A History of the Chinese Language  book cover
2nd Edition

A History of the Chinese Language

ISBN 9780367209858
Published December 31, 2020 by Routledge
246 Pages 10 B/W Illustrations

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Book Description

A History of the Chinese Language provides a comprehensive introduction to the historical development of the Chinese language from its Proto-Sino-Tibetan roots in prehistoric times to Modern Standard Chinese. Taking a highly accessible and balanced approach, it presents a chronological survey of the various stages of the Chinese language, covering key aspects such as phonology, syntax, and semantics.

The second edition presents a revised and updated version that reflects recent scholarship in Chinese historical linguistics and new developments in related disciplines.

Features include:

  • Coverage of the major historical stages in Chinese language development, such as Old Chinese, Middle Chinese, Early Modern Chinese, and Modern Standard Chinese.
  • Treatment of core linguistic aspects of the Chinese language, including phonological changes, grammatical development, lexical evolution, vernacular writing, the Chinese writing system, and Chinese dialects.
  • Inclusion of authentic Chinese texts throughout the book, presented within a rigorous framework of linguistic analysis to help students to build up critical and evaluative skills and acquire valuable cultural knowledge.
  • Integration of materials from different disciplines, such as archaeology, genetics, history, and sociolinguistics, to highlight the cultural and social background of each period of the language.

Written by a highly experienced instructor, A History of the Chinese Language will be an essential resource for students of Chinese language and linguistics and for anyone interested in the history and culture of China.

Table of Contents

Table of contents

Preface to the second edition

List of tables

List of figures

List of syntax labels

Chapter 1 Overview

1.1 What is Chinese historical linguistics?

1.2 Terminological clarification

1.3 Periodization of the Chinese language

Chapter 2 Prehistory

2.1 Establishing linguistic genetic relationships

2.2 The Sino-Tibetan languages

2.3 How old is the Sino-Tibetan language family?

2.4 Linguistic properties of Proto-Sino-Tibetan

Chapter 3 Old Chinese: The Elegant Speech

3.1 Evidence of sound change

3.2 Syllable structure of Chinese

3.3 Rhyme groups of Old Chinese

3.4 Initials of Old Chinese

3.5 Consonant clusters

3.6 Methodology of Old Chinese reconstruction

3.7 Tones in Old Chinese

3.8 A reconstructed system of Old Chinese

Chapter 4 Middle Chinese: The Poetic Language

4.1 The rhyme dictionary Qièyùn

4.2 The fǎnqiè method

4.3 Structure of the Guǎngyùn

4.4 Rhyme tables

4.5 The linking method for analyzing the Guǎngyùn

4.6 The comparative reconstruction method

4.7 The notion of děng ("division, grade")

4.8 A reconstructed system of Middle Chinese

Chapter 5 Old Mandarin of Yuan Dynasty Dramas

5.1 The rhyme book Zhōngyuán Yīnyùn

5.2 Categories of initials and finals in Old Mandarin

5.3 Reconstruction of Old Mandarin initials and finals

5.4 Tonal development

Chapter 6 Classical Chinese Grammar

6.1 What is Classical Chinese?

6.2 Morphology

6.3 Word classes

6.4 Basic word order

6.5 Special grammatical constructions

Chapter 7 Vernacular Writing

7.1 Diglossia

7.2 Sources of vernacular writing

7.3 Morphological developments

7.4 Word classes in the vernacular

7.5 Word order in the post-classical era

7.6 Syntactic changes

Chapter 8 Lexical and Semantic Changes

8.1 Extension

8.2 Narrowing

8.3 Shifting of word meaning

8.4 Substitution of lexical items

8.5 Mixed changes

8.6 Euphemism and taboos in lexical changes

8.7 Loanwords and calques

8.8 Clues to meaning change in Chinese characters

Chapter 9 Formation of Modern Standard Chinese

9.1 Origin of the national language

9.2 The modern phonology system

9.3 Morphological properties

9.4 Word classes and cross-category flexibility

9.5 Typical word order

9.6 Aspect markers

9.7 Current uses of special grammatical constructions

9.8 Changes in the modern lexicon

Chapter 10 Modern Chinese Dialects

10.1 Formation of Chinese dialects

10.2 Classification of Chinese dialects

10.3 Mandarin dialects

10.4 The Wu dialects

10.5 The Xiang dialects

10.6 The Gan dialects

10.7 The Kejia dialects

10.8 The Yue dialects

10.9 The Min dialects

10.10 Influences of the national language on dialects

Chapter 11 The Chinese Writing System

11.1 Origin of Chinese characters

11.2 Development of the writing system

11.3 Six types of characters in the liùshū system

11.4 Characters in vernacular writing and dialects

11.5 Simplification of Chinese characters

11.6 Debates about the nature of Chinese writing


Appendix I: Major Chronological Divisions of Chinese History

Appendix II: Articulatory Phonetics and IPA

Appendix III: Chinese Pīnyīn Pronunciation Guide

Appendix IV: Correspondence Charts of Pīnyīn and IPA Symbols


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Hongyuan Dong is Associate Professor of Chinese Language and Linguistics in the Department of East Asian Languages & Literatures at the George Washington University. He is the author of Semantics of Chinese Questions: An Interface Approach (Routledge 2019).


One of the most thorough works on the history and evolution of the Chinese language, Dong’s History of the Chinese Language is a must for anyone studying any form of the language. Covering a range of topics in historical and contemporary linguistics, Dong deftly explains even the most complex linguistic theory in readily accessible ways and has something for anyone from a seasoned linguist to a casual learner.

-- Dr. Justin Winslett, The University of Sheffield


This 2nd edition preserves the previous edition’s success in condensing the vast landscape of the historical development of Chinese languages into a brief, but comprehensive single volume. Reflecting on recent scholarship and new developments in the field, it carefully synthesizes Chinese linguistic facts, non-controversial research accomplishments, and fundamental facts about the history of the Chinese language, woven together with captivating stories and legends. It lays a solid foundation for readers and equips them for further exploration of the field, while proving to be a fascinating, engaging, and absorbing read in itself.

-- Song Jiang, Associate Professor, The University of Hawai'i at Mānoa, USA