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Sound & Symbol in Chinese

Sound & Symbol in Chinese

by Bernhard Karlgren


Oxford university press

Humphrey Milford



While the Indo-European languages and many other tongues, to a large extent and with great lucidity as a result, make use of such inflexional affixes, Chinese on the whole does without these devices, and thus employs words without modification in the most diverse functions and connexions. The word jen means equally ' man ', ' man's', ' men ', ' men's ', and ' the man ', ' the man's ', ' the men ', ' the men's ' ; …men '. There is no sign in the phrase to indicate number (man or men), case (man or man's), the definite or indefinite form (man, a man, or the man). In the same way lai is equivalent to the infinitive ' to come ' as well as to various forms of that verb, which, in German for example, are inflected : komme, konimst, kommt, kommen, kommet.


The definition of Chinese as on the one hand isolating, and on the other hand monosyllabic, is based mainly on a comparison with other languages ; but, at the same time, its definition as monosyllabic necessitates the consideration of Chinese by itself. There is in this a slight inconsistency in regard to the point of departure, but we shall find, if we keep apart the relative and the absolute description, that the various characteristics of the relative description may be reduced to a single absolute quality. Thus, from the relative point of view, seen against the background of our European languages, Chinese has three negative characteristics.

1. It has not, as certain other languages, disyllabic or polysyllabic stem-words (kitchen, anchor).

2. It has no simple words formed with derivative affixes (writ-er, lean-ness).

3. It has no words varied by inflexional affixes (puellarum).

These three negative characterizations, the first and second of which, taken together, imply that Chinese has no simple words of more than one syllable, and the second and third of which, taken together, imply that Chinese does not employ affixes to indicate grammatical categories, are in reality equivalent to the following single positive characterization :

From the absolute point of view, considered by itself, Chinese has this special character, that, when we analyse its sentences into the simple words of which they consist (either as independent words or as members of compounds), these words are found to be fixed monosyllables.

Like a set of building-blocks of the same size and pattern, Chinese words are assembled into the structure called a sentence.

This uniformity, though it is the most important characteristic of the phases of the language with which we are most familiar, has not always existed. Traces remain of disyllabic stem-words, certain peculiarities in the ‘tone ' (see chapter III) are vestiges of derivative affixes, and the prose of the latter part of the Chou dynasty (1122- 249 B.C.) has been shown to possess case-inflexion in personal pronouns. Just as English has nowadays no inflexional distinction in nouns between nominative 'the man' and accusative ' the man ', but still preserves a trace of an older stage in the pronouns /, me, thou, thee, in the same way Chinese had formerly nominative nguo ' I ', accusative nga ' me ', nominative niwo ' thou ', accusative nia˰ ' thee '. The old theory which classified Chinese as a 'primitive' language, not yet raised to the inflexional status, is the opposite of the truth. Chinese, in fact, has followed exactly the same line of evolution as the Indo-European languages in the gradual loss of synthetic terminations, with all the stronger appeal to the listener's (or reader's) faculty of purely logical analysis. English is perhaps in this respect the most highly developed Indo-European language ; but Chinese has progressed much further.

Tags: китайский

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