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Review of  The Handbook of Chinese Linguistics

Reviewer: Karen Steffen Chung
Book Title: The Handbook of Chinese Linguistics
Book Author: C.T. James James Huang Y. H. Audrey Li Andrew Alexander Simpson
Publisher: Wiley
Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics
Language Documentation
Subject Language(s): Chinese, Mandarin
Issue Number: 26.4884

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Reviews Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


The Handbook of Chinese Linguistics, edited by C.-T. James Huang, Y.-H. Audrey Li, and Andrew Simpson, is a collection of overviews of selected areas of formalist Chinese linguistics. Some chapters address such areas as aspect, quantification and scope, and phonetics, while others are monographs on more specific topics. As such, it offers a diverse sampling of recent work rather than forming an integrated primer on the subject. It includes 24 chapters, divided into five parts: I. Syntax, Semantics, and Morphology; II Phonetics, Phonology, and Prosody; III. Language Acquisition and Psycholinguistics; IV. Historical Linguistics; and V. Morpho-Syntax of Other Non-Mandarin Varieties of Chinese. The full table of contents can be viewed here:

As is to be expected in an edited volume, coverage, approach, and style vary considerably from chapter to chapter. But able editing has ensured a certain level of quality, readability and uniformity of presentation throughout.

Part I: Syntax, Semantics, and Morphology

1. The volume opens with a chapter by Wei-Wen Roger Liao entitled Morphology, appropriate for a book on Chinese, with its Lego-like modular structure being one of its most prominent features. It covers derivational affixes, compound types, and the notion of morphological ''head.'' Like many other authors, Liao admits separable resultative constructions (comparable to English 'to *lick* the platter *clean*') as ''compounds.'' The chapter concludes by discussing conflicting approaches to determining what is a compound and what a phrase, including the use of separability vs. inseparability.

2. Francesca del Gobbo's chapter on Classifiers discusses the difference between ''measure words'' and ''classifiers,'' an implicational scale of what qualities are encoded in classifiers (e.g. animacy before shape, shape before use and consistency), the use of classifiers for stylistic effects, and child acquisition of classifiers.

3. Thomas Ernst's chapter on Adverbial Adjuncts focuses on where in a sentence an adverbial adjunct may appear, i.e. the degree of flexibility allowed by Chinese grammar as regards order of constituents. Some of the made-up examples, however, were judged by well-read native speakers as unnatural or ungrammatical‬, which in some cases may have theoretical implications. This could largely be solved with greater use of corpus data and rigorous checking by several native speakers early in the process.

4. T.-H. Jonah Lin opens his chapter on Light Verbs with example sentences from Japanese using _suru_ 'to do' together with a nominalized verb like _hanashi_, from _hanasu_, 'to tell,' citing its similarities to comparable light verbs in Mandarin, such as zuò 'to do'. He asks whether such light verbs are mainly empty ''placeholders'' or if they have substantive semantic content, and discusses the issue of argument selection. He compares the relative unselectiveness of argument roles of some Mandarin verbs, which he calls ''systematic and productive,'' to the relatively greater restrictions on equivalent English verbs. One point the reviewer takes issue with is found in example (13) on p. 77: Gaosugonglu-shang kai-zhe yi-pai BMW ‘There are BMWs running as a line on the freeway.’ In this sentence, the author labels ''Gaosugonglu-shang'' 'on the freeway' as a ''locative subject.'' However, in the reviewer’s analysis, ''yi-pai BMW'' 'a line of BMWs,' and not 'on the freeway,' is still the subject here.

5. Shu-ing Shyu’s Topic and Focus opens with a discussion of how new and old information are encoded in Chinese, something that should in fact be the starting point of any study of Chinese grammar. She first defines and exemplifies ''topic,'' then discusses whether its syntactic properties are derived by movement or base-generation. This is followed by a discussion on focus and focus constructions, especially ''Shi…(de)'' and ''Lian…dou/ye,'' and finally an examination of some contrast strategies of topic and focus. A strong chapter.

6. Aspect, by Hooi Ling Soh, is another especially strong chapter that offers a rigorous study of exactly how perfective aspect (with the particles _le_, _guo_, _wan_, and reduplicated verbs) and imperfective aspect (the durative ''zai,'' enclitic ''zhe,'' zero marking) are expressed in Chinese grammar. She points out that in Chinese, which lacks a tense system, aspectual information takes on some of the roles that tense markers play in a tense language like English.

