My latest armchair linguistics project is finding a convenient method to reconstruct Middle Chinese words using a few widely-spoken East Asian languages. According to Wikipedia, Middle Chinese (MC) was the variety of Chinese spoken in the 6th-12th centuries CE. My understanding is that most modern Chinese languages, as well as the Chinese loanwords found in vast quantities in Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese, derive from MC. A particularly useful tool for reconstructing MC was rhyme tables which were written in China, listing groups of rhyming words; this in conjunction with comparative evidence leads to a pretty good reconstruction. See Wikipedia for a phoneme chart for MC. Right now my goal is to find a method to reconstruct MC words using easily-accessible data, without having to check out a book from the library. I'll post one interesting tidbit now, and perhaps follow up with some posts in the near future: In MC, as in modern Chinese languages, each morpheme (unit of meaning) is monosyllabic. (In Mandarin Chinese, for instance, a word like 中国 zhōngguó 'China' is composed of two monosyllabic morphemes, 中 zhōng 'central' and 国 guó 'country'.) Each Chinese character corresponds to one such morpheme/syllable.
Each MC syllable could end in either a vowel/diphthong (I'll write this as *0) or one of six consonants, *-m *-n *-ng *-p *-k *-t. Seven characters which are reconstructed with these endings are 四 'four' 三 'three' 人 'person' 上 'above' 十 'ten' 六 'six' 一 'one', respectively.
In some modern languages these endings (MC *0 *-m *-n *-ng *-p *-k *-t) are reflected as follows (with the pronunciations of the characters 四 三 人 上 十 六 一 in parentheses)
Cantonese: 0 -m -n -ng -p -k -t (sei3 saam1 jan4 soeng5 sap6 luk6 jat1) [the numbers represent tones]
Korean: 0 -m -n -ng -p -k -l (sa sam in sang sip ryuk il)
1Lengthens preceding vowel
It follows that either Cantonese or Korean alone can be used to reconstruct MC final consonants uniquely.
Mandarin: 0 -n -n -ng 0 0 0 (sǐ sān rén shàng shí liù yī)
Japanese: 0 -n -n 01 01 -ku/-ki -tsu/-chi (shi san jin jou juu roku ichi)
With Mandarin and Japanese combined, one can almost uniquely reconstruct MC finals, except for the distinction between *-m and *-n. Here is a verbal description of the process:
- If Japanese has -ku/ki, the MC final consonant is *-k
- If Japanese has -tsu/-chi, the MC final consonant is *-t
- If Mandarin has -ng, the MC final consonant is *-ng
- If Japanese has a long vowel and Mandarin does not have -ng, the MC final consonant is *-p
- If Mandarin and Japanese have -n, the MC final consonant is either *-m or *-n
- Otherwise, there is no MC final consonant (0)
Vietnamese: 0 -m -n -ng -p -c -t (tứ tam nhân thượng thập lục nhất)
Thus Vietnamese may also be used to uniquely determine MC final consonants, if one knows that a Vietnamese word is borrowed from Chinese.