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Review of  «Antikchinesisch - Ein Lehrbuch in zwei Teilen» und Begleitband «Grammatik des Antikchinesischen»

Reviewer: David Stifter
Book Title: «Antikchinesisch - Ein Lehrbuch in zwei Teilen» und Begleitband «Grammatik des Antikchinesischen»
Book Author: Robert H. Gassmann Wolfgang Behr
Publisher: Peter Lang AG
Linguistic Field(s): Language Documentation
Subject Language(s): Chinese, Old
Issue Number: 25.1010

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This publication is the third, revised edition of a previously published set of books. The present version consists of three volumes of quite diverse character that can be used more or less independently of each other, but that still are sewn together by their overall purpose and orientation. Volumes 1 and 2 [= Schweizer Asiatische Studien Studienhefte 19/1 and 19/2] and volume 3 [= Studienheft 20] are also available separately, with different ISBNs. A further booklet of 25 pages in pdf format (Gassmann & Behr 2008), which contains the proposed translations of the chrestomathy (vol. 2), can be obtained by email from the authors. Thus, the complete work consists of four volumes and almost 1300 pages. The authors held resp. hold the chair of Chinese Studies at the University of Zurich, and it is there that the work was developed and tested in the classroom. Since the authors envisage it as “propädeutisch”, i.e. introductory for beginners in the discipline, the didactic aspect will be in the foreground here. The authors define the subject of their work, “Antikchinesisch” (Ancient Chinese = AC), as the period from 800 BC -- 200 AD (III: 15). This is the period when a great number of classics were written that have exerted intellectual influence over the ensuing millennia. However, the present work is not meant as an introduction to the language of those following centuries. Classical Chinese is structurally a different kind of language, as becomes clear from perusing this work.

Book 1: The first volume (242 pages) offers, by way of five ‘elements’, i.e. chapters, a first concise exposure to the grammar which in the case of AC first and foremost means syntax. The chapters progress from small phrases to complex textual units: Der Nominalsatz (‘the nominal clause’) -- Die Nominalphrase (‘the nominal phrase’) -- Der Verbalsatz (‘the verbal clause’) -- Nebensätze (‘dependent clauses’) -- Texte (‘texts’). Interspersed are 33 exercises in which the learners are asked to form AC sentences themselves. The explicit didactic strategy is not one of passive reception of the ancient language, but rather active engagement with the language as a system. Therefore the vocabulary is limited to a mere 150 items in the first volume. Instead of having to learn an unceasing stream of words and characters, the emphasis is on practicing the fundamental structures and syntactic patterns of the language. The lexical material is drawn from the “terminologisch geschlossenes [...] Korrespondenzsystem” (I: 7), a closed set of words for items of the natural world that form part of a cross-referential ideology of ‘elements’. This provides also a first acquaintance with an unfamiliar view of the world. Volume 1 concludes with a systematic glossary containing the entire vocabulary of volumes 1 and 2 (I: 103-207), a key to selected exercises (I: 209-224), and a brief guide to writing the Chinese characters that occur in volume 1 (227-237).

Book 2: The learner of AC is also perfectly served by the authors in the second volume (505 pages). It consists of thirty excerpts of diverse length from authentic AC texts. Each text is first printed in Chinese characters. No punctuation is used, but each text is split into small, numbered units which correspond to self-contained sentences. Each text is immediately followed by a comprehensive glossary of all vocabulary occurring in the text, in order of appearance. For each word, its Middle Chinese and AC reconstructions are provided, the word class and, in the case of verbs, the valency is indicated, and for each character its affiliation to a radical letter is given. Although it may seem like a waste of space at first that even basic lexical items are repeated in every single chapter, this soon proves to greatly facilitate the reading experience, by saving the students a lot of time which in a larger comprehensive glossary they would have to spend on flicking through pages in search of words. Furthermore, since the semantic breadth of AC words typically entails a large and not infrequently bewildering number of correspondences in Western languages, and since AC lexical items may belong and/or correspond to diverse word-classes, depending on the context, these tailor-made glossaries restrict the meanings and word-classes to what is actually required by the particular passage. For the beginner, it saves a lot of headaches not to have to determine oneself what the exact nuance of a word in a text is, and again this enhances the feeling of accomplishment.