7. In Sentence-Final Particles (SFPs), volume co-editor Andrew Simpson points out connections between particles and tense, and discusses the relative positions of SFPs in a sentence according to function, e.g. epistemic, discourse, degree, evaluative.

8. Jo-Wang Lin, in Wh-Expressions in Mandarin Chinese, surveys several different approaches, showing how ''interrogative, existential, and universal interpretations'' of wh-expressions in Chinese are licensed and how their scope is determined. He concludes that ''There is no consensus regarding whether the licensing and interpretation of such elements involves covert wh-movement, overt wh-operator movement, or no movement at all'' (p. 202).

9. Audrey Yen-Hui Li’s chapter on Quantification and Scope starts off with clear, explicit definitions and examples of the different types of quantifiers, and compares and contrasts them with their English equivalents. She offers an interesting examination of competition between _dou_ and _you_ under certain conditions (p. 222). The reviewer was impressed by her use of Google to help address and resolve the varying judgments of grammatical acceptability by different native speakers.

10. The Syntactic Structure of Noun Phrases by Lisa L.-S. Cheng and Rint Sybesma focuses on the structure of the noun phrase and the different forms it can take, noun modification, and nominal classifiers. It also addresses mass nouns, number, and whether the Chinese noun phrase involves a DP projection or not (p. 248). Of special interest are descriptions of differences in how Mandarin and Cantonese mark definiteness.

11. In Ch. 11, ''Ellipsis,'' Audrey Li and Ting-chi Wei lay out convincing arguments explaining why Chinese, which does not allow stranded wh-phrases (like English ''Jack bought *something*, but I don’t know *what*.''), does not have true sluicing, but only a kind of ''pseudo-sluicing'' (p. 296-8). This is one good example of the higher tolerance -- and indeed often the *requirement* -- for greater linguistic redundancy in Chinese.

12. Causal VVs in Mandarin, by Alexander Williams, covers causal and non-causal VVs, including resultatives and potential verb forms with _de_ and _bu_, semantic relations between means and resultative predicates, and the position of S and O relative to a resultative. The reviewer takes issue with the classification of the Mandarin syntactic markers _le_ and _guo_ as suffixes. And there could have been more discussion on the separability of directional constructions.

13. Comparatives, by Chen-Sheng Luther Liu, is a technical, formalist treatment of overtly marked comparatives in Mandarin. Conspicuously absent is the use of bare stative verbs to form comparatives, e.g. Zhè liǎng ge rén, shéi *gāo*? tā *gāo *. 'Of these two people, who is tall*er*? 'He’s tall*er*.' Hopefully this will be included in a future edition. This chapter could have been greatly enhanced by use of corpus examples rather than relying almost exclusively on made-up sentences, and the written style could also use a little livening up.

Part II: Phonetics, Phonology, and Prosody

14. Chinese Phonetics, by Wai-Sum Lee and Eric Zee, is a highly data-oriented snapshot of phonetic phenomena in Mandarin and numerous dialects. Topics covered include: vowels in CV, CVS and CVN syllables; syllable-initial and -final consonants; tones; the neutral tone; rhoticized _er-hua_ rhymes; apical vowels; palatals; and coronals. An examination of the neutral tone (p. 375-380) features pitch tracks for a series of disyllabic items with each of the four tones in the initial position and a neutral tone in final position, and also two series of trisyllables, one with a neutral tone at the end and one with it in second position (Beijing Mandarin tends to a trochaic rhythm, so the neutral tone will not normally appear in initial position). The different pitch levels and shapes of each provide an interesting overview of the actual phonetic shape of the neutral tone in connected speech. The chapter is a good one for data and reference, but would be less suitable as an introduction to Mandarin phonetics for beginners.

15. Segmental Phonology, by Yen-Hwei Lin, adopts an Optimality Theory approach to explain various phenomena of Chinese phonology, such as vowel assimilation. Highlights include a study of _er_ suffixation in Beijing Mandarin as well diminutive affixation in other dialects, e.g. Yiwu, of Zhejiang; examples from two Mandarin dialects of infixation, which is rare in Chinese dialects; and a section on co-occurrence restrictions in various dialects. Perhaps in a future edition the author could also address the dropping of final nasals in Mandarin, which leaves behind a bare nasalized vowel, common in both Taiwan and Beijing Mandarin, but with somewhat different rules.

