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History of the Chinese language

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The earliest historical linguistic evidence of the spoken Chinese language dates back approximately 4500 years,[1] while examples of the writing system that would become written Chinese are attested in a body of inscriptions made on bronze vessels and oracle bones during the Late Shang period (c. 1250 – 1050 BCE),[2][3] with the very oldest dated to c. 1200 BCE.[4]


Proto-Sinitic (before 1250 BCE)[edit]

One hypothetical scenario for the homeland and spread of Proto-Sino-Tibetan speakers between 3250 and 1600 BCE, based on a 2019 database of comparative archaeological data developed by Laurent Sagart et al.[5]

The oldest attested written Chinese—comprising the oracle bone inscriptions made during the 13th century BCE by the Shang dynasty royal house in modern Anyang, Henan—is also the earliest direct evidence of the Sinitic languages. Most experts agree that Sinitic languages share a common ancestor with the Tibeto-Burman languages, forming the primary Sino-Tibetan family. However, the precise placement of Sinitic within Sino-Tibetan is a matter of debate.[6] Reconstructing the common ancestor of all Sino-Tibetan languages, known as Proto-Sino-Tibetan—a language last spoken thousands of years before the historical record—has been challenging. Even though Chinese characters are logographs that do not encode the sounds of speech directly, written Chinese allows for the partial reconstruction of how ancient forms of the language sounded. No such evidence exists for earlier stages, including where Sinitic would have split from other branches of Sino-Tibetan.[7] There are several reasons that the comparative method conventionally used in historical linguistics has had limited success in reconstructing the history of Sino-Tibetan compared to the results achieved with other major language families like Indo-European:[8]

  1. Relatively few Sino-Tibetan languages, of which Chinese is one, have written traditions old enough to provide useful comparative evidence.
  2. In areas where Sino-Tibetan languages are spoken, there have historically been high rates of population transfer. This has resulted in many areal features shared between languages, making it difficult to determine which relationships—not only cognates in vocabulary, but also grammatical features—are phylogenetic.
  3. Languages that make heavier use of morphology generally provide more data useful in historical comparisons, i.e. the conjugated and derived forms of words. Compared to Indo-European languages like Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit, Sino-Tibetan languages are highly isolating and exhibit very little morphology, making it difficult to identify cognates.

Pre-Classical period (1300–500 BCE)[edit]

Old Chinese, sometimes known as "Archaic Chinese", is ancestral to all current Chinese languages. The first known use of the Chinese writing system is divinatory inscriptions into tortoise shells and oracle bones during the Shang dynasty (1766–1122 BCE). During the first half of the Zhou dynasty (1122–256 BCE), writing descended from the Shang is found texts including inscriptions on bronze artefacts, the Classic of Poetry, the history of the Book of Documents, and portions of the I Ching. Phonetic elements found in the majority of Chinese characters also provide hints to their Old Chinese pronunciations, as do the pronunciations of borrowed Chinese characters in Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese.[citation needed] Old Chinese was not wholly uninflected. It possessed a rich sound system in which aspiration or rough breathing differentiated the consonants, but was probably still without tones. Work on reconstructing Old Chinese started with Qing dynasty philologists.[citation needed]

Classical period (500 BCE – 1 CE)[edit]

Words in Old Chinese were generally monosyllabic; as such, each character denoted an independent word.[9] Affixes could be added to form a new word, which was often written with the same single character. In many cases, the pronunciations then diverged due to the systematic sound changes caused by the affixes. For example, many modern readings reflect the departing tone present in Middle Chinese, which many scholars now believe is a reflex of a derivational suffix /*-s/ that served a range of semantic functions in Old Chinese. This is possibly the only example of inflectional morphology extant in what was otherwise an analytic language:[10][11]

Evolution of character senses as caused by the Old Chinese 去聲 (qùshēng)
Character OC[α] MC[β] mod. Gloss
[12] *drjon drjwen' chuán 'to transmit'
*drjons drjwenH zhuàn 'a record'
[12] *maj ma 'to grind'
*majs maH 'grindstone'
宿[13] *sjuk sjuwk 'to stay overnight'
*sjuks sjuwH xiù 'celestial mansion'
[14] *hljot sywet shuō 'speak'
*hljots sywejH shuì 'exhort'

Another common sound change occurred between voiced and voiceless initials, though the phonemic voicing distinction has disappeared in most modern varieties. This is believed to reflect an Old Chinese de-transitivising prefix, but scholars disagree on whether the voiced or voiceless form reflects the original root. Each pair of examples below reflects two words of opposite transitivity.[citation needed]