After the glossary, the extensive “Grammatiknotizen” (grammatical notes) follow. The thoroughness with which the authors have gone about their task here is exemplary. Every single sentence is first repeated in Chinese characters. Underneath these follows a pīnyīn transcription with modern punctuation. It is most useful that the authors spell out in square brackets in the transcription all those underlying elements which have been deleted in the surface representation of the sentence and which, for the correct understanding of the sentence, need to be supplied by the reader from the context. Since AC is a language that is notable for a particular fondness for brevity and lack of explicitness, the omitted constituents of the sentence can occasionally outnumber those expressed, like in the following example (II: 83; from Lǐ Jì 1A):

[rén shēng] qī=shí [nián], [zé rén] yuē: ‘lǎo’.
‘[When a person’s life] (lasts) seventy [years], [then the person] is called: ‘old one’.’

This transcription is then followed by a phonological reconstruction of the sentence, as it may have sounded in the AC period. For example, for the sentence just cited, the reconstruction (only of the surface form) is:

*s-hnit=gip, wat: ‘(Cǝ-)rru-q’. [NB: the authors use q to represent the glottal stop ˀ.]

Finally, in the commentary every sentence is meticulously broken up into its syntactic components. Starting with the valency of the main clause verb, each of its arguments is identified and its syntactic role discussed. Those constituents that, in the authors’ analysis, have to be supplied by the reader receive ample justification. Again, this means that the authors lend the beginner a helpful hand in the interpretation, and a feeling for constituent deletion in AC can develop gradually in this way. Where appropriate, the authors discuss the etymology of crucial lexemes, that is, they point out the relationships with other Chinese lexemes within the sphere of AC derivational morphology. These grammatical comments are remarkably explicit and leave no question that a beginner may ask unanswered. In the commentary to almost each and every single sentence the authors start from scratch. Only in the rarest instance, when a text contains a sequence of syntactically parallel utterances, do the authors allow themselves to abbreviate the discussion by referring the student to the structural analysis of the preceding sentences. This procedure naturally leads to a lot of repetition; but, like in the case of the glossaries for each of the texts, in this way each text stands as a lesson on its own and can be used, for private study and for classroom teaching, without reference to any other section.

Book 3: The final volume (523 pages) is concerned with a systematic description of the basic syntactic structures of AC. Although not adhering strictly to one grammatical theory, the authors view their own approach as structuralist and use an early generative method of describing and analysing phrases and sentences. In the absence of any overt morphology of AC (see below on covert morphology), the grammar is fundamentally a description of the syntax of various levels of constituents, ranging from phrases to clauses and to sentences. Only chapter 10 (III: 399–464) deviates from this pattern. It contains a concise introduction to such diverse matters as “Genealogie, Phonologie und Morphologie des Antikchinesischen” (''Genealogy, phonology and morphology of Ancient Chinese''): in it, the authors discuss critically various proposals about the genetic affiliation of Chinese; they explain in a nutshell the principles of reconstructing the phonology of AC, a notoriously difficult task for a language with a logographic literary tradition; and, most innovatively for a handbook of AC, they lay out the principles of the derivational morphology that is reconstructible for the language. The bibliography takes up pages 507-522.

Although the three volumes in their present configuration are outwardly different in character, they are still closely connected by their didactic intent. This work is explicitly meant to be a resource for the classroom teaching and learning, with a teacher guiding students. The authors have included detailed instructions for using the books (I: 8-9, II: 7-11). As such, it is an excellent resource for beginning AC. The novice learner is absolutely in the focus of the authors’ attention, especially in the first two volumes. The work stands out pleasantly from other introductions by not assuming previous knowledge of the phonology and phonetics of Modern Chinese, but by providing pronunciation rules, albeit not in vol. 1 where the beginner might expect them but in vol. 3 (III: 434).

While the limited vocabulary in volume 1 may perhaps border on the tedious at times, the authors succeed in not overburdening the student with learning vocabulary and the corresponding Chinese characters at this initial stage. The amount of guidance offered, especially in the commentary sections of volume 2, is exemplary. If I could make one wish: more explanations about the literary and historical contexts of the selected texts and the individual sentences would be desirable in the commentaries, in addition to their astonishing grammatical comprehensiveness.