16. Syllable Structure and Stress, by San Duanmu, starts by defining what a ''syllable'' is in Chinese, something that is much more straightforward in Chinese than in many other languages. He then examines the shape of first a maximal and then a minimal syllable in Mandarin, making comparisons to Cantonese and Shanghainese. Syllabic consonants and heavy and light syllables are also discussed. He devotes quite a bit of space to issues of stress and its relation to syllable structure and tone. Other topics covered include syllabicity, favored lengths in compounds and phrases, and the relationship between stress and information value.

17. Jie Zhang begins his Tones, Tonal Phonology and Tone Sandhi by comparing and contrasting tone in Chinese to tone in African tone languages. He then describes typical characteristics of the tonal inventories of Chinese dialects, including tone sandhi. Especially notable is Zhang’s attention to variation, gradience and exceptions in Chinese tone patterns.

18. Prosody and Syntax, by Andrew Simpson, examines aspects of syntactic structure that are revealed, or not revealed, through caesura effects and sandhi patterns in Wu, Hokkien, and several varieties of Mandarin. It also looks at nuclear stress in Chinese and its relation to focus structures, prosody and disyllabicity. Two notable and insightful observations: ''…the occurrence of an element in sentence-final position appears to be sufficient to encode it as a focus without the need for any special stress, whereas elements to be interpreted as foci in other, non-final positions generally do require (non-contrastive) stress to highlight their status as new information focus.'' (p. 484); and ''what some languages may achieve with prosody and the use of overt nuclear stress, Chinese may signal via syntactic movement.'' (p. 486).

19. Stephen Matthews’ and Virginia Yip’s Bilingual and Multilingual Acquisition of Chinese, which is a bit shorter than the other chapters, should be of special interest to those familiar with the languages treated, e.g. Cantonese, Southern Min and Spanish. One notable finding is that the acquisition of subject relative clauses tends to come earlier in Mandarin, while object relative clauses are acquired earlier in Cantonese (p. 506). In their conclusion, the authors point out how the relationship between linguistic study and bilingualism is a two-way street, with insights flowing from each side to the other (p. 507).

20. Neurocognitive Approaches to the Processing of Chinese, by Ping Li, Hua Shu, and Youyi Liu, describes how neuroimaging has been used to identify the areas of the brain that are activated in orthographic processing of Chinese. It also examines tone perception data collected through behavioral studies, reaction times, eye-tracking, and neuroimaging. It concludes with an interesting section on sentence processing in Chinese-English bilinguals.

21. Historical Syntax of Chinese, by Shengli Feng, offers new takes on the much-studied issues of passive Chinese bèi and disposal or object-raising bǎ. He shows parallels in the historical development of VV constructions (e.g. shèshā 'to shoot to death'), Adv-V compounds (e.g. zuì shā 'to drunkenly kill'), and the VR (resultative) construction (e.g. dǎsǐ 'to beat to death').

22. Historical Phonology of Chinese, by Zev Handel, offers a broad overview and fair appraisal of the field, along with future prospects. Addressed are periodization, methods and materials, features of Middle and Old Chinese, dialects, and controversies. Tables of reconstructions by Li Fang-kuei and Bill Baxter anchor the discussion in concrete examples. There is an interesting discussion of “stratology” and its role in Chinese dialectology and historical linguistics (p. 596).

Part V, Morpho-Syntax of Other Non-Mandarin Varieties of Chinese, has one chapter each on two of the most-studied Han dialects (sidestepping for the purposes of this review the ''dialect'' vs. ''language'' debate), Cantonese and Taiwanese Hokkien/Southern Min. The special attention accorded these varieties of Chinese is perhaps not so surprising since authors from Taiwan, Hong Kong and abroad are especially well represented in this volume.

23. Aspects of Cantonese Grammar, by Sze-Wing Tang and Siu-Pong Cheng, offers some fresh, well-exemplified angles on the dialect, including number and definiteness, and the infamous IO + DO order in Cantonese. It's interesting that there is a somewhat parallel contrast of forms in US (“Give it to me.”) vs. UK English (“Give it me.”).

24. Taiwanese Hokkien/Southern Min, by Miao-Ling Hsieh, focuses on the varieties of the dialect widely spoken in Southern Fujian, Taiwan, Singapore and Malaysia. Southern Min is claimed to be more topic-prominent and analytic compared with Standard Mandarin. There is an interesting exposition of causative/passive/unaccusative sentences and sentences with _hoo_ 'to give' that points up some of the more distinctive features of Southern Min as compared to Mandarin.


Overall the content of this ambitious compendium is abundant and enlightening, and the writing is straightforward, tight, and to the point. Each chapter has a clear introduction, informatively titled sections, and ⁡conclusion, all of which help orient the reader and enable them to access the main content and findings quickly. The bibliographies for each chapter are a goldmine of resources for further study of each topic.

