Sino-Xenic pronunciations

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Sino-Xenic (or Sinoxenic) pronunciations are regular systems for reading Chinese in Japan, Korea and Vietnam, originating in medieval times and the source of large-scale borrowings of Chinese words into the Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese languages, none of which are genetically related to Chinese. The resulting Sino-Japanese, Sino-Korean and Sino-Vietnamese vocabularies now make up a large part of the lexicons of these languages. These pronunciation systems are used alongside modern varieties of Chinese in historical Chinese phonology, particularly the reconstruction of the sounds of Middle Chinese.[1][2] Some other languages, such as Hmong–Mien and Tai-Kadai languages, also contain large numbers of Chinese loanwords, but without the systematic correspondences that characterize Sino-Xenic vocabularies.

The term, from the Greek xenos "foreign", was coined in 1953 by the linguist Samuel Martin, who called these borrowings "Sino-Xenic dialects".[2][3][4]


There had been borrowings of Chinese vocabulary into Vietnamese and Korean from the Han period, but around the time of the Tang dynasty Chinese writing, language and culture were imported wholesale into Vietnam, Korea and Japan. Scholars in those countries wrote in Literary Chinese and were thoroughly familiar with the Chinese classics, which they read aloud in systematic local approximations of Middle Chinese. With these pronunciations, Chinese words entered Vietnamese, Korean and Japanese in huge numbers.[1][2]

The plains of northern Vietnam were under Chinese control for most of the period from 111 BC to 938 AD, and after independence the country adopted Literary Chinese as the language of administration and scholarship. As a result, there are several layers of Chinese loanwords in Vietnamese. The oldest loans, roughly 400 words dating from the Eastern Han, have been fully assimilated and are treated as native Vietnamese words. Sino-Vietnamese proper dates to the early Tang dynasty, when the spread of Chinese rhyme dictionaries and other literature resulted in the wholesale importation of the Chinese lexicon.[5]

Isolated Chinese words also began to enter Korean from the 1st century BC, but the main influx occurred in the 7th and 8th centuries after the unification of the peninsula by Silla. The flow of Chinese words into Korean became overwhelming after the establishment of the civil service examinations in 958.[6]

Japanese, in contrast, has two well-preserved layers and a third that is also significant:[7]

Examples of Sino-Xenic readings
character Mandarin
Sino-Vietnamese Sino-Korean
Sino-Japanese[10][11] meaning
Go-on Kan-on Tōsō-on
ʔjit nhất il ichi itsu one
èr nyijH nhị i ni ji two
sān sam tam sam san three
sijH tứ sa shi four
nguX ngũ o go five
liù ljuwk lục lyuk roku riku six
tshit thất chil shichi shitsu seven
peat bát phal hachi hatsu eight
jiǔ kjuwX cửu kwu ku kyū nine
shí dzyip thập sip ten
bǎi paek bách payk hyaku hundred
qiān tshen thiên chen sen thousand
/ wàn mjonH vạn man man ban 10 thousand
/亿 ʔik ức ek oku 100 million
míng mjaeng minh myeng myō mei (min) bright
/ nóng nowng nông nong nu agriculture
/ níng neng ninh nyeng nyō nei peaceful
xíng haeng hành or hàng hayng gyō an go
/ qíng dzjeng thỉnh cheng shō sei shin request
nuǎn nwanX noãn nan nan dan non warm
/ tóu duw đầu twu zu head
tsiX tử ca shi shi su child
xià haeX hạ ha ge ka a down

Since the pioneering work of Bernhard Karlgren, these bodies of pronunciations have been used together with modern varieties of Chinese in attempts to reconstruct the sounds of Middle Chinese.[2] They provide such broad and systematic coverage that the linguist Samuel Martin called them "Sino-Xenic dialects", treating them as parallel branches with the native Chinese dialects.[3][4] The foreign pronunciations sometimes retain distinctions lost in all the modern Chinese varieties, as in the case of the chongniu distinction found in Middle Chinese rhyme dictionaries.[12] Similarly the distinction between grades III and IV made by the Late Middle Chinese rime tables has disappeared in most modern varieties, but in Kan-on grade IV is represented by the Old Japanese vowels i1 and e1, while grade III is represented by i2 and e2.[13]

