˥ pai˧˥
bʱuɑk pwɔ˧˥ pɑʊ˧˥
pɔk pwɔ˥ pɑʊ˥
kǐĕp tɕi˨˩˦ kei˨˩˦
kʰɔk kʰɤ˧˥ tɕʰjɑʊ˥˩
lu lu˥˩ lɤʊ˥˩
lǐuk lu˥˩ ljɤʊ˥˩
nǐo ʐu˨˩˦ ny˨˩˦
ʑǐuk ʂu˧˥ ʂɤʊ˧˥
ʃǐək sɤ˥˩ ʂai˨˩˦
sǐak ɕɥɛ˥ ɕjɑʊ˥
kɔk tɕɥɛ˧˥ tɕjɑʊ˨˩˦
xiwet ɕɥɛ˥˩ ɕjɛ˨˩˦
Notes:

1. Middle Chinese reconstruction according to Wang Li. Middle Chinese tones in terms of level (), rising (), departing (), and entering () are given.

Examples of colloquial readings adopted into the Beijing dialect:

Chinese character Middle Chinese1 Literary reading Colloquial reading
kɔŋ tɕjɑŋ˨˩˦ kɑŋ˨˩˦
ŋam jɛn˧˥ ai˧˥
Notes:

1. Middle Chinese reconstruction according to Wang Li. Middle Chinese tones in terms of level (), rising (), departing (), and entering () are given.

Sichuanese[edit]

In Sichuanese, colloquial readings tend to resemble Ba-Shu Chinese (Middle Sichuanese) or Southern Proto-Mandarin in Ming Dynasty, while literary readings tend to resemble modern standard Mandarin. For example, in Yaoling Dialect the colloquial reading of "" (means "things") is [væʔ],[4] which is very similar to its prounciation of Ba-Shu Chinese in Song Dynasty (960 - 1279).[5] Meanwhile its literary reading, [voʔ], is relatively similar to the standard Mandarin pronunciation [u]. The table below shows some Chinese characters with both literary and colloquial readings in Sichuanese.[6]

Example Colloquial Reading Literary Reading Meaning Standard Mandarin Pronunciation
tsai at tsai
tia tʰi lift tʰi
tɕʰie tɕʰy go tɕʰy
tɕy cut tɕy
xa ɕia down ɕia
xuan xuən across xəŋ
ŋan ȵian stricked ian
suei su rat ʂu
tʰai ta big ta
toŋ tsu master tʂu

Wu[edit]

In the northern Wu-speaking region, the main sources of literary readings are the Beijing and Nanjing dialects during the Ming and Qing dynasties, and Modern Standard Chinese.[7] In the southern Wu-speaking region, literary readings tend to be adopted from the Hangzhou dialect. Colloquial readings tend to reflect an older sound system.[8]

Not all Wu dialects behave the same way. Some have more instances of discrepancies between literary and colloquial readings than others. For example, the character had a [ŋ] initial in Middle Chinese, and in literary readings, there is a null initial. In colloquial readings it is pronounced /ŋuɛ/ in Songjiang.[9] About 100 years ago, it was pronounced /ŋuɛ/ in Suzhou[10] and Shanghai, and now it is /uɛ/.

Some pairs of literary and colloquial readings are interchangeable in all cases, such as in the words 吳淞 and 松江. Some must be read in one particular reading. For example, 人民 must be read using the literary reading, /zəɲmiɲ/, and 人命 must be read using the colloquial reading, /ɲiɲmiɲ/. Some differences in reading for the same characters have different meanings, such as 巴結, using the colloquial reading /pʊtɕɪʔ/ means "make great effort," and using the literary reading /pɑtɕɪʔ/ means "get a desired outcome." Some colloquial readings are almost never used, such as /ŋ̍/ for and /tɕiɑ̃/ for .