Edited volumes will inevitably have stronger and less strong chapters, and this one is no exception -- some chapters are exceptionally rich and well constructed, while a few dragged and were difficult to slog through.

Below are some mostly minor drawbacks that do not greatly detract from the book’s undeniable value to anybody in the field of Chinese linguistics. However, addressing them could perhaps strengthen a future edition of the book.

Many of the examples are self-invented, something especially common in formalist linguistics writings. Many were fine, but some were awkward, stilted, or dated, and the grammaticality and naturalness of some examples did not stand up to scrutiny when presented to native speakers for checking. Favoring corpus data over self-constructed sentences could go a long way to correcting issues like this. Some authors did however cite examples retrieved from a Google search or other real-life examples, and these were most refreshing and much appreciated. It would also be useful if a distinction could be made between what is typical of PRC Mandarin and of Taiwan Mandarin, since the two varieties do differ on a number of points, and mixing data from the two without identifying them can lead to confusing results.

This volume abounds in initialisms, like SBA (p. 51) GCR (p. 105), TT (p. 115), CT (p. 115), CI (p. 119) MMU (p. 164), LF (p. 171), ACD (p. 196), TEC (p 282), DOR (p. 331), and MRU (p. 433). Some are widely used in formalist writings; others are coinages by the chapter author that you may not see anywhere else. As things stand, if a reader fails to commit each to memory on its first appearance, they must flip back through the chapter page by page in hopes of spotting that first occurrence, or in some cases must turn to the Internet, since not all appear in the index. It would be very helpful if there were a glossary including all of these, to increase reading efficiency and for handy future reference. And it could contribute to broadening the book’s appeal among non-formalist and non-specialist readers.

The book does include a general index, but it is quite brief - just five pages long for a 660-page book - and it doesn’t include many of the key words and terms that I tried to track down references to. A significantly expanded index would be a very useful enhancement of a future edition.

Typographically, this volume suffers from the same inconvenient conventions that so many other works on Chinese linguistics, especially formalist ones, do: examples lacking written Chinese characters, Pinyin without tone marks, and even Pinyin spellings without the umlauts over ''u'' required to distinguish words such as _nü_, 'woman' from _nu_ 'slave' (e.g. p. 9). There are in fact many examples where toneless Pinyin results in many very plausible wrong interpretations, making it necessary for the reader to check the English glosses and translations carefully, then to look back and guess what the Chinese was supposed to be. This invokes a quite unnecessary burden on the reader, for something that could be instantly cleared up simply by including the tones and Chinese characters. One author noted that ''tone is omitted wherever it is irrelevant'' (p. 416, footnote 4); however, including tone marks (as was thankfully done in ch. 10) really does help readers get the right referents more quickly in the absence of Chinese characters. In the past this was more difficult to achieve typographically, but this is no longer the case. I strongly suggest, out of consideration for all readers, that these be included in future editions, and indeed in ALL future writings on Chinese linguistics, in all frameworks. The books' editors are particularly well placed to lead such a change for the better, and I sincerely hope they will give this suggestion serious consideration.

Overall, the editing on this volume is very good. A number of typos and minor language issues were however spotted, along with mistakes in the Pinyin spellings - already challenging to decipher without tone marks to help. A lot of the Pinyin errors involved /-n/ and /-ŋ/ finals, a mark of Taiwan Mandarin, which the writers probably made based on their own regional pronunciations, and which then slipped by the editors, who may have had similar pronunciation patterns. The ones noticed by this reviewer are listed below both to help readers of the current edition, and also so they can be corrected in any future reprintings or editions of this book - and hopefully there will be a second edition at some point.

In short, this book provides a solid, broad and organized introduction to Chinese linguistics from a mostly formalist perspective, though some of the chapters are less framework-bound. It has much to offer both newcomers to the field and more seasoned scholars of Chinese linguistics. A number of similar volumes of varying length and breadth are now available from other major academic publishers, but this one definitely holds its own and is worth having in one’s university library, if not in one’s personal collection.