Students who choose to engage with a language like AC that -- at least on first impression -- is so ostensibly exotic and difficult to access, are almost by implication highly motivated. Such students should be regarded as mature enough to use auxiliary material in a responsible way for checking and verifying their own translation attempts, not just for copying solutions. Therefore, I think, for practical purposes the authors should consider adding the solutions for volume 2 as a separate booklet to the set, or attach them at the back of the book or make them freely downloadable, instead of requiring interested persons to obtain them privately as a pdf from the authors. When the work is used for self-teaching, considerable linguistic knowledge is a prerequisite, especially to tackle volume 3. I suspect this volume will not be easily accessible to undergraduate students who are not trained in linguistics, with some of the discussions too complex and too theoretical. On the other hand, this makes it valuable for specialists.

The work is written in German. This may undeservedly reduce its competitiveness on a book market which has seen the appearance of several English introductions to the older stages of Chinese in the past years (Fuller 2004, Barnes 2007 and others). The elaborate German acdaemic syntax which the authors use when they explain the grammar, especially the syntax of AC, will render the work even less accessible to users with other mothertongues. One would wish that this work be also translated into English for a wider readership.

This work is particularly notable in that the authors constantly and systematically refer the reader to the state-of-the-art in regard to the historical phonology and morphology of AC. In several respects, the use of AC phonological and morphological reconstructions has a tremendous impact on the objective characteristics of the language and its subjective perception. First, the dazzling number of homophones that is the result of reading the characters according to the Modern Chinese standard gives way to a considerably richer variation in sound and form. Second, the poetic structure of ancient texts becomes apparent when the original rhymes and assonances are restored (e.g., II: 119). And third, looking at the language in this form leads to a very different impression of AC, not as a perfectly isolating language, but as a language with morphology, perhaps even with -- optional -- case marking. What is meant by morphology in AC is, at first sight, covert, concealed by the “allzu bezaubernder Schleier der Schriftzeichen” (‘the all too charming veil of the written characters’; II: 10). On the level of the Modern Chinese phonology, which is traditionally used in the pronunciation of AC texts, the manifold derivational connections between the lexical items cannot be recognised. Obliterated by the sound changes that Chinese underwent from the ancient to the modern period, many of the lexical items that originally belonged together have developed in phonetically diverse directions. For example, when one confronts the conjunction suì ‘thereupon’, the adverb yù ‘thereupon’, the verb shù ‘to follow’ and the verb shuài ‘to lead; be led’, which are all written with different, unrelated characters (only suì and shù use the same radical character, chuò ‘to walk’), it would not be immediately obvious that they are all related. It is only in their respective AC reconstructions *s-m-lut-s, *(Cǝ-)lut, *m-lut and *sr-(m-)lut that their common root *lut ‘to follow’ emerges, amplified by various pre- and suffixes (II: 398). Only rarely does a mere change in the tone indicate the former presence of derivation.

It is also derivational, i.e. genuine morphological processes, which are at play when AC lexemes are transferred form one word class to another. According to the authors, this is not just conversion, i.e. the mere transference of a noun to the class of verbs by zero derivation, as in English ‘to e-mail’. A famous line from Kǒng Zǐ’s (Confucius’) Analects (Lùn Yǔ 12.11) illustrates this:

jūn jūn, chén chén, fù fù, zǐ zì
‘The ruler acts ruler-like, the minister acts minister-like, the father acts father-like, the son acts son-like’ (or: ‘let the ruler act like a ruler should’, etc.)

In Chinese script, the passage is written by expressing each of the four parallel utterances by using the same character twice. In each utterance, the first occurrence of the word expresses the subject, the second the verb, which describes the act of behaving like the prototypical representative of the corresponding substantive. Superficially, this could be analysed as involving conversion, like it is indeed done by Peyraube (2004: 1000; without indicating the tones), Pulleyblank (sine anno: 26; reading zǐ zǐ) and Fuller (2004: 41–42; reading zǐ zǐ implied). However, the present authors base their reading zǐ zì < *tsǝ-q tsǝ-s ‘the son acts son-like’ with morphologically marked verbal derivation on Middle Chinese sources where a difference in tone is indicated (II: 21–22). In the case of the other words, the derivational suffixes that can be assumed for AC have become obliterated beyond recognition in the course of transmission, but zǐ zì preserves a valuable trace of the original situation.