Evolution of character transitivity pairs from Old Chinese
Character OC[α] MC[β] mod. Gloss
[15] *kens kenH jiàn 'to see'
*gens henH xiàn 'to appear'
[15] *prats pæjH bài[a] 'to defeat'
*brats bæjH 'to be defeated'
[16] *tjat tsyet zhé 'to bend'
*djat dzyet shé 'to be broken by bending'

Eastern Han period (1–300 CE)[edit]

Middle Chinese (300–1100)[edit]

Middle Chinese was a form of Chinese used during the Sui, Tang, and Song dynasties between the 4th and 10th centuries. It can be divided into two periods: Early Middle Chinese is documented in the Qieyun (601), the first rime dictionary, and a later revision in the Guangyun (1008). Late Middle Chinese is reflected by rime tables such as the Yunjing. The evidence for the pronunciation of Middle Chinese comes from several sources: modern dialect variations, rime dictionaries, foreign transliterations, rime tables constructed by ancient Chinese philologists to summarize the phonetic system, and Chinese phonetic translations of foreign words.

Early Modern Chinese (1100–1900)[edit]

The development of Chinese has been complex. The prevalence of Mandarin throughout northern China is due in part to the open plains of northern China, in contrast to the mountains and rivers of southern China that enabled greater linguistic diversity.[citation needed] Moreover, Mandarin, called Guanhua ('officials' speech') was at first based on the Nanjing dialect, and became the dominant vernacular in northern China during the early Qing. It was gradually challenged by the variety used by scholar-officials of Beijing. In the 17th century, the Qing began setting up orthoepy academies to conform pronunciation to the Beijing standard, but had little success.[citation needed]

Modern Chinese (1900 – present)[edit]

During the late 19th century, the Beijing dialect finally replaced the Nanjing dialect in the imperial court. For the general population, although varieties of Mandarin were already widely spoken in China, a single standard of Mandarin did not exist. Non-Mandarin speakers in southern China continued to use their local varieties in most aspects of life. The area where the new Beijing court dialect was used was thus fairly limited.[citation needed]

This situation changed with the creation of an elementary school education system committed to teaching Standard Chinese in both mainland China and Taiwan, but not Hong Kong or Macau. At the time that it was being widely introduced in these places, the British colony of Hong Kong did not use it at all. In Hong Kong, Macau, Guangdong and parts of Guangxi, Cantonese remains the everyday language used in business and education. The Chinese language has adopted a wide array of foreign words, which have been adapted to Chinese dialects and pronunciation, referred to as the sinification of foreign words.[citation needed]

After the establishment of the Kuomintang (KMT), the 1913 Commission on the Unification of Pronunciation planned to use Guanhua as the basis of a national dialect, redubbing it as Guoyu ('national language').[17] Continuing previous policies, the People's Republic of China sought to further standardize a common language, now dubbed Standard Chinese, for national and political unity. The "Decision of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee and State Council Concerning Elimination of Illiteracy" of March 1956 solidified the Communist Party's plans to reform the country's traditional characters to a simplified writing system to improve literacy.[18]

Besides the standard writing systems promoted by the government, no other written form of Chinese has seen widespread use to an extent comparable to that of Standard Chinese.[19]


  1. ^ a b According to Baxter's 1992 reconstruction of Old Chinese
  2. ^ a b Using Baxter's transcription for Middle Chinese
  1. ^ In this case, the pronunciations have converged in Standard Chinese, but they have not in other varieties.



  1. ^ Norman 1988, p. 4.
  2. ^ Kern 2010, p. 1.
  3. ^ Keightley 1978, p. xvi.
  4. ^ Bagley 2004; Boltz 1999, p. 109.
  5. ^ Sagart et al. 2019, pp. 10319–10320.
  6. ^ Thurgood & LaPolla 2017, p. 5; Handel 2015, p. 37–38.
  7. ^ Norman 1988, pp. 12–16.
  8. ^ Handel 2015, p. 40–41.
  9. ^ Norman 1988, p. 58.
  10. ^ Zhang, Shuya (2022), "Rethinking the *-s suffix in Old Chinese: with new evidence from Situ Rgyalrong" (PDF), Folia Linguistica, 56 (s43–s1): 129–167, doi:10.1515/flin-2022-2014, ISSN 0165-4004, S2CID 248002645
  11. ^ Baxter 1992, pp. 315–317.
  12. ^ a b Baxter 1992, p. 315.
  13. ^ Baxter 1992, p. 316.
  14. ^ Baxter 1992, pp. 197, 305.
  15. ^ a b Baxter 1992, p. 218.
  16. ^ Baxter 1992, p. 219.
  17. ^ DeFrancis 1984, p. 224.
  18. ^ DeFrancis 1984, p. 295.
  19. ^ Norman 1988, p. 3.

Works cited[edit]