p. 17: with some mode or manner -> in some mode or manner
p. 40: let to -> led to
p. 74: semantic contents -> semantic content
p. 75: a substantial semantics -> substantial semantic content
p. 85: Tiānjīn xià yǔ le 'It rains in Tianjin.' -> “It’s raining in Tianjin.'
p. 88: chunzili -> cunzili
p. 100: of certain morpheme -> of certain morphemes
p. 105 yingwei -> yinwei (because)
p. 106: yi fen xin ('a letter') -> yi feng xin - this appears twice on the page, perhaps due to copy-and-paste
p. 118: hoa xiang ('it appears')-> hao xiang
p. 118: in this party -> at this party
p. 120: gugon ('Place Museum') -> gugong
p. 120: shemo ('what') -> shenme
p. 146: huapin ('flower vase') -> huaping
p. 149: semantic -> semantics
p. 168: (S Min) siong -> siuN
p. 185: zenmyang -> zenmeyang
p. 204: still left a puzzle -> still leave a puzzle
p. 204: by future works -> by future work
p. 204: not touched in the above discussion -> not touched on in the above discussion
p. 218: shendanlaogonggong ('Santa Claus') -> shengdanlaogonggong
p. 223: to make an art -> to make a piece of art
p. 224: yinghang ('bank') -> yinhang
p. 224: complements to verb -> complements to a verb
p. 225: can/cannot be intervened by a verb -> (needs rewording)
p. 229: can be followed by an overt copular verb _shi_ -> can be followed by the overt copular verb _shi_
p. 243: free fhoice -> free choice
p. 256 (second paragraph needs editing)
p. 260: the upshot of these papers -> the key point of these papers
p. 270: such sequence -> such a sequence
p. 272: (third entry needs formatting)
p. 310: Weici hanyin ('predicate implications') -> Weici yinhan (this reversal of the two syllables in a compound in a journal article title is a significant error and it took quite a bit of time to reconstitute it to its correct form)
p. 310: Yufa Jiayi -> Yufa Jiangyi (also a fairly serious mistransliteration and difficult to recover)
p. 311: (The second sentence is incorrectly punctuated and needs editing)
p. 324: (53) *ta qie/tai -le -> *ta qie/dai -le
p. 329: Lao Wie -> Lao Wei
p. 420: On the dnding final [n] -> On the ending? final [n], or maybe “ending” should be deleted
p. 423: whose boundaries tend to stay. -> whose boundaries tend to stay put.
p. 425: If it does then the second rime -> If it does not then the second rime
p. 428: but heavy syllables need not be unstressed -> but heavy syllables need not be stressed
p. 456: This chapter has reviewed…in this chapter. (repetition)
p. 458: patterns in the lexicon and impressionistic transcriptions, -> patterns in the lexicon; and impressionistic transcriptions,
p. 459: diou55 le -> diu55 le
p. 488: is able to reveal much than would otherwise -> is able to reveal much more than would otherwise
p. 506: a SVO configuration -> an SVO configuration
p. 513: if damages occur to this area -> if damage occurs to this area
p. 519: speakers who have experiences with -> speakers who have experience with
p. 520: linguistic experiences with one’s native language -> linguistic experience with one’s native language
p. 526: Earlier, we showed that… -> Earlier, we mentioned that…
p. 528: In light of the increasing interests in Chinese -> In light of the increasing interest in Chinese
p. 531: eventrelated -> event-related
p. 538: volumious – voluminous
p. 543: The result of his research not only confirmed once again those of previous studies -> The results of his research not only confirmed once again those of previous studies
p. 544: However, the disposal structure…can be neither found in the Han native documents nor allowed by the syntax at that time. -> However, the disposal structure…cannot be found in the Han native documents nor was it allowed by the syntax at that time.
p. 550: develops alongside that of -> developed alongside that of
p. 556: who dear enemy him -> who dare enemy him (literal glosses)
p. 558: what cannot be tolerate? -> what cannot be tolerated?
p. 563: A gentleman is simply by his nature (?)
p. 564: we have what northern languages have been activated so far (?)
p. 574: verb-compliment construction -> verb-complement construction
p. 595: some scholars have questions the traditional approach -> some scholars have questioned the traditional approach
p. 610: the delectability of the preposition -> the deletability of the preposition (?)
p. 643: the _ka_-P is a base-generated in the matrix clause -> the _ka_-P is base-generated in the matrix clause
p 653: Simitic -> Sinitic
Karen Steffen Chung is an associate professor of English and linguistics in the foreign language department of National Taiwan University in Taipei, and also teaches English over the radio and Internet. Her areas of specialization include phonetics, teaching of pronunciation, and Chinese morphology. The book based on her PhD dissertation, Mandarin Compound Verbs (Taipei: Crane’s, 2006), received an excellent scholarly book award in 2007. Publications:

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