Vietnamese, Korean and Japanese scholars also later each adapted the Chinese script to write their languages, using Chinese characters both for borrowed and native vocabulary. Thus in the Japanese script Chinese characters may have both Sino-Japanese readings (on'yomi) and native readings (kun'yomi).[8] Similarly in the Chữ nôm script used for Vietnamese until the early 20th century, some Chinese characters could represent both a Sino-Vietnamese word and a native Vietnamese word with similar meaning or sound to the Chinese word, though in such cases the native reading would be distinguished by a special mark.[14] However in Korean characters typically have only a Sino-Korean reading.[15]

Sound correspondences[edit]

Foreign pronunciations of these words inevitably only approximated the original Chinese, and many distinctions were lost. In particular Korean and Japanese had far fewer consonants and much simpler syllables than Chinese, and also lacked tones. A further complication is that the various borrowings are based on different local pronunciations at different periods. Nevertheless it is common to treat the pronunciations as developments from the categories of the Middle Chinese rhyme dictionaries.

Middle Chinese is recorded as having eight series of initial consonants, though it is likely that no single dialect distinguished them all. Stops and affricates could also be voiced, voiceless or voiceless aspirated.[16] Early Vietnamese had a similar three-way division, but the voicing contrast would later disappear in the tone split that affected several languages in the Mainland Southeast Asia linguistic area, including Vietnamese and most Chinese varieties.[17] Old Japanese had only a two-way contrast based on voicing, while Middle Korean had only one obstruent at each point of articulation.

Correspondences of initial consonants[18][19]
Middle Chinese Sino-Vietnamese Sino-Korean Go-on Kan-on Tōsō-on
Labials 幫 p p > b p/ph ɸ > h ɸ > h ɸ > h
滂 ph pʰ, b > b/ph/v
並 b b
明 m m > m/v m m b[b] m
Dentals 端 t t > đ t/th t t t
透 th tʰ > th
定 d d > đ d
泥 n n n n d[c] n
來 l l l r r r
Retroflex stops 知 tr ʈ > tr c/ch t t s
徹 trh ʂ > s
澄 dr ɖ > tr d
Dental sibilants 精 ts s > t s s
清 tsh ɕ > th
從 dz s > t z
心 s s s
邪 z z
Retroflex sibilants 莊 tsr ʈ > tr c/ch s
初 tsrh ʂ > s
崇 dzr z
生 sr s s
Palatals 章 tsy c > ch c/ch
昌 tsyh tʃ > x
禪 dzy ɕ > th s z
書 sy s
船 zy z
日 ny ɲ > nh z > ∅ n z z
Velars 見 k k > c/g k/h k k k
溪 kh kʰ > kh
群 g ɡ > c k g
疑 ng ŋ > ng h g g
Laryngeals 影 ʔ ʔ > y
曉 x h h k k
匣 h ɣ > g/w

The Middle Chinese final consonants were semivowels /j/ and /w/, nasals /m/, /n/ and /ŋ/, and stops /p/, /t/ and /k/. Sino-Vietnamese and Sino-Korean preserve all the distinctions between final nasals and stops, as do southern Chinese varieties such as Yue. Sino-Vietnamese has in addition added allophonic distinctions to -ng and -k based on whether the preceding vowel is front (-nh, -ch) or back (-ng, -c). In Go-on and Kan-on, the Middle Chinese coda -ng yielded a nasalized vowel, which has become a long vowel in modern Japanese[20] (for example, 東京 Tōkyō, is Dōngjīng in Mandarin Chinese). Also, as Japanese cannot end words with consonants (except for moraic n), borrowings of Middle Chinese words ending in a stop had a paragoge added, so that for example 國 (Middle Chinese kwok) was borrowed as koku.

