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Feb 26, 2008

Review of ABC Etymological Dictionary of Old Chinese

This book arrived in the mail from Amazon yesterday, and kicks my ass in more ways than one. If you like this sort of thing, you don't need me to tell you much about it. Pinyin news covers its release, and Forumosa has a thread about it.

The meat of the introduction:

Each entry offers one or more possible etymologies as well as reconstructed pronunciations and other relevant data. Words that are morphologically related are grouped together into “word families” that attempt to make explicit the derivational or other etymological processes that relate them. The dictionary is preceded by a substantive and significant introduction that outlines the author’s views on the linguistic position of Chinese within Asia and details the phonological and morphological properties, to the degree they are known, of the earliest stages of the Chinese language and its ancestor. This introduction, because it both summarizes and synthesizes earlier work and makes several original contributions, functions as a useful reference work all on its own.

For example, we all know that lin2 林 and sen1 森 look a lot alike; but would it surprise you to learn they also once sounded more similar and were even probably cognates, differing only in the onset?

lin2 林 (Middle Chinese ljəm), late Han lim, Minimal Old Chinese *rəm
"Forest, forester"

sen1 森 MC jəm, LH ɨm, OCM *srəm
"Forest, dense thicket"; probably an intensive derivative of lin2, possibly influenced by AA parallels.

Phonetic reconstruction may be the nerdiest of all topics in the history of the world, but do I ever love this dictionary. I've asked the legandary Bill Baxter what he thinks of the work, and he came gave me a very positive review by e-mail as well as revealing he and Sagart are on a database that will serve a similar function and will eventually be on the internet, when it's ready.


Robert said...

Thanks for bringing this up! I've never heard of the book, but I'm going to give it a look.

I love this kind of stuff. I recently read Empires of the Word by Nicholas Ostler, which you may also like. It's fascinating to see how interlinked all these languages are.

There's a fair amount in there about Chinese too. For instance, did you know there used to be, if I remember correctly, TEN TONES in Chinese, and not just the measly four we struggle with today.

Thanks again.

阿牛 said...

As far as I know, Minimal Old Chinese was not tonal; the next step was a 4 tone system; that 4 tone system eventually split into 8 tones; various dialects may have added even more; and then in the north, the 8 tones probably re-merged into 4 tones again.

Robert said...

Sounds about right...My book is in Taiwan, and I'm in South Carolina.

Can't really check my source. I'm just happy I wasn't learning Chinese when there were double the tones.