Examples:

Chinese character Literary reading Colloquial reading
/səɲ/ in 生物 /sɑ̃/ in 生熟
/zəɲ/ in 人大 /ɲiɲ/ in 大人
/dɑ/ in 人大 /dɯ/ in 大人
/vəʔ/ in 事物 /məʔ/ in 物事
/tɕia/ in 家庭 /kɑ/ in 家生

Min Nan[edit]

Min languages, such as Taiwanese Hokkien, separate reading pronunciations (dúyin, 讀音) from spoken pronunciations/explications (yǔyīn, 語音; jieshuō, 解說). Hokkien dictionaries in Taiwan often differentiate between such character readings with the prefixes 文 wén (Min Nan bûn) for the literary readings, and 白 bái (Min Nan pe̍k/pe̍h) for colloquial readings.

The following examples[11] in Pe̍h-oē-jī show differences in literary and colloquial readings in Taiwanese Hokkien:

Chinese character Literary reading Colloquial reading
pe̍k as in 明白 (bêng-pe̍k) pe̍h as in 白菜 (pe̍h-chhài)
biān as in 面會 (biān-hōe) bīn as in 海面 (hái-bīn)
su chu
seng as in 醫生 (i-seng) seⁿ / siⁿ as in 先生 (sian-siⁿ)
put
hóan tńg
ha̍k o̍h
jîn / lîn lâng
siàu chió
chóan tńg

Unlike other spoken Chinese varieties, characters used to read Quanzhou Hokkien have three different kinds of readings, namely literary (文), colloquial (白), and vulgar (俗). For example, the readings for 肉 (meat) are: literary liák, colloquial hiák and vulgar bāh; bāh is the most commonly used reading.[12]

For more explanation, see Literary and colloquial readings in Hokkien.

Gan[edit]

The following are examples of variations between literary and colloquial readings of Chinese characters in Gan Chinese.

Chinese character Literary reading Colloquial reading
/sɛn/ as in 學生 (student) /saŋ/ as in 出生 (be born)
/lon/ as in 微軟 (Microsoft) /ɲion˧/ as in 軟骨 (cartilage)
/tɕʰin/ as in 青春 (youth) /tɕʰiaŋ/ as in 青菜 (vegetables)
/uɔŋ/ as in 看望 (visit) /mɔŋ/ as in 望相 (look)

References[edit]

  1. ^ 王洪君 (2006), "層次與演變階段—蘇州話文白異讀析層擬測三例", Language and Linguistics 7 (1) 
  2. ^ a b c 王福堂 (2006), "文白異讀中讀書音的幾個問題", 語言學論叢 32 (9) 
  3. ^ a b c 陳忠敏 (2003), "重論文白異讀與語音層次", 語文研究 (3) 
  4. ^ 杨升初(1985年S2期),《剑阁摇铃话音系记略》,湘潭大学社会科学学报
  5. ^ 王庆(2010年04期),《四川方言中没、术、物的演变》,西华大学学报(哲学社会科学版)
  6. ^ 甄尚灵(1958年01期),《成都语音的初步研究》,四川大学学报(哲学社会科学版)
  7. ^ Qian, Nairong (2003). 上海語言發展史. Shanghai: 上海人民出版社. p. 70. ISBN 978-7-208-04554-5. 
  8. ^ Wang, Li (1981). 漢語音韻學. China Book Company. SH9018-4. 
  9. ^ 張源潛 (2003). 松江方言志. 上海辭書出版社. ISBN 7-5326-1391-7. 
  10. ^ Ting, Pang-hsin (2003). 一百年前的蘇州話. 上海教育. ISBN 7-5320-8561-9. 
  11. ^ Mair, Victor H.. "Taiwanese, Mandarin, and Taiwan's language situation: How to Forget Your Mother Tongue and Remember Your National Language". 拼音/Pinyin.info. Archived from the original on 13 December 2014. Retrieved 13 December 2014. 
  12. ^ Klöter, Henning (2005). Written Taiwanese. Otto Harrassowitz Verlag. ISBN 978-3-447-05093-7.