Correspondences of final consonants[19][21]
Middle Chinese Sino-Vietnamese Sino-Korean Go-on Kan-on Tōsō-on
m m m /N/ /N/ /N/
n n n
ng ng/nh ng ũ > ū ũ/ĩ > ū/ī
p p p ɸu ɸu /Q/
t t l ti > chi tu > tsu
k c/ch k ku ku/ki

Middle Chinese had a three-way tonal contrast in syllables with vocalic or nasal endings. As Japanese lacks tones, Sino-Japanese borrowings preserve no trace of Chinese tones. Most Middle Chinese tones were preserved in the tones of Middle Korean, but these have since been lost in all but a few dialects.[22] Sino-Vietnamese, in contrast, reflects the Chinese tones faithfully, including the Late Middle Chinese split of each tone into two registers conditioned by voicing of the initial. The correspondence to the Chinese rising and departing tones is reversed from the earlier loans, so that the Vietnamese hỏi and ngã tones reflect the Chinese upper and lower rising tone, while the sắc and nặng tones reflect the upper and lower departing tone. Unlike northern Chinese varieties, Sino-Vietnamese places level-tone words with sonorant initials in the upper level (ngang) category.[23]

Linguistic effects[edit]

Large numbers of Chinese words were borrowed into Vietnamese, Korean and Japanese, and still form a large and important part of their lexicons.

In the case of Japanese, this influx led to changes in the phonological structure of the language. Old Japanese syllables had the form (C)V, with vowel sequences being avoided. To accommodate the Chinese loanwords, syllables were extended with glides as in myō, vowel sequences as in mei, geminate consonants and a final nasal, leading to the moraic structure of later Japanese. Voiced sounds (b, d, z, g and r) were now permitted in word-initial position where they had previously been impossible.[11][24]

The influx of Chinese vocabulary contributed to the development of Middle Korean tones, which are still present in some dialects.[15][25] Sino-Korean words have also disrupted the native structure in which l does not occur in word-initial position and words show vowel harmony.[15]

Chinese morphemes have been used extensively in all these languages to coin compound words for new concepts, in a similar way to the use of Latin and Ancient Greek roots in English.[26] Many new compounds, or new meanings for old phrases, were created in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to name Western concepts and artifacts. These coinages, written in shared Chinese characters, have then been borrowed freely between languages. They have even been accepted into Chinese, a language usually resistant to loanwords, because their foreign origin was hidden by their written form. Often different compounds for the same concept were in circulation for some time before a winner emerged, and sometimes the final choice differed between countries.[27]

The proportion of vocabulary of Chinese origin thus tends to be greater in technical, abstract or formal language. For example, Sino-Japanese words account for about 35% of the words in entertainment magazines (where borrowings from English are common), over half the words in newspapers, and 60% of the words in science magazines.[28]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ transcribed using Baxter's notation. The initial h- represents a voiced fricative ɣ or ɦ,[29] while the final letters X and H represent the rising and departing tones respectively.[30]
  2. ^ Yields m- in syllables ending in original -ng.[31]
  3. ^ Yields n- in syllables ending in original -ng.[31]


  1. ^ a b Miyake (2004), pp. 98–99.
  2. ^ a b c d Norman (1988), p. 34.
  3. ^ a b Miyake (2004), p. 98.
  4. ^ a b Martin (1953), p. 4.
  5. ^ Alves (2009), pp. 623–628.
  6. ^ Sohn & Lee (2003), pp. 23–24.
  7. ^ Miyake (2004), p. 100.
  8. ^ a b Shibatani (1990), p. 120.
  9. ^ a b Shibatani (1990), p. 121.
  10. ^ Miller (1967), pp. 106, 111, 336.
  11. ^ a b Loveday (1996), p. 41.
  12. ^ Baxter (1992), pp. 75–79.
  13. ^ Pulleyblank (1984), p. 96.
  14. ^ Hannas (1997), pp. 90–81.
  15. ^ a b c Sohn (2001), p. 89.
  16. ^ Baxter (1992), pp. 45–46.
  17. ^ Norman (1988), p. 53.
  18. ^ Miyake (2004), pp. 112–115.
  19. ^ a b Miller (1967), pp. 105–110.
  20. ^ Miller (1967), p. 105.
  21. ^ Miyake (2004), p. 112.
  22. ^ Lee & Ramsey (2011), pp. 168–169.
  23. ^ Pulleyblank (1984), pp. 160–161.
  24. ^ Shibatani (1990), pp. 120–121.
  25. ^ Lee & Ramsey (2000), pp. 168–169.
  26. ^ Shibatani (1990), p. 146.
  27. ^ Wilkinson (2000), p. 43.
  28. ^ Shibatani (1990), p. 143.
  29. ^ Baxter (1992), p. 58.
  30. ^ Baxter (1992), p. 31.
  31. ^ a b Miller (1967), p. 106.
Works cited

Further reading[edit]