A special type of derivation is the forming of negative referents by prefixing bu ‘not’ (‘Suffix’ in the description of this process at III: 228 should be better replaced by ‘Präfix’ or the more general ‘Affix’). Effectively, this results in what in other languages would be called privative compounds.

I find particularly appealing that in this book the presentation of the grammatical facts is frequently contrasted with structures in European languages, especially German, thereby shedding light on typological characteristics of Chinese. For example, the authors make interesting remarks about the differences between AC and German language usage which may reflect different psychological and societal attitudes (these terms are my own). These differences are not only apparent in the obvious areas, like, for instance, in the pronominal system which encodes status distinctions in Chinese (III: 330), or in the notable Chinese tendency towards semantic underspecification, i.e. the suppression of redundant information in utterances, thereby creating statements that border on obscurity. Differences emerge also, for example, in the reluctance of AC to use verbs metaphorically, with the consequence of making necessary a large number of semantically very nuanced verbs (III: 47–8), or in the restrictions that pertain to what adjectives (see below on the aptness of this term) may be subjected to comparison (III: 54-55).

I conclude with a few stray remarks. A well-known trait of Chinese is that it fundamentally lacks a class of adjectives. Instead, ‘verbal attributes’, i.e. qualitative or stative verbs, are used to express qualities. The structural proof that these words are truly verbs and not something else lies in their syntactic behaviour which in all respects resembles that of verbs expressing actions. One of the few words for which the authors set up true adjectival status is taì ‘big, great’ (II: 31, II: 202). The structural reason for this extravaganza is that taì only occurs in prenominal attributive position, never in predicative constructions. As a typological parallel, it may be worth noting that in the Romance language the adjective meaning ‘big, great’ also behaves differently from most other adjectives, by being placed before the noun it qualifies, not after.

Occasionally, the syntactic rules of AC display even stronger, unexpected typological similarities with other languages. There is a rule whereby the negative bù and other particles, which the authors call case markers, attract personal pronouns from regular postverbal into preverbal position (III: 336–7), e.g.:

[X] bù wǒ zhī
SUBJ NEG PRON.1sg know
‘X does not know me’

vs. the affirmative version with the normal word order SVO:

[X] zhī wǒ yǐ
SUBJ know PRON.1sg ASPectual
‘X knows me already’

An example with a case marker with adverbial force:

yǔ wǒ fá Yí
INSTR PRON.1sg attack OBJ
‘You (pl.), attack Yí together with me’

This is strikingly reminiscent of Old Irish infixed pronouns, which by a conspiracy of several factors have also been attracted to preverbal position, e.g.

ní= m· ḟitir X
NEG= PRON.1sg= know.3sg SUBJ
‘X does not know me’


fo= m· chain loíd luin
under= PRON.1sg.= sing.3sg lay blackbird.GEN
‘a blackbird’s lay sings under me (i.e., accompanies me with singing)’

In summary, this is a great introduction to Ancient Chinese, on the one hand lending a guiding hand to absolute beginners, and at the same time providing a valuable resource about the grammatical properties of Ancient Chinese for linguists.

Barnes, Archie. 2007. Chinese through Poetry. An Introduction to the Language and Imagery of Traditional Verse. London: WritersPrintShop.

Fuller, Michael A. 2004. An Introduction to Literary Chinese (Harvard East Asian Monographs 176). Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

Gassmann, Robert H. & Wolfgang Behr. 2008. Übersetzungsvorschläge. Zürich. Available by email from Wolfgang Behr.

Peyraube, Alain. 2004. Ancient Chinese. In: Woodard, Roger D. (ed.). 2004. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the World’s Ancient Languages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 988-1014.

Pulleyblank, Edwin G. sine anno. Outline of Classical Chinese Grammar. Vancouver: UBC Press.
David Stifter, Professor of Early Irish at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth, is author of Sengoídelc: Old Irish for Beginners. His interest in Ancient Chinese comes from the point of view of the didactics of ancient languages.

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