Literary and colloquial readings of Chinese characters

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Literary and colloquial readings of Chinese characters
Traditional Chinese文白異讀
Simplified Chinese文白异读

Differing literary and colloquial readings for certain Chinese characters are a common feature of many Chinese varieties, and the reading distinctions for these linguistic doublets often typify a dialect group. Literary readings (文讀; wéndú) are usually used in formal loan words or names, when reading aloud, and in formal settings, while colloquial readings (白讀; báidú) are usually used in everyday vernacular speech.

For example, in Mandarin the character for the word "white" () is generally pronounced bái ([pǎi]), but as a name or in certain formal or historical settings it can be pronounced ([pwǒ]); this example is particularly well-known due to its effect on the modern pronunciation of the names of the Tang dynasty (618–907) poets Bai Juyi and Li Bai (alternatively, "Bo Juyi" and "Li Bo").

Generally speaking, colloquial readings preserve more ancient and conservative pronunciations, while literary readings represent newer pronunciations influenced by the dialects of historical capital areas such as Nanjing or Beijing. The case is reversed in Mandarin Chinese, however, where literary pronunciations are usually older.

Characteristics[edit]

For a given Chinese variety, colloquial readings typically reflect native phonology,[1] while literary readings typically originate from other Chinese varieties,[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 variety 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 varieties, 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 varieties, 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[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 Literary reading
IPA Jyutping Meaning IPA Jyutping Meaning
tsiᴇŋ tsɛŋ˥ zeng1 clever tsɪŋ˥ zing1 spirit
tɕiᴇŋ tsɛŋ˧ zeng3 correct, good tsɪŋ˧ zing3 correct
dziᴇŋ tsɛŋ˨ zeng6 clean tsɪŋ˨ zing6 clean
kɣiæŋ kɛŋ˥ geng1 be afraid kɪŋ˥ ging1 frighten
bɣiæŋ pʰɛŋ˨˩ peng4 inexpensive pʰɪŋ˨˩ ping4 flat
tsʰeŋ tsʰɛŋ˥ ceng1 blue/green, pale tsʰɪŋ˥ cing1 blue/green
ɦep kɛp˨ gep6 clamp kip˨ gip6 clamp
siᴇk sɛk˧ sek3 cherish, (v.) kiss sɪk˥ sik1 lament
ʃɣæŋ saŋ˥ saang1 raw, (honorific name suffix) sɐŋ˥ sang1 (v.) live, person
ʃɣæŋ saŋ˥ saang1 livestock sɐŋ˥ sang1 livestock
deu tɛu˨ deu6 discard tiu˨ diu6 turn, discard
lʌi lɐi˨˩ lai4 come lɔi˨˩ loi4 come
使 ʃɨ sɐi˧˥ sai2 use si˧˥ si2 (v.) cause, envoy
Notes:

1. Middle Chinese reconstruction according to Zhengzhang Shangfang. 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[which?] adopting a colloquial reading for a character while another standard adopts a literary reading.[citation needed]

Examples of literary readings adopted into the Beijing dialect:

Chinese character Middle Chinese1 Literary reading Colloquial reading
IPA Pinyin IPA Pinyin
hək xɤ˥˩ xei˥ hēi
bɣæk pwɔ˧˥ pai˧˥ bái
bwɑk pwɔ˧˥ pɑʊ˧˥ báo
pɣʌk pwɔ˥ pɑʊ˥ bāo
kɣiɪp tɕi˨˩˦ kei˨˩˦ gěi
kʰɣʌk kʰɤ˧˥ tɕʰjɑʊ˥˩ qiào
luo lu˥˩ lɤʊ˥˩ lòu
lɨuk lu˥˩ ljɤʊ˥˩ liù
dʑɨuk ʂu˧˥ shú ʂɤʊ˧˥ shóu
ʃɨk sɤ˥˩ ʂai˨˩˦ shǎi
sɨɐk ɕɥɛ˥ xuē ɕjɑʊ˥ xiāo
kɣʌk tɕɥɛ˧˥ jué tɕjɑʊ˨˩˦ jiǎo
hwet ɕɥɛ˥˩ xuè ɕjɛ˨˩˦ xiě
Notes:

1. Middle Chinese reconstruction according to Zhengzhang Shangfang. 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
IPA Pinyin IPA Pinyin
kɣʌŋ tɕjɑŋ˨˩˦ jiǎng kɑŋ˨˩˦ gǎng
Notes:

1. Middle Chinese reconstruction according to Zhengzhang Shangfang. 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 pronunciation 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 生菜
/zəɲ/ in 人民 /ɲiɲ/ in 大人
/dɑ/ in 大饼 /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 (讀音) from spoken pronunciations (語音) and explications (解說). Hokkien dictionaries in Taiwan often differentiate between such character readings with prefixes for literary readings and colloquial readings (文 and 白, respectively).

The following examples in Pe̍h-oē-jī show differences in character readings in Taiwanese Hokkien:[11][12]

Chinese character Reading pronunciations Spoken pronunciations / explications English
pe̍k pe̍h white
biān bīn face
su chu book
seng seⁿ / siⁿ student
put not
hóan tńg return
ha̍k o̍h to study
jîn / lîn lâng person
siàu chió few
chóan tńg to turn

In addition, some characters have multiple and unrelated pronunciations, adapted to represent Hokkien words. For example, the Hokkien word bah ("meat") is often written with the character 肉, which has etymologically unrelated colloquial and literary readings (he̍k and jio̍k, respectively).[13][14]

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)

See also[edit]

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. (2010). "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. ^ 臺灣閩南語常用詞辭典 [Dictionary of Frequently-Used Taiwan Minnan] (in Chinese). Ministry of Education, R.O.C. 2011.
  13. ^ Klöter, Henning (2005). Written Taiwanese. Otto Harrassowitz Verlag. p. 21. ISBN 978-3-447-05093-7.
  14. ^ "Entry #2607 (肉)". 臺灣閩南語常用詞辭典 [Dictionary of Frequently-Used Taiwan Minnan] (in Chinese and Hokkien). Ministry of Education, R.O.C. 2011.